Politics & Media
Dec 06, 2022, 05:57AM

Political Authority vs. Spiritual Authority

Henry II, Thomas Becket, Tony Blair and Brian Haw: a never-ending tale.

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My friend Jon Eldude, and I have gone to Canterbury Cathedral at the winter solstice for the last few years and burned some money. The first time, in 2018, there were a few people with us but, over the years, our numbers have declined. Now it’s just Jon and me. This is probably for the best, as it draws less attention. It’s a simple ceremony. We’ll both say a few words and then light the note, which we place in a bowl to watch it burn.

I’ve written about money burning before. It’s a sacred act. You’re not burning the value of the note, which remains after it’s gone: you’re renouncing your personal claim to it. The note is an IOU, a “promise to pay the bearer.” You’re forgiving the debt that the note represents. It’s an act of ritual sacrifice, in which no one but the burners themselves suffer. It’s a “burnt offering”: meaning all the value of the sacrifice goes up in smoke. If you want to know more about money burning and its implications this site contains a number of useful links.

We go to Canterbury Cathedral as it’s the most sacred site in our vicinity: possibly one of the most venerated places of worship in the entire world. It’s a beautiful medieval building in the Gothic style, almost certainly set on the site of some sacred temple of the old Anglo-Saxon religion that preceded it, which was itself more than likely the site of a Romano-British church and temple before that. The Christians were canny that way. They usually took over the sites and the festivals of whatever religious tradition they were replacing to ensure that there was continuity of worship and as a declaration that they were now in control. Where we pray, and to what gods, is a political question.

The cathedral was founded in 597 by Augustine of Canterbury who’d been sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the population to the new religion. There were probably a number of reasons why Augustine chose Canterbury as his destination. One of them was almost certainly that the wife of King ÆthelberhtQueen Bertha, was already a Christian. This allowed Augustine access to the court and to the King himself, who was duly converted. For this reason Canterbury is considered the founding site of English Christianity. It is the seat of the worldwide Anglican Community, which is headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual descendent of Augustine himself.

In medieval times it was also one of the most important destinations for pilgrimage in Europe. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is set during one such journey. This was because it was the site where the remains of Archbishop Thomas Becket lay. People came from all over the continent to visit the shrine and a number of miracles were recorded, including the cure of leprosy, blindness and epilepsy.

December 21st, the solstice, happens to be Becket’s birthday. He was assassinated at the behest of his onetime friend, Henry II. Edwin Grim, writing in Latin after the event, quotes Henry as complaining: "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?" It was these words, or something similar, that set the knights Reginald FitzUrseHugh de MorvilleWilliam de Tracy and Richard le Breton, on course to murder.

The reasons for Henry’s complaint are complicated and the story is protracted, taking place over several decades, but what it boils down to is simple. It’s the clash between the authority of the state, represented by Henry, and the authority of the church, represented by Becket. Political authority vs spiritual authority. It’s an age-old tale. Round one was obviously won by Henry, as Becket was summarily and violently removed from office. He had the top of his skull sliced off and his brains spilled out over the stone steps in the north-west transept. He was no longer able to block Henry’s plans or deny his authority. But ultimately it was Becket who came out on top. It’s Becket’s name we remember, Becket’s shrine we visit. It was Becket’s remains that created the miracles that made the pilgrimage to Canterbury such a mainstay of medieval European life.

Maybe you’ll say there are no such thing as miracles, and perhaps I’ll agree. But the stories of the miracles are artifacts in themselves. They helped create the structures of belief which supported Christianity. They’re the substance out of which this potent myth was wrought.

But Becket also won on a much more personal level. He was declared a saint. In 1174, four years after his martyrdom, Henry could be found walking barefoot from outside Canterbury city walls to the cathedral. Crowds lined the streets. He knelt before Becket’s tomb and, arms outstretched, with “streaming tears, groans and sighs,” begged forgiveness. He asked for absolution and was stripped to the waist and whipped by the assembled company of bishops and monks, who gave the king between three and five blows each with a rod. He then fasted for three days while, still bleeding from his wounds, he kept vigil at the tomb. That “low-born cleric” had inflicted a shameful blow to Henry’s assumption of authority.

