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Grand stories

"Grand stories" Continued...

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

These overreaches were intolerable to Becket, and Guy shows us how the two clashed through several years of Becket’s exile and even during a veneer of peace that allowed Becket to return to Canterbury. Finally, in 1170, Henry, during one of his many temper tantrums, fumed that among his courtiers “not even a single one is willing to avenge me of the wrongs I have suffered.” (The more famous phrasing, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest,” is an 18th-century invention, according to Guy.) “It was essentially just bad luck,” writes Guy, that a few lesser knights took Henry’s outburst literally, made their way to Canterbury, and murdered Becket.

What Becket couldn’t gain in life he was able to achieve as a slain hero. With a country and an entire continent enraged, Henry backed down on the issues of criminous clerks and appeals to the pope. Henry, writes Guy, “simply had no choice.”

Becket was a man and an archbishop of his time. He didn’t have the benefit of coming after Abraham Kuyper’s strong elucidation of “sphere sovereignty”—which recognized that the church, the state, and the family each has a sphere of authority that is not mediated by any of the others. God has given the state the authority to bear the sword against criminals (Romans 13), regardless of whether they wear a clerical collar.

This means Becket’s legacy is mixed. We see it today in business owners who are defending religious freedom against the Obama administration’s Henry-like contraception and abortion drug mandate. But we also see it in bishops who didn’t seem to recognize the state’s legitimate authority to prosecute sexually predatory priests. (Protestants have problems in this regard, too. See “Troubled ministry,” Nov. 17, 2012.)

Becket was a hero who stood up to a tyrant, but, alas, he was also a usurper.

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