Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford

As an undergraduate and then a graduate, this was a view which greeted me most days as I went about my studies. On this day there would be flowers and other tributes laid here. Occasionally a tourist would ask me what it was about, and some of them seemed none the wiser (though at least they were better-informed) when I told them it marked the site of the burning of an Archbishop of Canterbury and two other bishops of the Church of England. On one occasion only did I get an answer which surprises me, less now than it did then: “They took the Faith seriously back then, not like now!” It has not ceased to shock me – no one who toils in the blogosphere could be shocked – but it saddens me, not because I am some milquetoast who wants us all to “lurve” one another, but because it brings to mind Byron’s comment in “Don Juan” about “Christians have burned each other, quite persuaded, that all the Apostles would have done as they did.” God is the only just judge, and anyone who thinks that burning someone to death is a sign of how seriously they take their faith should pause and ponder what Jesus might have meant when he said that “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. [Matt. 7:2].

In addition to Bishops Ridley and Latimer, whose burning was on this day in 1555, the more famous Archbishop Cranmer was burned on the same spot six months later, which is why today, in the Church of England calendar is called the memorial of the “Reformations Martyrs”. There were, as any historian can tells you, plenty of Catholic martyrs too, although, perhaps tellingly, it took until 2008 for a small plaque to be erected on Holywell Street in memory of four Roman Catholics — Thomas Belson, Humphrey Prichard, and the priests Richard Yaxley, and George Nichols — who were hanged, drawn, and quartered there in 1589, and beatified as martyrs in 1987. When a memorial was dedicated in 2009 to 23 Catholic and Protestant “Martyrs of the Reformation” in the Uni­­ver­sity Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, there were complaints that this was not what those who had been martyred would have wanted. Perhaps those complaining would have preferred another public burning of a “heretic”, which might well have been what those who were martyred would have wanted?

Violence begat violence, and and whatever one’s view of the English Reformation, and it remains a hotly contested field of scholarship, it was marked by a level of cruelty which to most of us does no service to the name of Jesus or to our common faith, for make no mistake, divided as we are by ecclsiology and history, Anglican or “Roman” Catholic, we share one faith, even as we share a sorry history of intra-communal violence.

None of this is to denigrate the martyrs on both sides, they were men (and women) who paid the ultimate price to stand by their beliefs, but we do their memory no service by continuing to dig ditches and erect barbed-wire to defend positions which a century of ecumenical dialogue has shown need no such defences. As Churchill put it in another context: “Jaw Jaw is better than War War.”

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York spoke in the spirit of the fruits of ecumenical dialogue when they spoke firts of the “blessings” of the Reformation:

Amongst much else, these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language, and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the Church

but also of the:

 the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution, and even death, at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord.

Much has been done to try to overcome the resulting legacy of mistrust, and indeed it can seem at times as those the most intense warfare is the internecine sort, where Catholics can be vitriolic about their own Pope and about those Catholics who are vitriolic about him. Maybe we really do learn nothing from history?

The Reformers in the sixteenth century, like later reformers within the Catholic Church, wanted to draw us back to what is at the heart of our faith, and that is the love of God for us, manifested through His Son, Jesus Christ who died for us that we should have life eternal. It is easy, which is why it is done so often, to mock ecumenism as a search for the lowest common denominator, and it may, or may not, be significant that this tendency is often to be found among converts, but properly understood, it is a search for the highest common factor – that the love and sacrifice Jesus made for all who would receive Him, can be made manifest in this vale of tears where we see Him as through a glass darkly, but where the scars of sin run vivid red and orange in the flames which consumed the martyrs.