The old man and the cats…

Assurances of Things Hoped, The Conviction Of Things Not Seen.

A Sermon Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
August 7, 2022

Note: The historical facts of the Thomas Becket Affair are taken from my article “Command and Coercion”: Clerical Immunity, Scandal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, Journal of Law & Religion, vol 27, Issue 2, pp. 423-494 (2012).

As we continue our summer journey through Luke’s Gospel, paired today in the Lectionary with the Letter to the Hebrews, we run into one of the oldest and most difficult questions lurking in our Christian experience:

What is it to have faith?

         And what is it, exactly, that we place our faith in?

   Thomas Becket, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his death in 1170, placed his faith in the Church’s authority, and in his own authority as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Becket’s teacher, Cardinal Robert Pullen, taught Becket, and Becket’s fellow bishop, Gilbert Foliot, a metaphorical story of the two swords the apostles brought with them as they left the Last Supper with Jesus.  

The two swords, Pullen taught, respectively symbolized spiritual and temporal power.  One sword belongs to the clergy, the other to the laity.  Pullen added that “if both swords were entrusted to either one or the other of the two powers, neither would be fittingly used.”  The lesson, Pullen concluded, was that “a king should obey a priest where the commandments of God are concerned; but equally, a prelate should be subject to the king where worldly matters are concerned.” 

Foliot, who became bishop of London, and remained so while Becket was Archbishop, followed Pullen’s moderate view, which was influenced by Pope Gelasius I (492-496 AD).  Becket, by contrast, believed with Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), that the Church was the supreme authority on earth, and that rulers and ordinary people were alike subject to the will of the Church and the pope. 

The issue that divided Becket from King Henry II, the very man who had used what was called “The Royal Hand,” to elevate his former Chancellor and friend to Canterbury has been debated by lawyers up until the late 19th Century under the title of “the case of the criminous clerics.’—a series of disputes between Church and State as to which had the right to try and punish criminals who were in Holy Orders.

This wasn’t about priests who violated ecclesiastical laws; no, when Henry was crowned, more than a hundred murders had been committed by priests, as well as a slew of cases of theft and robbery with violence.    Then-Archbishop Theobad of Bec had asked the King to let him prove the efficacy of Church justice; Henry, heading back to his domains in Normandy agreed. The test case was that of Archdeacon Osbert.  

Osbert had opposed the institution of William, Archbishop of York in 1154 (at the very beginning of Henry’s reign), and when William drank the sacramental wine from the chalice handed to him by Archdeacon Osbert, he shortly thereafter dropped dead.  Osbert was, not entirely surprisingly, suspected.  After twenty years of litigation, trials, pleas to the Pope, and seemingly bribes, Osbert was a free man, though he had trouble getting acceptances to his dinner invitations.

As a result, Henry insisted that the secular authority had the right to try clerics for serious crimes against the secular law. Becket resisted the King steadfastly, and, over years of recrimination, an uneasy truce was arranged, one that was shattered by Henry’s fury at some provocation by Becket leading him to bellow “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Hearing the King, four of Henry’s household knights to rode to Canterbury, and murdered Becket on the altar of his own cathedral.

Becket had often referred to his resistance to Henry as preserving “the Honor of God.”  By that he meant feudal relationships of lord and vassal, solemnized by land and service offered in return for loyalty.  A king’s honor often stood for the public authority of a prince, for those powers deemed necessary to maintain the status of the realm—the Royal State. 

Becket seems to have believed that the authority of the clergy, the deference owed by the secular power to the Church, represented the Honor of God, in the way that the panoply of power, status, and pomp represented the King.  

Becket’s story teaches us that one can have great faith, but misplace it.  For all his good intentions, Becket’s error was spawned by pride–the pride of thinking that God’s status, God’s honor, needed defending by Thomas Becket—or any other man—and that the hierarchy of a top-down relationship required special treatment of clergy, or God would somehow be wronged unless Becket acted.

In this summer’s Lambeth Conference, we have seen a mix of similar ingredients.  Even before the Conference began, the attendees were jolted, when the plan of the Conference organizers to invite the bishops to assent to what they termed “calls” rather than pass resolutions had backfired when it was found that an affirmation of the 1998 Lambeth 1.10 resolution had been slipped into the draft Call on Human Dignity, including the language that “defines marriage as between a man and a woman in lifelong union” and rejects “homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture”.  

Additionally, the voting had been structured in such a way as there was no way to vote “no” on any of the Calls—one could only vote that “This Call speaks for me. I add my voice to it and commit myself to take the action I can to implement it”: or “This Call requires further discernment. I commit my voice to the ongoing process.”

On August 2, an “Inclusive Bishop’s Statement committed to affirming the holiness of the love of our LGBT+ sisters and brothers wherever it is found in committed relationships,” signed by the primates of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church of Brazil, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of Wales, and the Primate of the Maori Tikanga of the Anglican Church in Aottearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia.

As of yesterday, August 5, 5,1060 bishops had signed this statement.

Archbishop Welby tried to hold both the self-described orthodox and the affirming bishops at the table.  At one point, he offered to sign a letter that the Lambeth 1998 Resolution represented the official position of the Anglican Communion.  

But, when the members of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches sought to punish those who did not adhere to the 1998 Resolution, Archbishop Welby expressly stated that “I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline it exclude a church from the Anglican Communion.  I will not do so.”  

Again, we can see in all this turmoil a fear-driven reaction to what seems to some a derogation from the word of God—that the Scriptural commandments are not being enforced.  But just like Archbishop Becket, the Archbishops of the GSFA and, possibly Archbishop Welby, to some extent, seem to believe that God wants strict enforcers, who will bring unity—even if a forced unity—to his Church.  

It should be clear by now that faith cannot be compelled; it can only be chosen.  The gift of faith is not something we inherit, it isn’t something that everybody has—you have to want it, pursue it—leap into faith.

As a sober alcoholic, I have read the Big Book of AA many times, on my own, and in meetings.  Without trying to force full-blown religion on its members, AA points only to “a power higher than ourselves” that has all power, and concludes that, for the alcoholic, “that power is God.”  

This summer’s Lambeth reminds us of what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel—we aren’t called to defend Jesus, or to live in fear.  Jesus says it right up front—“So not fear, little flock, for it is your good Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

To give us the Kingdom.  

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking us to have open hearts, open minds. To care for those in want, those who are suffering.  To be ready for God to call us, each and every one of us by our name, and to follow that call, wherever it may lead.  

As your deacon, I have seen what the members of this parish can do—providing shelter, food, HOPE, for those who have none of those things.  I’ve seen a guest in our homeless shelter become a mainstay of our parish, a physically frail parishioner blaze with intellectual light in an adult formation class. 

St. Barts’s radical welcome, our commitment to open minds, and holy awe is in the best of the Christian tradition, alive and well today.  So let us learn from Thomas Becket’s love, and forgive his fear that God could be reduced by any human king. 

Let us forgive those who seek to use Command and Coercion as weapons to enforce a false unity in our Anglican tradition, and seek to love them in return.

Let us welcome our own callings and our service in what our Presiding Bishop, the Right Reverend Michael Curry, calls the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.


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