Telling Tales!

4 May – Saints and Martyrs of the English Reformation


If you were to take a guided tour of central Oxford, it’s likely that you would be shown the Martyrs memorial – an ornate stone structure, in mediaeval style, commemorating 3 martyrs of the English reformation – whom the Church of England commemorates tomorrow. And if you were unlucky, you would have as your guide a slightly bored student with a sense of humour.

Alongside the memorial is a set of steps leading down beneath the pavement – and there is a long tradition of trying to persuade the more gullible tourists that the martyrs memorial is in fact the spire of Oxford’s magnificent underground cathedral – and that, for a small fee, you can enter the exquisite marble halls beneath….  Anyone who actually did go down and put 50p in the turnstiles would actually find themselves in the tiled splendour of the Gents toilets!

Around the corner, in Broad Street, a black cross is marked on the ground– looking for all the world like a treasure spot on a pirate’s map. In reality it marks the place where those same three martyrs, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake – having been condemned of heresy during the short reign of Queen Mary.

An altogether more stark reminder, then, that the kind of religious intolerance we see today – in the brutal antics of ISIS and other extremists – is actually part of our own past. And that, if we are not alert to the dangers, those same powerful emotions – that self-righteous condemnation of others – can surface and take hold rather too easily.

Given the struggles of our own past – the turbulent relationship between Church and State and the changing religious affiliation of successive monarchs – and the shifting tides of fundamentalism today, we can perhaps see why some people prefer to turn their backs on religion altogether. It was perhaps those same dangers that led to Alistair Campbell’s declaration that the Blair administration didn’t “do God”. Safer, perhaps, to keep religious belief as a private matter – and to let public policy be played out in a neutral, secular arena.

And yet, we can’t really go along with that.

The imagery of the Vine in this morning’s Gospel, [John 15] reminds us that it is futile to attempt to work things out in isolation from God. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself – neither can you unless you abide in me”, says Jesus.

If we are cut off from the life-source – we can’t continue to flourish. Like cut flowers – we might look splendid for a short while – but the end result is inevitable decay.

Perhaps that’s a good thought to have in mind as we sift through the range of promises being made to us just now – in the run up to Thursday’s General Election. Those promises are made in the hope of political success – and they have little hope of becoming reality, or of promoting the common good, unless rooted in the even greater scheme of God’s purposes.

As we ponder where to cast our vote – we need to be looking beyond particular proposals, particular promises, to the greater narrative that lies behind them.

In my own thinking at present, I seem to keep coming back to narratives – to the idea of stories.

And stories are powerful things – they help to shape our sense of identity – they help to build a sense of belonging. And those things are important both in our national life, and in our churches.

The stories we tell can bring people together – or they can further entrench divisions between us.

In the recent referendum on Scottish independence – there were two very different stories being told –  the “Braveheart” vision of Salmond and Sturgess and the neo-Churchillian, one-nation rhetoric of David Cameron. Two different version of reality –                         each trying to effect a different outcome – and those tensions are still very much alive as we head to the polls this week.

And, as we approach Friday’s 70th anniversary of V.E. day – celebrating peace in Europe – we are being offered some very different accounts of our own relationship to the rest of the European Union.

Again we need to be alert to the motives of those who make those differing claims – and weigh up which route seems to reflect our Gospel values, rather than political expediency.

The most convincing of story-tellers are not necessarily reflecting the truth – as any Oxford tourist will tell you after they’ve tried to visit the underground cathedral!

So much for politics, and back to the saints and martyrs.

The particular story that we tell of our Christian faith – can be just as enriching, or just as destructive as any other.

Oxford’s Martyrs memorial was built in the 1840s – partly in reaction to the rise of Catholic tendencies within the Church of England – especially in Oxford itself. So – the memory of the reformers was brought back to mind as an attempt to nudge things in a more Protestant direction again. The inscription there praises Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer as “bearing witness to the sacred truths they maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome”

No lack of clarity in the sentiments behind that then!

Equally, it’s unlikely that many in the Church of England will give much thought to English Catholic martyrs like Edmund Campion – a faithful Jesuit priest brutally executed at Tyburn – a quarter of a century after Cranmer.

And yet as recently as 1970, Campion was beatified – declared a saint by Pope Paul VI – and to many English Roman Catholics that tradition of catholic martyrs, is still a powerful one. And in that particular tale, WE are the baddies.

I can remember, as a teenager, belting out the hymn “Faith of our fathers in distress” – recalling the persecution of the Catholic minority and ending with the repeated lines “we will be true to thee till death, we will be true to thee till death”.

It’s all very powerful stuff – and just as tribal as any nationalist political campaign.

And while that may indeed build a strong sense of unity within a particular congregation – it also reinforces the barriers                      that separate one denomination from another. And so the church’s story becomes a negative one.

If we are going to deserve a voice in public life, and if we are going to obey Christ’s commands of loving service, then we need a common story which reflects the image of the Vine tree – with the several branches of the church securely rooted in the one stem. Otherwise, if we insist on cutting ourselves off, we can only wither and die.

Each year, on 4th May, our church’s calendar very deliberately urges us to commemorate the “saints and martyrs of the Reformation” – not Protestant martyrs or Catholic martyrs – but all whose determination and faith was tested in that turbulent period of our national life.

Their personal stories were vastly different, they opposed much of what their accusers stood for – and yet, they all died for love of the same Lord – in imitation of Christ – who himself died for all of us.

In that reality lies the prologue of a new story of true Christian unity. It’s that story which our nation and our churches need to hear.