Troublesome Priest


I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, ‘Becket’, but it was one of my father’s favourites, and we used to watch it at Christmas on video (yikes, remember that? I mentioned it to a pupil the other week and she looked at me as though I was someone from the Dark Ages!). I was never sure Peter O’Toole (who I thought gorgeous) was a convincing Henry II – he got the arrogance and impatience, but I never thought he seemed the sort of man who could have commanded men in battle, as Henry did. I did, however, when I had finished swooning, think Richard Burton a great Thomas Becket. As a Welsh woman, I always loved that deep brown voice with its Welsh cadences; I think I could have listened to him reading the telephone directory (another piece of forgotten technology) and been happy as a sand-girl. Today, being the feast of Thomas Becket, brought all of that to mind.

The story has an interesting history because there are two version from vested interests. Until the Reformation in England in the 1530s, the story was a straight-forward one of the Church defending its rights against an encroaching Henry; as another Henry did more than just encroach at that time, the story as it was told thereafter changed somewhat. English historians used it as an example of how bad rule from Rome was. They linked it to Henry’s son, John (ruled 1199-1216) who was excommunicated by the Pope, and who, when he was fighting the barons of Magna Carta, regained the support of the Pope by making England a papal fief. Rome was thus cast as the ‘other’, as the enemy of national independence, the source of clerical rule and the opponent of national aspirations. Historians such as Lord Macaulay linked that to the reign of Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada (blessed by the Pope), through to the struggles of Cromwell and Marlborough against the French under Louis XIV. Becket, who had been treated as a hero – his shrine at Canterbury was one of the biggest in Europe before it was wrecked in the Reformation – was rather dropped by English historians. It was true that in more modern times the Roman Catholic, Belloc, tried to make the argument for him, but it was seen by all non-RCs as special pleading – and not that convincing either.

For the English, independence from Rome took on something of the iconic significance that the American War of Independence has for Americans – it was the crucible in which a nation was forged. You have Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, we have Henry VIII, Cranmer and Elizabeth I. Foundation myths are important in establishing a national identity, but they do tend to major on aspects of disruption and neglect what you might (if you used that sort of language, as you might if you were that way inclined) call the hermeneutic of continuity (h/t to Benedict XVI). Yes, things were different, but not everything was. England kept many aspects of Catholicism, as American did of Englishness. Across time and development, the elements of continuity became more dilute, but they have left their mark on our countries.

The film, interestingly enough, bears some of these marks, as does ‘A Man of all Seasons’, but they both bear another mark – one of our common heritage – that of the Cold War. In both films we see men of conscience stand out against the tyranny of power, emphasising the importance of the individual as against the pretensions of the State. In that protest of the individual conscience, we see a Protestantism which has shaped both our nations. It does not deny a Catholic heritage, but it insists upon the right of the individual to be a troublesome to authority as he or she likes! Long may it be so.


About JessicaHof
Anglican Christian, evangelist, survivor, grateful

13 Responses to Troublesome Priest

  1. NEO says:

    Love this, dearest friend, and second the movie recommendation. Watched it shortly before I left, and had forgotten how good it is. And yes, you draw the proper conclusions as well!.:) xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • JessicaHof says:

      Thank you, dearest friend – yes, a really good movie 🙂 Have a good journey 🙂 xx

      Liked by 1 person

      • NEO says:

        Thanks, dearest friend! 🙂 xx

        Liked by 1 person

        • JessicaHof says:

          Ah, glad I caught you – just gmailed 🙂 xx

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Just answered! 🙂 xx

          Liked by 1 person

        • JessicaHof says:

          Will go take a look-see 🙂 xx

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          And now I’ve emailed! 🙂 xx

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Of course us staunch Reformation people see don’t see the martyrdom of Archbishop Cranmer as myth, but something of the first English Reformation martyr! 😉 See MacCulloch’s 692 page Cranmer Bio! But yes, the West will always be a combination of both the Catholic and Protestant elements, at least historically!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And btw too, I appreciate Jessica your Protestant Anglican statements! So many layers here, historically! Sometimes Anglo-Catholics lose the ball here, especially English and British. I too have been Anglo-Catholic, though many years past.

      Liked by 1 person

      • JessicaHof says:

        Thank you, Father – getting the balance right is always a bit of a struggle – but worth the effort.


        • Yes indeed! And for me letting GOD be GOD, Totally Other and Transcendent must be central in this balance! This is one of the missing links in so-called Christian Theology today. See too historically the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, for the most part modern Christianity has become Pelagianist! This was one of the last great intellectual and theological debates of Augustine’s life, see here too his piece Causa Gratiae. If I were still teaching I would have all my students read Peter Brown’s classic book: Augustine Of Hippo!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This might be of some historical interest? I sure hope so!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JessicaHof says:

      Thank you 🙂 xx


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