Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The Feast of English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation

On May the 4th the Church of England celebrates the witness of the Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era. But we are not simply remembering ‘our own’, Church of England martyrs; those who died for their unwavering fealty to the Church of England in the face of Roman Catholic persecution.  We are also remembering those Roman Catholics who died at the hands of Protestants for maintaining their Faith and allegiance.  We remember those like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake by Roman Catholic monarchs in the turbulent years following Henry VIII.  But we also remember the often unnamed Roman priests who hid within, and were sometimes forcibly dragged from, secret closets in the great Catholic houses of the land.  Both sides in this horrible period of English history had men and women of great courage, who lived by the light they had been given at the time.  They believed earnestly in the central tenants of their faith, and earnestly believed, whether they were Anglican Catholics, or Roman Catholics, that their particular expression of the church was the right one.  It was a belief for which they were prepared to die, and yes, sometimes to kill.

We are recognising, therefore, that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide.  But we also recognise that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides!  The only way that we can confront these two opposing truths is with humility.  First, we are invited to personal humility, as we stand in awe of the strength of faith, the holiness and courage of those who witnessed to their understanding of God right up to the point of death.  Would I, would you, have the courage to do the same?  In the face of someone threatening to burn me alive, would I have the courage to stand firm as the English martyrs did?  Or indeed as our own St Faith did, in a different time?  The honest answer is that very few of us would have that courage.  Our only response, therefore, must surely be one of humility.

However, we also need to express some corporate humility too:  humility and repentance for the Church as an institution, which can turn so swiftly to condemn those who don’t share our particular theological view.  And humility and repentance for all the times that condemnation has turned to violence.  In the Reformation Era, there was a see-sawing of religious life in England at the time, as one monarch replaced another, and the balance of power shifted between Anglicans and Romans, depending who was on the throne.  In those swings of power and opinion, it is frightening to remember how quickly the oppressed became the oppressor.  How quickly zeal turned into hatred and then violence.

The Reformation, in that sense, is a stark warning to theological warriors of today.  Arm-chair theologians, as well as many pressure groups within the church, still argue with each other about what God thinks is ‘right’ on any number of issues.  Christian Twitter is sometimes a very nasty place. Everyone has their own opinion on a wide range of subjects,  These range from which political party is nearer to the Kingdom of God (a good question for Election Day!) to vexed questions around human sexuality.  Or Christians love to debate the protection of national borders, the role of the Monarchy in modern Britain, the question of a woman’s right to choose, the correct mode of dress for priests and many more issues that inspire real vitriol, I’m sad to say.  There are, for example, large parts of the Anglican Communion who are presently breaking away from Canterbury, over recent decisions of the Synod around the blessing of same-sex marriages.

The hardest lesson to learn in these debates is the lesson of humility.  It’s salutary to remember that Jesus himself never wrote down a single word.  He was presumably capable of writing, because we know that reading and writing were taught to Jewish boys of the time – so that they could read the synagogue scrolls (as Jesus did himself on a visit to Nazareth).  Indeed, Jesus himself was described as The Word – the creative force through which God spoke all things into existence.  But Jesus himself never wrote a single word down.  Instead, he spoke in stories and parables, designed to creatively expand our thinking and often leading us to ask more questions.  We have taken The Word, the Logos, the creative speaking of God, and turned it into logical, rule-bound, codified letters on a page.

Stories come from a place in our psyche which is more fluid and flexible than words.  The human brain, as I’m sure you know, is divided into two spheres – left and right.  This is how we have evolved over millennia, or how we were created by God (if you prefer).  Our capacity for creativity AND logic is what has made us the dominant species on this planet.  The left side of our brain is the logical side.  It’s the part of our brain which reasons, organises, catalogues and processes information.  But our left brain exists in a permanent state of dialogue with our right brain – in which art, music, emotion, and story reside.  In that sense, we like the English Martyrs, find ourselves in a battleground – between logic and feeling, between empirical knowledge and faith.   Neither of these is more right than the other.  Both are essential to what it means to be human beings, made in the image of God.

Jesus never wrote anything down, I believe, because he wanted to keep our right brains alive in the difficult, challenging task of building the Kingdom.  The greatest religious art, the sublime music of Bach, the instinct to give without counting the cost, the willingness to love the unlovely neighbour, or even to love our unlovely selves.  These are all right brain activities.

So to those who, with their left brain, want to nail their theological opinions to a stake, I urge the lesson of humility.  Sometimes, the most honest answer to the great questions of our age has to be ‘we don’t know’.  God’s Kingdom is not yet fully revealed, and our ability to understand the mind of God is limited at best.  At the very least, we need to grasp that when we offer our opinion on matters such as sexuality, political alliances, abortion, the monarchy or any number of other weighty matters, we must do so in a spirit of humility.  And, unlike the warring theologians of the English Reformation, we must never, never, never, offer violence in word or deed, to those with whom we might disagree.



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