Thursday, December 29, 2011

"A Deacon! A Miserable Deacon!": St. Thomas Becket

Today we remember the famous saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his own cathedral by knights under the influence of the king and Becket's former friend, Henry II.  What many people forget about St. Thomas is that he was a deacon; in fact, he was once the archdeacon of Canterbury under Archbishop Theobald.  He left that office (of archdeacon) when asked by his friend Henry to take over as Chancellor of England.

Back in college seminary, I took the role of Becket in a production of Jean Anouilh's play of the same name.  While many critics have rightly criticized Anouilh's historical accuracy, no one can doubt that he captures the personalities involved beautifully, and many actors have enjoyed playing these roles, including Richard Burton (Becket) and Peter O'Toole (Henry) in the movie version of of the play.

One bit of history that Anouilh appears to have appreciated accurately is the fact of Becket's diaconate!  In one of the early scenes of the play (watered down in the movie), the king has just presented his new Chancellor to the Archbishop and other Church leaders.  While the Archbishop is gracious enough, it is clear that the other bishops in attendance are not pleased, especially when they realize that young deacon Thomas is "switching sides":

Becket: My Lord and King has given me his Seal with the Three Lions to guard.  My mother is England now.
Folliot (the bishop of London): A deacon!  A miserable deacon nourished in our bosom!  Traitor!  Little viper!  Libertine!  Sycophant!  Saxon!

I suppose there have been other pastors who have felt the same way about their deacons!  One lesson that we can all learn from Becket, of course, is his courage in speaking truth to power, whether that power is found in the structures of the church or in secular authority.  May God continue to grant us all the same courage in our own lives and ministry!


  1. Thanks, Phyllis! This was originally a full-length rehearsal shot; I cropped it to keep the tights out of the post!