The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, finds himself in a spot of bother for criticizing the policies of the current government. ‘With remarkable speed, he notes, ‘we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted’.
For some this evokes memories of Archbishop Robert Runcie and his one-man opposition to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Others may like to think their way right back to the original turbulent priest, Thomas a Becket, who got his come-uppance in the cloister at Canterbury back in 1170. But in fact by that time the tradition of the turbulent priest was already almost a thousand years old.
In 390, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, refused access to his church to the Emperor, Theodosius I, until he had served a penance for international war crimes committed in Thessalonica. It’s an episode neatly caught in the painting by van Dyck featured above. And Ambrose was a social critic too. In a fiery sermon addressed to his wealthy congregation, he insists: ‘Not from your own do you bestow upon the poor man, but you make return from what is his. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate to yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the rich … Therefore you are paying a debt, you are not bestowing what is not due …’
Economically still smarter was the man who has come down to us as simply ‘the Sicilian Briton’, a monk who quit Britain (rumour has it that he hailed from somewhere near Stoke) and settled in Sicily. Here he is in De Divitiis (On Riches), written some fifteen hundred years before Marx (around 415 CE): ‘Get rid of the rich man, and you will not be able to find a poor one. Let no man have more than he really needs, and everyone will have as much as they need, since the few that are rich are the reason for the many who are poor.’ Maybe he was too smart to be Archbishop of Canterbury – or perhaps Stoke was just a bit unfashionable in the fifth century!