A Sermon for the Launch of 'Becket 2020' - a year of focus on Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1170). Preached at the Cathedral Church of Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, Portmsouth, U.K. on 12th January 2020
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The calendar has turned over, once again. Another year gone, and another comes into view.
I hope you notice that I refer to a year, not a decade. Because I am among those pedants who insist that the new decade does not begin until 2021! (I was expecting an appreciative round of applause at that statement….oh well!)
The earth has travelled around the sun 849 times since the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, our patron saint at this Cathedral. At the end of this year, we will mark the 850th anniversary. It sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? That is until you break it down into average lifetimes. Assuming 50 years for an average of medieval and modern lifetimes, only 17 generations have come and gone since those days…days when a conflict over power and authority between state and church could lead to the brutal murder of an Archbishop of Canterbury.
It feels like a long time, because of our short lives. But in the measure of eternity, it’s a blink in the eye of God. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us in tonight’s reading, the heavens themselves are the work of God’s hands, but they will perish while God remains. He will roll them up like a cloak.
To those with an eye for history, the conflict of Becket’s time has many resonances with our own. The people of that time are not so different to us, and their politics feel familiar. The King of those days, Henry II, sought to take power back to England from the European super-state which was the Catholic Church. The King’s vision was largely unfulfilled until Henry VIII wrestled those powers away from Europe in his own version of Brexit.
It is fascinating, and tragic, to see history replaying itself in our times. The tragic murder of Jo Cox by a fanatical supporter of disengagement from Europe has particular resonances with the murder of Thomas Becket. No-one officially asked Jo Cox’s murderer to slay her, and historians agree King Henry did not officially sanction Becket’s murder. The oft-quoted phrase ‘who will rid me of this troublesome priest’ is believed to be a later re-framing of the tale. But fanatics, on all sides, will often be prompted into extreme action by careless words like ‘traitor’ and ‘troublemaker’.
For us, in this Cathedral and Diocese, another ancient parallel with Becket’s time will emerge in the coming months – and that parallel is the theme of pilgrimage. As we journey towards the 850th anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom on the 29th of December, we will be encouraged to ponder our own journeys and pilgrimages.
Our spiritual journeys usually begin with our baptisms. On this day of the Baptism of Christ, we are encouraged to reflect on the beginnings of our own journeys. Thomas Becket’s baptism was significant, because it took place, according to tradition, on the same day that he was born – either because he was sickly, or because his parents weren’t taking any chances over medieval infant mortality rates. Thomas is, of course, my namesake, and its rather a nice co-incidence to find that, like him, I was also baptised immediately after my birth – because I too was a sickly child. So it is rather fun for me to share with Becket the notion that the commencement of our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages coincided rather nicely at our births.
His parents could not have guessed on that December day in Cheapside, London, that Becket’s journey would see him become first a friend, and then an enemy of the King of England – and then a focus for the devotion of millions. In our first reading of tonight, the people of Israel could not have known what awaited them on the other side of the river Jordon as they went through the metaphorical baptism of crossing its waters. None of us can know where our pilgrimages will lead…that’s in the nature of what it means to be human. Like Becket and his parents, all we can do is pray for God’s grace to lead us onwards.
We know, of course, that pilgrimage to holy shrines was a massive part of medieval life. After Becket’s martyrdom, his grave elevated Canterbury to enormous prestige as a focus for pilgrimage – second only to Rome, for a time. But travelling from London to Canterbury – as Chaucer did – was not the only way.
But many do not realise that there was another route too….from Southampton to Canterbury. It was only recently re-discovered, on a medieval map of England, from 1360, called the Gough Map. Happily for me, as Rector of Havant, we discover that ‘The Old Way’ as it is now called, followed a line from Southampton right through Southwick, Havant, Emsworth and Chichester.
It is said that when Henry II felt the political-need to do public penance for the death of Thomas Becket, he rode on pilgrimage from Southampton to Canterbury - right past the door of St Faith’s Church in Havant – possibly even stopping to pray within our hallowed walls!
Sadly, I have to tell you, according to the Gough Map, Portsmouth was bypassed by pilgrims in those days. Instead, they either stayed in Havant (where there is some local evidence of a monastery once existing) or in Southwick. But, like many who have gone that way since, I’m sure they enjoyed the view of Portsmouth from the top of the hill! Unfortunately, I don’t think they had our modern day access to the refreshment provided by Mick’s Monster Burger stand.
Happily, The Old Way is now in the process of being revived as a Pilgrimage Route by The British Pilgrimages Trust. As a Diocese, we are currently giving thought to how we can add value to this route, and to the experience of pilgrims who will walk it, passing through our Diocese. If you want to know more, then Canon Jo and Dr Ruth Tuschling are taking the lead on this project.
Journeys and pilgrimages are, of course, integral to Christian and Jewish stories. Such journeys include the culmination of 40 years in the wilderness, as we heard from the book of Joshua just now. Such journeys certainly include the East to West perambulations of the Magi, and the flight into Eqypt of Jesus.
Each of these journeys, and many more, invite us to consider our own unique journeys too. Any journey worth its salt includes obstacles along the way. For the Israelites, it was the Jordan river – waters which God held back for them for a second time. For the Magi, the obstacle was a politician – Herod. For Henry II and the Old Way pilgrims, it was Portsdown Hill! And our spiritual journeys are always strewn with obstacles too.
What are the obstacles which stand in the way of our own forward momentum? Perhaps they are bad habits we need to shed. Perhaps there are broken relationships which cry out for healing. Perhaps there are attitudes or ignorances we need to confront. Each of us has such obstacles before us, and each of us, this year, will be invited to step up to them, confront them, and move beyond them.
Thomas Becket’s own pilgrimage came to an abrupt and untidy end in the midst of a conflict over power. But even his death was transformed by God into the penitential pilgrimage of a King, along the Old Way. Becket’s death sparked a religious revival in Medieval England, the likes of which we have rarely seen.
You see, that’s what God does. God takes the worst that humanity can do, like enslaving a nation, murdering an Archbishop, or nailing his Son to a cross. God then transforms it, and reshapes it, into something life-giving, and something which pushes us onward, ever forward, on our own life’s journey.