Friday, October 06, 2006

God Prevails: On Tyndale, Moore and Fisher, Martyrs

The following was written by the Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall, Bishop of Bethlehem and posted on the "Bethlehem of PA" and "Bethlehem Clergy News" listservs. --atg+

We are used to commemorating Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, the so- called "Protestant Martyrs" of England later during October. We think of their deaths under "bloody" Queen Mary, reactionary romanist.

Not so fast.

Today we find a commemoration of Tyndale, Moore, and Fisher, each a very different kind of martyr under a king who was Roman Catholic in theology but who sought (for reasons of preserving the succession that we would find entirely curious) the national autonomy of churches, thus rejecting the evolved ecclesiology of the western church. yes, they met their deaths under Henry VIII.

Tyndale's theology was protestant by our views, and he spoke of salvation by grace a generation before that was popular in England, and his particular crime was translating the Bible into a language the people understood.

Moore, a layperson, could not understand the idea of national churches being part of the Catholic faith, and would not swear to the King's Supremacy, oddly pushing England further down the protestant road.

Likewise, Fisher, bishop of Rochester, although a royal chaplain who had enjoyed the king's favor, also could not swear.

So Tyndale was burned for being too protestant, and Moore and Fisher beheaded for being to catholic--all of them died for following their own religious convictions in spite of tyranny in matters of religion.

Thomas Moore envisioned a heaven where all representatives of divergent perspectives on Christianity would "sup merrily" in the presence of God. Our calendar, by commemorating the consciences of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Tyndale, Moore, and Fisher in the tumultuous 16th century encourages us to the same view: how one relates to ecclesiastical and secular authority structures is immaterial in many ways.

The idea that in the city of Scranton there exists a "St. Thomas Moore Society" with the mission of proselytizing confused or disaffected Anglicans indicates that those who might be drawn to such a society understand neither the catholic faith, its Roman expression, nor Anglicanism itself. To wrap oneself in the shroud of a particular martyr whose entanglement was as much a matter of international politics as it was religion and to seek to draw others into a religious groupette whose organizing faith principle is really the borderline personality structure is a matter of apples and cinderblocks.

Our commemoration of a wide variety of 16th century martyrs is a healthier and redemptive celebration of that fact that despite human sin, God prevails. Just as Athanasius and Cyril championed orthodoxy through means we would consider violent, illegal, and immoral, and just as the church establishment marched John Chrysostom to the point of death, it is Christ who lives in all the vagaries of human will.

Rather than reduce the witness of these 16th-century martyrs to mere points of view or loyalties to partisan issues and persuasive techniques that are not really on the market today, it makes much more sense to see the English Six whom we remember in October as witnesses to integrity, to the willingness to sacrifice security to a quiet institutional life.

We do not yet have the courage to commemorate martyrs under Elizabeth I, but our expanded willingness to recognize Henrecian along with Marian martyrs in a calendar that already contains the church's martyr Chrysostom, says that we have a growing maturity about the ability of the right or the left to chew people up, and a growing respect for Christian conscience when understood as a product of the Holy Spirit, who is notoriously bad at reading brand labels. (Acts 8-10).

The extreme (puritan) protestants of the next century would martyr the king after dispatching Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the case of the archbishop, a thorough-going protestant who refused offers to come to Rome, even the church that inherited the Elizabethan settlement was not safe from those who put their own understanding of truth (above) the value of persons of conviction.

The question for me is, do we imagine with Moore that all these sup merrily at the great banquet, or do we put, pace Cyprian, other institutional obstacles in the way?

It keeps coming back to the question of the limitations of our vision and the greatness of God's view.

Our liturgy manages this month to commemorate those who were lost because of loyalties to very opposing views of the key issues of their day. Wouldn't it be nice in the month of the Reformation and of the catholic martyrs in England, if the barriers that keep the baptized from sharing the eucharist in various Christian traditions could simply be dropped--if out of embarrassment if not enlightenment? Romans have a pope who has given communion to protestants, and God knows we give communion to Romans every week in Episcopal Churches. Is it time to bow to reality and to acknowledge the limitations of our tidy systems with something like the relief of those who are called to transcend their views for a broader vision of what God does in baptism?

Perhaps each of us needs to ask today what persons or groups we consider beneath inclusion at the Lord's Table, and do some serious thinking--so as to appreciate the entire mosaic of God's plan.

The church simply cannot consider itself the arbiter of mature Christian conscience. It can respect it, and cherish variety of viewpoint. It can participate in extinguishing or killing it.
Interesting, the only way to get excommunicated in the Episcopal Church is to be destructive of community (see BCP rubrics and related canons); wide variety of thinking is possible, but after we are done thinking and arguing, and expressing our convictions, there must be respected the underlying reality of the carpenter who saw not institutions or ideologies, or eminences, but people invited to the kingdom of God.

To identify participation in the sacraments as loyalty to the extinct Roman empire as it vestigially exists in the Roman church is not helpful. To identify it with loyalty to the former, and larger British empire is equally deluding. The altars of Episcopal churches are open to all the baptized, a phenomenon that cannot be found in much of Third World Anglicanism, at least not yet, as these groups are curiously trapped in the same 16th-century arguments that our liturgical calendar seeks to transcend today by commemorating three non-Anglican partisans.

Those inclined to "erristic theology" will argue away; valuable although contingent truth often comes from argument. Just don't think a momentary point of view is the ultimate reality, and remember that we can enjoy a communion which is larger than what any of the sects that identify the sacrament of the altar with institutional loyalties will ever know.


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