Meddlesome priests?

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

The martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket by King Henry II in 1170 is probably better known to us via drama than historiography. In T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1934), Thomas’s conscience is celebrated, and Henry never appears, though his malice is omnipresent. In Jean Anouilh’s Becket, written in French (1959) and adapted for the screen in English (1964), we find the well-known quote, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’

Both plays are based on the martyrdom of Thomas. According to Edward Grim’s Vita S. Thomæ (c. 1180), after an outburst by Henry on Christmas Day to the effect that his courtiers were failing him insofar as they were allowing him to be treated shamefully by a ‘low-born cleric’, four knights murdered Thomas whilst he was at Vespers on 29 December. What Thomas had done was to speak up for the independence of the church. The specific issues between Thomas and Henry regarding the proper relationship between the church and the state in the twelfth century need not concern us here; but the principal remains, namely the well-formed consciences of priests ought to prove meddlesome to despots, whether royal, political, military or otherwise who want to take things over by trampling on the rights of others.

Theologians often speak of the threefold office of the priest. The priest is charged to preach, to sanctify and to shepherd after the example of the High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the prophet, the priest and the shepherd. These charges are neither mutually exclusive nor inflexible; yet they do, especially the prophetic charge, require the priest to proclaim the Good News, as St Paul writes to St Timothy, in all circumstances: ‘I charge you […] to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths’ (2 Timothy 4.1–4).

Whilst much has changed from first century through the twelfth to the twenty-first century, much remains the same. We all find it difficult at times to obey sound teaching; we still have itching ears; we still turn away from the truth; and perhaps more than ever we have wandered off into myths of our own making. As the playwrightÉmile Leon Cammaerts shrewdly observes, ‘When [people] choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything’. A quick perusal of the nonsense propagated in contemporary society proves him prescient. Perhaps the days of despotism in government (at least in Britain) are gone; nonetheless weak and sinful women and men, Christian and non-Christian, of noble and of ‘low-born’ birth, are often no better intentioned or behaved than Henry and his murderous courtiers. Many of them are in positions of power on international, national and local levels whereby our world’s vision is dimmed. When that dimness gives way to darkness as in December 1170, who will stand fast like Thomas the priest against Henry the tyrant? Who will be meddlesome at the risk of dishonour and death? If it should be anyone, it should be Jesus’s priests, not because their faith or character is better than that of other Christians, but because the priestly office in particular ought ‘not be conformed to this world,but transformed by renewal of [their] mind, that by testing [they] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12.2). 

There are far too few meddlesome priests today. Far too many of us priests have, in fact, conformed ourselves to the world and become its stooges. We fancy ourselves to have a prophetic voice when we preach vapidly to the choir, witness half-heartedly with innocuous deeds and find ourselves on good terms with world’s movers and shakers. The priestly office is lessened, if not defiled, when it is lived without zeal. Unenthusiastic priests bear little resemblance to Jesus the High Priest.

But there is hope for us priests! There is hope not only in Jesus’s example, but also in the example of persons like Thomas à Becket, whose martyrdom we commemorate on 29 December. Let us, like Thomas, be meddlesome priests. Let us be well-formed in our consciences, for priests ought to meddle with the designs of despots, so that the rights of the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick and the lonely are trampled no more. Let us pray for meddlesome priests!

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Director of Studies for the Scottish Episcopal Institute

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.