As John Higgs puts it in his book Watling Street: “A saint ranks higher than a king.” Higgs interviewed me for the book, so you’ll find some of my words in there, including my reflections on the meaning of prayer, which I’ve written about more recently for Splice Today.

In the same chapter I also introduce Higgs to another figure whose story might be said to parallel the narrative of this tale. That’s Brian Haw. Haw spent his teenage years in Whitstable, where I’ve lived for the vast majority of the last 40 years. (As far as I know, his brother still lives in Whitstable.) In June 2001, in protest at economic sanctions against Iraq, which were at that time killing hundreds of Iraqi children every month, Haw set up a peace camp in Parliament Square, vowing not to live in a house again until the sanctions were lifted. He was true to his word and, aside from court cases and arrests, he never left his camp until his journey to a hospital in Berlin in 2011, to treat the cancer from which he died. More than 500,000 children are estimated to have been killed by the sanctions. Famously, Madeleine Albright said that the number of deaths were “worth it.” Once the post-9/11 wars were declared, first in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, Haw’s peace camp morphed into a protest against the War on Terror.

Just as Becket was confronting a king, so Haw was confronting kingly power, in the form of Tony Blair, at that time the Prime Minister. Blair was a strong supporter of American power. He’d enthusiastically backed NATO’s involvement in the war in Yugoslavia, the first of the so-called humanitarian interventions that’ve characterized western foreign policy initiatives ever since. He supported the sanctions against Iraq, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the War on Terror, and all the wars that have been subsequently unleashed in its name.

Many people believe that Blair deliberately lied to Parliament with his claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. There have been calls for his prosecution, and a number of attempts to enforce citizen’s arrests against him in various parts of the world. Not long after the 45-minutes claim, an authority on biological warfare, Dr David Kelly, gave an off-the-record briefing to a BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, in which he stated that the government’s claims had been exaggerated. Gilligan characterized this by saying that the government had “sexed up” the intelligence. There was a BBC report that went out on the Today program on Radio 4, May 29, 2003. The government made a complaint. Dr. Kelly was forced to admit that he was the source of the information and he was called to appear before two parliamentary committees on July 15th. Two days later he was found dead under a tree on Harrowdown Hill, Longworth, near his home, an apparent suicide.

Several high-profile figures are on record saying that Kelly was likely murdered, and there are at least two books—one by Miles Goslett, and the other by Norman Baker MP—that come to the same conclusion. Whether you believe it or not—and what part you think that Blair might have played in the events—the fact is that people who get in Blair’s way often get removed, one way or the other. What’s blindly obvious is that Blair is ruthless, willing to contemplate multiple deaths on a world-scale in pursuit of his ambitions. He has been richly rewarded for his efforts, having accrued a massive fortune since leaving office. He’s also a very high profile convert to Catholicism.

Brian Haw couldn’t be more different. He was born on January 7, 1949 in Woodford Green in Essex. He grew up in Barking and then came to Whitstable. His father, Robert Haw, committed suicide. This might explain Haw’s unwavering commitment to the ideal of peace. Listening to him speak, there’s a characteristic emotional catch in his voice, as if he carries some wound which he is expiating with his words. The family were Christians, and members of an evangelical church in the town. Haw went to an evangelical college in Nottingham after which he came out preaching world peace. He spent time in war zones, including Northern Ireland and Cambodia, spreading his message. He was a carpenter by trade, later a youth worker. In the 1970s he moved to Reddich in the West Midlands where he met his wife. He had seven children with her, before abandoning his family to live on the streets. They divorced in 2003.

One of the points I made in Higgs’ book is about the differences between political and spiritual action. The aim of politics is to gain power. Some may be pursuing power for the sake of an ideal, others for its own sake but, either way, the proximity to power can have serious consequences. In some cases it may drive people over the edge into monomania and fanaticism. There are times when, looking at Blair, at his unswerving self-belief, at the glint of arrogance in his eye which flashes when he’s provoked, when it seems as if he’s fallen off this particular cliff edge. Haw, too, had something of that messianic look, the difference being that, while Blair makes it clear that he’s willing to sacrifice other people’s lives for his ends, Haw was sacrificing his own. The politician is willing to kill for his beliefs, the saint to die for them.

