October 16, 2007

Tested with Fire

a sermon for the feast of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, first delivered by Tobias Haller BSG at the Convent of Saint Helena at Vails Gate New York on October 16, 2004

The Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.+

It is never a pleasant thing to hear about Christians persecuting other Christians: How dissonant and jarring to hear of such behavior by disciples of Christ: followers of the one who gave himself as a ransom for the many, whose end was engineered in large part by those so sure in their religious certitude they were willing to see him done to death.

And church history ever since has been replete with such continued internecine struggles. Those with the power to do so have marginalized, exiled, persecuted — and at the most extreme, executed — those they saw as heretics or sinners, traitors to the cause of Christ, even though they too bore his name.

I will not dwell on recent events in the Anglican Communion — if we dare still call it either Anglican or a Communion — except to note that those who expect a final solution to all our disagreements with next week’s Windsor Report will, I think, be sadly disappointed. Those who see the Episcopal Church as a cancer to be surgically excised will be content with nothing less. Intolerance will not be satisfied with compromise now, as it never has been, by its very nature. And history shows us that the will so to impose one’s vision on others, leads inevitably to division or the scaffold.

Which is where it led the trio of churchmen we commemorate today. Now, none of these were tolerant men — they were as bound to the rightness of their views as were those who condemned them. Cranmer (though he wavered), Latimer and Ridley were no shrinking violets. They were as fierce in their opposition to the Papists when they were in the ascendency as were the Papists when Mary regained the throne.

Which only adds more sorrow to the tragedy. For whoever was right or wrong in their theology — and how many of the questions so hotly debated in those days, and capable of bringing one to the stake, are of much importance either in the light of history or of the Gospel? — surely it was the Church that suffered in this. This was no watering with the blood of martyrs, witnessing to the faith in and of Christ. No, this was theological intransigence armed with the power of the state.

And isn’t that why and how Christ himself died? As he told the disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” The tragedy is that “they” were true believers too. The pious and righteous religious leaders thought they had cause to bring Jesus to trial, but they were wrong — as religious leaders so often seem to be.

The lesson in all of this is that tolerance itself may be the ultimate touchstone of religious truth: and the willingness to persecute or kill others because their religious belief differs from one’s own may be the surest sign of error. For hatred is not the sign of God’s presence. Above all, to see and yet reject the signs of grace in those with whom one disagrees is to reject the source of that grace.

So what are we to do when we ourselves are faced with such opposition? As I said, in the events we commemorate today (perhaps as a timely reminder) hands were bloody on all sides. No amount of flame could cleanse the hands of either those who died or those who lived in those troubled times — all were partners in the dance of death. Those who selected the readings for this day no doubt would like to see the eventual survival of the Church in England over against Rome as a sign of divine favor — or at least a kind of felix culpa — that though the building was burnt (and in this case even the builders), still vindication came. Yet surely the eventual emergence of Anglicanism owes more to Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s succession and Hooker’s genius at comprehension than to Hugh, Nicholas and Thomas having been objectively right, or having witnessed boldly at the stake. In the long run weariness at bloodshed played a greater part in this eventual settlement than any who perished in the strife leading up to it would care to admit.

For ultimately, pace Saint Paul, it isn’t the building that matters, how well or from what it is built, but the foundation alone. And the foundation for any Christian’s building must be Christ. No building will survive — that is the truth. I don’t care how soundly we think we’ve built our fortress of security and truth, or what we’ve made it of — gold, stone or straw. It is not through our works that we will be justified. The gold melts, the straw burns, and the stone is smashed by the hammer. Any builders’ reward, when all buildings fall and burn, will not be based on having built, or how one built, or from what one built, but only where one built. As the poet said, “For none can guess its grace, till he become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes her dwelling.”

And the Holy Spirit, the love divine, beloved, does not build fortresses to start with, nor does she build on the shifting and unstable sand of human perceptions of truth. Love does not seek its own way, does not punish or exile or kill those who reject it. Love keeps on loving, loving and forgiving even when nailed to the cross. Love is the opposite of hate, hate which must not only have its own way, but demand its way of others, hating and destroying those who will not yield to its tyranny.

