The Venerable James T. Payne
St. Thomas of Canterbury Reformed Episcopal Church
October 14, 2007
 
Oxford Martyrs’ Day - 19th Sunday After Trinity 2007

"Be of good cheer, Master Ridley play the man. We shall this day by God's grace light such a candle in England as shall never be put out."1

At Oxford, just across the street from St. Mary’s Church, stands a tall gothic spire, a monument dedicated to the memory of the 288 victims of Queen Mary’s persecution of the Protestant Reformers in 1555 and 1556. Built in Victorian times with the pennies of school children it, like the practice of the Reformed and Catholic Faith it represents has always not endured the ravages of time well. It is currently fenced off as it awaits repairs, lest debris fall on those seeking to read its worn inscription honoring the Oxford Martyrs.

Roger Beckwith, one of the great Anglican theologians of the present day wrote these words two years ago on the occasion of Oxford Martyrs’ Day in England:

"Today, October 16th is the 45th anniversary of the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in the middle of cobble stoned Broad Street Oxford, They chose to die rather than renounce their beliefs. They had been asked to affirm "transubstantiation". The English Reformation substantially revolved around that question. Latimer was the great preacher of the English Reformation and Ridley the great theologian. Latimer said to Ridley "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley play the man. We shall this day by God's grace light such a candle in England as shall never be put out."

Oxford Martyrs’ Day also remembers Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop who died at the stake the following March.

“The short term impact was to evoke great sympathy because their sufferings were very intense and the courage they displayed was very great. In the long term the nation was sickened by the number of burnings and the ground was prepared for Elizabeth to reintroduce the reforms that Mary had tried to destroy. The implications for today are to remind us of the need to be faithful to our belief in the Christian gospel and the teaching of the Bible, not to hide our light under a bushel and to put this above questions of peace and a quiet life in the church."

When Henry VIII of England died, he left three heirs: his son Edward and his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Edward succeeded to the throne and was raised as a champion of the Protestant cause. Under his rule, the church services, previously in Latin, were translated into English, and other changes were made. When Edward died, at age 16, the throne passed to his sister Mary, whose mother had been divorced by Henry VIII. She was firmly Roman Catholic in her beliefs and burned with anger at those who had led the Reformation. She was determined to return England to the Roman Catholic Church.. Her mother had been Spanish, and she was determined to marry the heir to the throne of Spain, not realizing how much her people feared that this would make England a province of the Spanish Empire. She insisted that the best way to deal with heresy was to burn as many heretics as possible. In the course of a five-year reign, she lost all the English holdings on the continent of Europe, she lost the affection of her people, and she lost any chance of a peaceful religious settlement in England. Of the nearly three hundred persons burned by her orders, the most famous are the Oxford Martyrs, commemorated today.

Hugh Latimer was famous as a preacher. He was Bishop of Worcester (pronounced WOOS-ter) in the time of King Henry, but resigned in protest against the King's refusal to allow the Protestant reforms that Latimer desired. Latimer's sermons speak little of doctrine; he preferred to urge men to upright living and devoutness in prayer. But when Mary came to the throne, he was arrested, tried for heresy, and burned together with his friend Nicholas Ridley. His last words at the stake are well known: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out."

Nicholas Ridley became an adherent of the Protestant cause while a student at Cambridge. He was a friend of Archbishop Cranmer and became private chaplain first to Cranmer and then to King Henry. Under the reign of Edward, he became bishop of Rochester, and was part of the committee that drew up the first English Book of Common Prayer. When Mary came to the throne, he was arrested, tried, and burned with Latimer at Oxford on 16 October 1555.

Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury in the days of Henry, and defended the position that Henry's marriage to Katharine of Aragon was null and void. When Edward came to the throne, Cranmer was foremost in translating the worship of the Church into English (his friends and enemies agree that he was an extraordinarily gifted translator) and securing the use of the new forms of worship. When Mary came to the throne, Cranmer was in a quandary. He had believed, with a fervor that many people today will find hard to understand, that it is the duty of every Christian to obey the monarch, and that "the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13). As long as the monarch was ordering things that Cranmer thought good, it was easy for Cranmer to believe that the king was sent by God's providence to guide the people in the path of true religion, and that disobedience to the king was disobedience to God. Now Mary was Queen, and commanding him to return to the Roman obedience. Cranmer five times wrote a letter of submission to the Pope and to Roman Catholic doctrines, and four times he tore it up. In the end, he submitted. However, Mary was unwilling to believe that the submission was sincere, and he was ordered to be burned at Oxford on 21 March 1556. At the very end, he repudiated his letter of submission, and announced that he died a Protestant. He said, "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." And when the fire was lit around his feet, he leaned forward and held his right hand in the fire until it was charred to a stump. Aside from this, he did not speak or move, except that once he raised his left hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

The facts of this martyrdom are well known in England, but less so in America.

In our “post-Christian” society, it is difficult for us to understand martyrdom in the modern Western world. We tend to neither understand why a person would die for what they believe nor why someone else would kill them for what they believe. Fanatical Islamic terrorists claim to be martyrs, but people who blow themselves up to kill innocent people are not martyrs, they are murderers and terrorists. The idea of genuine martyrdom thus is alien to us.

The word “martyr” is from a Greek word which means "to witness" or "to attest"). We generally associate martyrdom with a person who attests to their faith by dying for it in a noble manner.

But in fact the word martyr does not necessarily require physical death or even prolonged physical suffering. Although martyrdom often features torture, and imprisonment, it also includes systematic persecution and even, according to some of the Church fathers, extreme asceticism as a witness to faith.

Recently, Robert Duncan, Bishop of Pittsburg and the moderator to the Anglican Communion Network outlined the options for the orthodox in the Episcopal Church in response to the departures from the faith in the TEC. He compared the withdrawal of the faithful to the actions taken during the Reformation, the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War. He made one other remarkable statement in his short homily at Eucharist. Duncan urged the congregation of about 100, which included non- Episcopal clergy and laity as well, to be fruitful even if their fruit is not what the world wants, and to be willing to face the consequences of their actions. Those consequences in the past, Duncan said, have included death.

Quoting Bishop Duncan: "My prayer for us who have gathered here is that...we will be such a threat to the present order that we will be found worth killing, if only Columba's white martyrdom, but, if it be so, let it be the red martyrdom," Duncan said, contrasting the "martyrdom" of non-violent persecution with that of death. “

We do not often think about it, but according to the Church Fathers, there are two kinds of martyrdom, which are called the “red” and the “white”.

Red martyrdom occurs when a person sheds their blood for Christ. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many of these brave souls who died rather that forsake the Lord. Many of their names are very familiar and form a litany of courage and trust in God; Paul, Stephen, Justin, Polycarp, Agnes, Alban and particularly those we honor today; Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and the other 285 persons burned by the Roman Church during the reign of Mary. This the martyrdom with which we are all familiar. There are places in the world where people are still put to death for their faith, notably in Muslim countries.

But there is a second type of martyrdom. The second form is called white martyrdom. This is a martyrdom without blood, without the violent taking of life. White martyrdom is a total offering to God, a “dying” to the world and its allurements. A white martyr willingly gives up worldly concerns or worldly acceptance and makes his or her life a perpetual pilgrimage. A white martyr lives a life of heroic devotion to Christ, and eagerly unites that devotion with Christ’s sufferings.

Most Anglicans are familiar with the stories of the early persecutions of the Church, the Inquisition and the Oxford Martyrs, but we probably don’t think in terms of white martyrdom, which is still a reality in our culture.

Yet martyrdom in the sense of being crucified to the world is a part of the Christian life everywhere and in every time. For scripture makes it clear that if we share in the resurrection of Christ it is also true that we share in his death.

When Paul speaks of only “glorying in the cross” he amplifies this thought by writing "By the cross the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world." I think he means something like this..

