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Anselm Wrote Creative Theology and Boldly Defended His Church

Anselm was a subtle thinker and able to hold his own against a ruthless king, too.

WHEN LANFRANC, Archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1089, King William II of England—William Rufus—seized the property and revenues of the bishop’s see for his own use. For four years he kept the post vacant. When he fell seriously ill, however, he seemed to have trembled for his soul, and nominated one of Europe’s most noted scholars for the position. 

Anselm was the prior of the abbey of Bec in France and author of works of theology, including the famous ontological argument for the existence of God. On business in England at the time of his nomination, he was inclined to reject the appointment as bishop. He requested that William return Canterbury’s lands, recognize Urban II as pope (the papal schism between Urban and Clement III had divided Europe), and acknowledge the supremacy of Anselm’s spiritual counsel. In the end, William met only the first condition and soon tried to renege on that. Failure to settle the issue of who was pope would come back to haunt Anselm. 

The Roman Church required that metropolitans (bishops) such as Anselm receive their pallium, a vestment for worship, from the pope before consecration as a bishop. Anselm asked the king if he might travel to Rome to receive this symbol of apostolic succession. William denied his request indignantly, saying he had not yet decided whether to acknowledge Urban II or Clement III as pope. It was not the archbishop’s decision to choose whom England would recognize as pope, said the king. Anselm might as well try and take the crown from him! 

Anselm requested a council to resolve the issue. The king agreed. On this day, 25 February 1095, the council met in Rockingham. Anselm reminded the assembled bishops and nobles that he had declared his allegiance to Urban before becoming archbishop. “At that time, no one had a complaint against me,” he protested. The king renounced Anselm as archbishop and demanded everyone else do so, too. The frightened clergy fell over themselves to comply. The nobles, however, refused. The council deadlocked and Anselm remained the highest official in the English church. 

William secretly obtained the pallium from Urban and tried to browbeat Anselm into accepting it from his hand. Anselm recognized that this would give the king authority over the English church and refused. Eventually, William let Anselm lay the pallium on the altar and place it on himself, showing that his authority came from church, not king. 

Three years after Rockingham, Anselm completed another of his famous books, this one called Cur Deus homo or Why Did God Become Man? In it he proposed the satisfaction theory of the atonement, that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind, satisfying the demands of God’s honor by his infinite merit. 

Anselm’s relations with William’s successor, Henry I, were also stormy. Twice the archbishop went into exile. The troubles seem mostly to have originated with the monarch.

Dan Graves

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An article on Anselm appears in the book In Context, the stories behind seventy memorable sayings in Church History

One of Anselm's writings is considered in "Paying back the debt" in Christian History #116, 25 Writings

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