Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 10th March 2013
10 March 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
'Near the tomb of Mary and Elizabeth remember before God all those who divided at the Reformation by different convictions laid down their lives for Christ and conscience sake.'
Those taking a tour of this Abbey come across that quotation on a memorial stone by the splendid tomb of Mary and Elizabeth I, who are buried together in our Lady Chapel.
During these Sundays in Lent as we draw closer to Holy Week we are thinking about the words of Jesus to his first disciples, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.' This teaching has been taken to heart by Christians down through the centuries and many have been martyred for their faith.
Last week we thought about the martyrs of the early church and of some of the horrible ways in which they met their deaths.
Next week we shall think about some of the martyrs of the twentieth century - in particular, those who are commemorated above the Great West Door of this Abbey.
This morning though, we focus our thoughts on those who gave up their lives at the time of the English Reformation - a particularly bloody time in our history, when Christians lost their lives not at the hands of the secular authorities or people of other faiths but at the hands of other Christians who accused them of heresy.
This was a period in which both Roman Catholics and Protestants suffered terribly.
So let’s begin by reminding ourselves very briefly of some of the historical details which led to the major split in the Church in this land, then move on to look at the groups and individuals who gave up their lives and why their beliefs led them to make such a stand.
I’m sure that most of us are familiar with the story of Henry VIII; who, in order to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, broke away from the Church of Rome in 1534 and declared himself supreme governor of the Church of England. Those clergy and statesmen who refused to recognise King Henry in this role soon found themselves imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
The early part of the sixteenth century also saw the start of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and although Henry himself remained on the whole faithful to Catholic traditions and theology there were many other powerful people around him who were keen to see Protestantism established in England.
So this was a time which saw the liturgy changed from Latin to English, church decoration simplified, and emphasis placed on scripture as the major authority for Christians rather than the Church and tradition. It was also during his reign that all the monasteries in England, including the Benedictine monastery here, were dissolved and their money and lands confiscated.
Monks who resisted Henry, remaining loyal to the Religious Life and to the Pope, often met a horrible end. For example, the Carthusians from Charterhouse who were found guilty of treason and sent to the Tower of London, then later hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn not far from here.
When Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547 his son Edward VI succeeded him and was crowned here in Westminster Abbey at the tender age of ten. During his short reign the Protestant Reformation took hold in England with the destruction of statues, paintings, and ornaments in the churches and the persecution of Catholics.
Edward’s reign though was short; he died when he was just fifteen in July 1553. When he was dying he nominated his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who’d been brought up in the Protestant tradition, to succeed him, but tragically for her she was to reign for just nine days, as Mary, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, after a popular uprising was proclaimed Queen in her place.
Mary was a devout Roman Catholic and so the people of England were now required to return to Roman Catholicism under the authority of the Pope.
Mary gained the nick-name 'Bloody Mary' because during her reign around three hundred Protestant Christians were burned at the stake or beheaded, including Lady Jane Grey.
Mary’s reign was also a short one though, and when her half-sister, Elizabeth I came to the throne, it was once again the turn of the Roman Catholics to be on the receiving end of persecution.
Although Mary had earned the nickname 'bloody', there was just as much blood-shed during Elizabeth’s reign - including the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, also buried here.
So the sixteenth century in England was a precarious age in which to be living unless you were willing to keep swapping sides!
Among the most notable people who lost their lives during this time was Thomas Cranmer. The liturgy we’re participating in this morning is his work, as is most of the Book of Common Prayer. He was Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and besides his outstanding gift with language and formulating liturgy, he was also responsible for the Great Bible in 1538 - bringing the scriptures to ordinary people in English.
When Mary came to the throne, Cranmer wrote a letter of submission to the Pope and Roman Catholic Doctrines, but Mary did not think he was genuine and had him arrested.
He was burned at the stake in Oxford in 1556 and as he went to his death he withdrew his submission saying, 'I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe in my heart.' As the flames were lit, he held his right hand in the fire until it burned away.
So what do we as Christians today make of all this suffering and how do we see it relating to the suffering and death of Jesus?
For Christians, Jesus’ death is primarily of spiritual and theological significance. We believe he laid down his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and to demonstrate God’s absolute love for us and desire to be at one with his world.
But as we read the gospels we also see that Jesus’ death came about through political manoeuvring. For complex reasons Jesus posed a threat to the Jewish religious leaders of the day and their relationship with the Roman authorities and so they were anxious to do away with Jesus.
What went on at the time of the English Reformation was also both of theological and political significance.
The terrible suffering for both Protestants and Catholics happened for spiritual reasons - people were absolutely committed to their particular beliefs and however much their lives were threatened they were ready to stand by those convictions.
However, as we study this period of our history it’s also abundantly clear that much of what happened was the result of people wanting to gain positions of power and to be in favour with those in high places.
Today as we think about the martyrs of the English Reformation and reflect on all that happened, we are challenged at three levels.
Firstly, we might ask ourselves how strong is my faith? Would I be prepared to give up my life in the way that many of them did?
Secondly, our journey through Lent can be a time to examine our personal lives and the motives we have for taking certain actions - are we too concerned with being popular, or powerful, or of seeking to influence people for our own gain?
Then thirdly, as we think of the divisions in the Church which led to such suffering, let us resolve to understand people with different views from our own and to work together to fulfil the prayer of Christ: 'May they all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.'