Once we meet Christ, the world comes to be seen as the fallen place that it is. Through the new eyes of faith we come to see that the world’s standards are not Christ’s standards. When a thing is crucified, it is rejected and scorned. That's what became of the world when Paul met Christ. He said, "I count everything as loss (crucified!) for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8). Paul was so swallowed up by the love of Christ that the benefits of the world looked to him as cold and ashen as one who had been crucified. But he says it another way, too. He says, "I am crucified to the world." When the world looks at me, it sees nothing very attractive, either. I am rejected as far as the world is concerned. Christians are always looked at with loathing by non-Christians.

Remember how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 6:8, 9, "We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, yet well-known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed." As far as the world is concerned, a life devoted to a crucified Christ is a throw-away life. Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 4:13, "We have become, and are now, the refuse of the world, the off scouring of all things." So another way of saying that the world is crucified to me and I to the world is to say the world has become worthless (literally in the Greek: refuse or trash) to me and I have become trash (refuse) to the world.

But don't miss the main point. The only reason Paul mentions his rejection of the world and the world's rejection of him is to accent the value of Christ crucified. The status and pleasures that the world of Greek hedonism or the Pharisaic legalism held out to Paul were like a big garbage heap compared to Jesus Christ. Paul was consumed by the love of Christ. He was utterly mastered, held captive, by one great scene in history: a cross on Golgotha, and on it the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. Yet it was not only that Paul didn’t value what the world valued, it was also that Paul was completely without value according to the world’s standards. Being crucified to the world made it clear to Paul that what the world thought about Paul didn’t matter. Just as the world putting Christ to death was the end of its power over Christ, so the Christian being crucified (that is to say being dead) to the world means that the world has no power over a person.

For this reason Paul was willing to endure the scorn of men, the persecutions at the hands of the enemies of Christ. Paul recounts being beaten with rods, flogged, and imprisoned and more for the sake of Christ. Yet he valued Christ above all things.

The martyrs, from biblical time until now, loved Christ more than life itself. That is what made them dangerous. The spirit of rebellion and sin despises what it cannot control.

St. John warns that Christians will be put out of the synagogue –that the time will come when people who kill Christians will think they are doing a good thing.

But persecution, whether of red or white martyrdom, is not limited to ancient times. Bishop Duncan was right to warn that those in the Episcopal Church seeking to follow Christ must be willing to travel the road of martyrdom if only in the sense of marginalization, ridicule, the loss of office, property, and standing.

We in the Reformed Episcopal Church know this well. Our founders largely lost everything of value by earthly standards. Bishop Cummins was hounded to an early grave. Priests were deposed, property confiscated, reputations destroyed.

Our own parish was founded by people who were driven out of local Episcopal parishes over issues of doctrine. They met in homes, the VFW Hall, and hospital chapels amid great sacrifice for us to be here today. They were vilified, as were the founders of the Reformed Episcopal Church before them.

Christians always must assume that the ungodly will attack them if they can any way they can.

In the workplace Christian people are sometimes deprived of promotions, marginalized, and trivialized, or let go for their faith. .A priest I once knew used to say that no person was fully a Christian until he or she had been crucified by and to the world at least once. But as Paul says these things don’t matter much because “our sufficiency is in Christ.

In this world, said Christ you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. When the world crucifies you and does not destroy your faith it has no other weapons to use. Being crucified to the world is a sure sign of faith and one which we should bear with patience and steadfastness and a prayer for those who persecute us. Never the less, as scripture declares: we must obey God rather than men.

"Be of good cheer, Master Ridley play the man. We shall this day by God's grace light such a candle in England as shall never be put out."


 

"Latimer was known for his cheerfulness. On the 16th of October 1555 he and Ridley were led to the stake at Oxford. Never was man more free than Latimer from the taint of fanaticism or less dominated by "vain glory," but the motives which now inspired his courage not only placed him beyond the influence of fear, but enabled him to taste in dying an ineffable thrill of victorious achievement. Ridley he greeted with the words, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out." He "received the flame as it were embracing it. After he had stroked his face with his hands, and (as it were) bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeared) with very little pain"1
 
1The Life of Latimer