Haw’s life was hard. Grim. Defiant. He suffered on the streets. He was beaten up and arrested many times. He was a fixture, so the authorities knew where he was, and once he was alone, late at night, he was vulnerable. They’d send people in to get him, bust his tent, throw away his placards, trash his site, piss on him when he was asleep. As a radical pacifist, like Martin Luther King and Leo Tolstoy, he was unable to defend himself. But he was fierce and unwavering in his commitment. He was like John the Baptist roaring out to the world, rock-solid, like this monument to moral certitude carved out of the spirit, awesome and awe-inspiring. It’s a pity he’s hardly known outside the UK, while Blair, of course, has a world-wide reputation.

I often think of them as like two sides of the same coin, like Henry II and Thomas Becket for our modern times. They both declared themselves to be Christians, but while one used his position to further his ambitions, and was willing to start wars and see the slaughter of innocents for a political end, the other became a kind of street hermit, a 21st-century version of those medieval saints living in caves that people would make pilgrimages to visit and be blessed by. People made pilgrimages to see Haw too, only he didn’t bless you, he activated you. Blair continues to live a life of luxury, with houses all over the world, while Haw lived in poverty, on the meager gifts his visitors brought. He was a true mendicant.

No doubt Blair would justify his pursuit of power for some noble end, but, looking at his life and legacy, I think history will not be kind to him. Haw, on the other hand, will be remembered as a kind of modern day saint who, many would say, died for his beliefs. It was lung cancer that killed him in the end, brought on by his lifestyle on the streets, in that most polluted part of London, in all weather, with all the hardship and the stress, living on roll-up tobacco and sandwiches people would bring from the local supermarket. Blair would’ve been able to see him from Parliament, and driven past him many times. You couldn’t miss him, with his colorful banner display lined up along the fence, always there, bearded or unshaven, fierce, prophetic, festooned with badges and slogans, roaring out his apocalyptic message through a megaphone, like Ezekiel to the Israelites. He’d have appeared as a constant admonition to Blair, a symbol of what true Christianity looks like in the face of the Prime Minister’s glaring hypocrisy.

Our story is nearly done. You’ve met two saints, and two people with political power. The saints both died before their time, while the men of power lived long and comfortable lives. One of them, at least, came to regret his words and, ultimately to acknowledge the spiritual authority of his nemesis. He begged forgiveness and did penance and, while Becket’s shrine has long disappeared, people still come to Canterbury to pay their respects, to look at the steps where he met his end, and to light a candle (or a £20 note) in his memory.

Spiritual authority speaks to us from beyond the grave. That’s its power. The grave becomes an object of veneration and the destination of pilgrimage, a place where even the highest political authority has to humble himself, to get down on his knees to beg forgiveness. Henry II humbled himself before the shrine of Thomas Beckett. Maybe one day Tony Blair will have to humble himself before Brian Haw’s shrine, for the sake of his eternal soul, who knows? I’d be happy to wield the rod.

Pilgrims often wear an oyster shell as a symbol of their journey. Whitstable is famous for its oysters. Did people journeying to Becket’s shrine in the middle ages continue on to Whitstable afterwards to eat oysters on the beach? I like to think they did. It’s less than an hour’s journey on horseback at a canter (the Canterbury pace): half an hour by bus. Many of our modern-day pilgrims—tourists—visit Whitstable after they’ve seen Canterbury. Not so many of them know about the bench on the beach, not far from the Old Neptune pub, put there as a memorial to Brian Haw’s connection to the town. Whitstable people regard it as his shrine. It tells you why Haw gave up his comforts, and ultimately his life, for his beliefs. “It’s the kids,” it says. If you ever come here you could sit on the bench and eat oysters, while you contemplate the ever-changing tide.

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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