Friday, 6 July 2012

Unity, reformation, coherence - celebrating the martyrs of the Reformation Era

Today's commemoration in the Common Worship calendar of Thomas More and John Fisher, martyred in 1535, calls for reflection on how Anglicans commemorate the saints and martyrs of the Reformation Era.  More and Fisher, of course, were martyred by Henry VIII because of their denial of the royal supremacy and their support for the papal supremacy.  No doubt some in the Roman tradition (and in some Protestant traditions) see the inclusion of Thomas More and John Fisher in our liturgical calendars as yet more evidence of Anglican confusion and incoherence.

For Anglicans, however, there is coherence in commemorating and celebrating the sanctity of both those who sought to protect the unity of the church catholic and those who sought its reformation.  Amidst what historian David Starkey recently referred to as the "high drama, tragedy, nobility and suffering of the Reformation", English Christians responded in different ways to the tension that existed (and exists) between the two vocations - the vocation to unity and the vocation to reformation. 

This Anglican approach is no mere liturgical nicety.  This is so for two reasons.  Firstly, it challenges a prevailing cultural narrative, shaped - as Eamon Duffy has noted - by the presuppositions of the Whig interpretation and secularised Protestantism, in which the Reformation is perceived to be the victory of individualism and reason over and against authority and tradition.  The Reformation, in other words, becomes a harbinger of the Enlightenment. 

By celebrating side by side those who gave their lives to protect the unity of the Church and those who gave their lives for the reformation of the Church, Anglicans are declaring an alternative to the 'harbinger of the Enlightenment' interpretation.  Instead, we are saying that the saints and martyrs of the Reformation Era gave their lives for the Church catholic - because the life and proclamation of the Church is of infinite value and significance.  Their martyrdoms join in witness to authentic life being found not in the Enlightenment but in the Church.

Secondly, in celebrating both the martyrs of unity and the martyrs of reform, Anglicans are also seeking to answer the 'Dawkins interpretation': the virus of religion leads to hate and death.  Yes, in the Reformation Era we see the reality of sin and of the Church's brokeness.  But we also see the presence of conscience and of those who rejected the claims of the State to be the final arbiter.  We see that violence and State power do not have the last word, but that this goes to those shaped and formed by the Cross and Resurrection - to Thomas More and John Fisher, to Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer (commemorated on 16th October).

For Anglicanism - called to be both catholic and reformed - there is a particular poignancy in commemorating both the martyrs of unity and the martyrs of reform.  We are called to somehow embody the witness of both, to receive the example and inspiration of both.  Of course, we fail.  We (spectacularly) fail in the call to unity.  We fail to be authentically reformed.  Which is why year by year we need the commemoration of these martyrdoms to enable us to be reminded of what others have given in their fidelity to the call to unity and the call to reformation.

Merciful God,
who, when the Church in this land
was torn apart by the ravages of sin,
inspired Thomas to put conscience above earthly honour,
so that he died the king's good servant, but yours first:
give to your Church that peace which is your will,
and grant that those who have been divided upon earth
may merrily meet in heaven ...

(Collect from the Church in Wales for the commemoration of Thomas More.)

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