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Why Should I Care About Thomas Becket?

What is the greatest line in all of sitcom history? Here’s one I’d like to see in the top ten. It’s the Twelve Angry Men episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which our hapless hero attempts spin out a legal case by a moving speech when locked in a room with a jury:

“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?” Hancock cries. “Did she die in vain?”

Galton & Simpson, Hancock’s Half Hour, 16 October 1959
Hancock’s Half Hour

For the joke to work, you need to know that Magna Carta is a document, not a person. Hancock, unperturbed by his own ignorance, goes on to explains who ‘she’ is: “A brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten!”

I realise there are few things less funny than someone explaining a joke, but that’s often my job. I’m a BBC Sitcom writer and script editor. I’ve also been spending a lot of time on joke mechanics and how they go wrong, especially in the realm of religion in a new book called The Sacred Art of Joking.

Alongside writing that book, I’ve been reading history books researching my new play about another famous but only half-remembered significant event in history: the murder of Thomas Becket. Some might hazily remember the King shouting ‘Who will rid me of this Turbulent Priest?’ (also cried by Brian Blessed in the first series of Blackadder (right)) You might recall this utterance leads to four nearby knights deciding to do the decent thing and murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by cutting off the top of his head. But what does this event mean? Who is Thomas Becket? Did he die in vain?

History Repeating

As one learns more details of the story it becomes every more fascinating, not least because it’s one instalment of the great story of Church versus State. They often say history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In fact, history repeats itself again and again. In a few hundred years, another King Henry would want to exercise supreme control over the Church and again a Thomas refuses. That time, it was King Henry VIII removing Thomas More’s head who, in turn, was canonised by the Church, albeit it in 1935. King Henry VIII then turned to erase the memory of Thomas Becket who had been canonised almost immediately. St Thomas of Canterbury was the epitome of the Church standing up to the King, and taking orders from Rome.

In Canterbury Cathedral, Becket was the prime attraction. He was Patron Saint of England in all but name. Pilgrims walked hundred of miles to pay their respects and their money for Indulgences (a reduction in their time in Purgatory). One of the most famous books in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, is about a bunch of pilgrims on their way to do just that. St Thomas was box office. Henry VIII had to scratch him out of history.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He did his best though. We don’t really know what Thomas looked like. Few images survive. The desecration of the tomb and the destruction of the cult is still sorely felt. Listen to the audio guide if you ever visit the cathedral. They are not over it. It’s understandable.

Now, the Reformed Protestant in me wants to agree that the veneration of saints is profoundly unbiblical. Isn’t it good that people were prevented from worshipping stone statues and the bones of dead men, rather than offering their prayers to Jesus Christ? Did Christ himself not upset tables and chase away money changers from the house of God?

The Appeal of Thomas Becket

I suspect I’m not alone among English Evangelicals in thinking like this. We tend to start our church history in the 1520s with Cranmer and Tyndale. Anything that predates the break with Rome, or the placing of English Bibles in Churches, is viewed with intense suspicion. So what value can there be in studying the life of a 12thCentury Archbishop of Canterbury who had to be made a priest the day before he was consecrated as Archbishop? Can we learn anything from a man clearly parachuted into the job?

Granted, Becket was no theologian, although he learnt fast on the job. But he was no great mind like Anselm. He was also pretty hopeless at Latin. When he had to give a speech to the Pope at the Council of Tours proposing the beatification of Anselm, he had to do so in Latin and it was a little bit embarrassing, by all accounts.

Becket’s legacy is not theological. It is personal. It is incarnational. Perhaps that’s why he became such a popular figure. Back then, as now, no-one can be bothered to read even the few thousand words that comprise Magna Carta. We don’t want to grapple with the concepts of kingship and governance. But we can get our heads around an act of heroism.

Acts Speak Louder Than Words

All Christians should know that actions speak louder than words, books and doctrinal statements. And that faith without deeds is dead. When the end came for Becket, he didn’t run and hide. He refused to close the Cathedrals doors to keep out the armed knights. He went to Vespers and stood his ground. And he paid the price.

Was he naïve? Did he deserve his fate? Could he not just admit that he was wrong? Did he have a Messianic complex? Did he just want to go down in history? All excellent questions. And you can only find out the answers if you engage with the story. I hope that my new show, A Turbulent Priest, a comedy (with songs by James Sherwood) helps you do to that.

A Turbulent Priest is on at The Mayfield Fringe on May 9, The Brighton Fringe on May 10/11th and touring the UK in Sept-Nov 2019. It is also available to be booked for your church. Contact James Cary here.

Original Painting by Brian Whelan

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