Love does not build fortresses for truth — which cannot contain the truth in any case, finite as they are in the light of the surpassing and infinite Truth of God. No, love builds accessibly and openly, long since knowing our disabilities and infirmities, love builds an open avenue for all to follow. And though the door be narrow when we reach it, yet all can enter as we graciously say to each other, “No, please, after you.”

I hope and trust that Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley find equal rest with Wolsey, Pole and More, that the Tudor half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth have made their peace — the peace which passes understanding — and that when the present fires of controversy are long past that threaten the tottering edifice of our Anglican Communion — which we would be most foolish to mistake for the kingdom of God — that the foundation, cleared and level, will be prepared for the new Jerusalem to be built, in which all of us will, not through our possession of the truth, but through the Truth’s possession of us, through the grace and love of God, be pleased to dwell forever.+


Anonymous said...

"The lesson in all of this is that tolerance itself may be the ultimate touchstone of religious truth: and the willingness to persecute or kill others because their religious belief differs from one’s own may be the surest sign of error. For hatred is not the sign of God’s presence."

But what do you mean by "tolerance"?

If you mean that no one should be physically punished--imprisoned, fined, killed--for departing from some orthodoxy, that's happily one of the few things that all mainstream Christians agree on, at least in the contemporary world.

But if by "tolerance" you mean that Christian groups ought not to define what they mean by orthodoxy and discipline those who depart from it, I think that a considerably dicier proposition.

While still an outlaw organization, the Church was deciding questions like whether becoming Jewish was a prerequisite to becoming Christian, whether apostates under persecution could repent and return to the community, whether the Jewish scriptures remained authoritative. It seems fairly obvious to me that there could be no real unity of faith in a church including Ebionite, gnostic, and Arian bishops.

By the same token I think the current controveries in the Episcopal Church require a resolution. If women can be bishops, how can the Church operate if some refuse to recognize their authority? Surely it isn't intolerance to insist that a Church's teaching be adhered to by its clergy.

So of course the burning of Ridley, Latimer and Cramner was a crime that cried out to heaven. But I wouldn't feel that, in the circumstances, it would have been wrong for Mary to have deposed them, as having departed from the faith of the Catholic Church. Nor would it have been "intolerant" of Elizabeth to refuse position to adherents of Rome, having reversed her half-sister and confirmed the break. I think you and I would agree or disagree with their positions, but agree that it is not "intolerant" for a communion to refuse positions as clergy to those who depart from the faith therein confessed.

I hope it's needless to add that to adjudge someone outside of one's faith isn't tantamount to "hatred." It is a fact that we believe differently from each other on a number of non-trivial items. As one rabbi put it, "In order to have interfaith dialogue, you first have to have faith."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think I meant what I said -- tolerance is the opposite of persecution, which at its extreme involves annihilation.

It is sad that all "mainstream Christians" don't agree on this -- depending on what you mean by "mainstream." A bill that was before the Nigerian legislature, supported by both the RC and Anglican church leaders, criminalized not only same-sex behavior but assembly to discuss it, or speaking in favor of it, and authorized a five-year prison term. This position was roundly condemned by various human rights agencies, as well as the U.S. State Department. I take it you recognize Nigeria to be part of the "contemporary" world?

Tolerance does not mean approval: that is why it is possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to sit together in various discussion groups -- without necessarily approving each other's positions. In the same way, it is perfectly possible for me to recognize you as a Christian even though you are part of a church structure separate from mine.

Whether it is possible to contain differences of opinion within a single church structure is another question -- short of deploying a doctrinal confession or a set of credenda, or instituting an inquisition. This has in the past been one of the capacities of Anglicanism -- not as having no doctrine, but as keeping the doctrinal limits minimal.

Women bishops are a case in point. We have, up until the election of our Primate, been able to accommodate within TEC those who opposed or did not recognized the ordination of women to any order at all. Provision is made in every diocese for women to have access to discernment of vocations, but no bishop is required to ordain a woman contrary to his beliefs. Various forms of alternative oversight have been provided for parishes in dioceses with women bishops; and our present Primate has offered a similar accommodation to dioceses that do not wish to be under her direct ministration. In the latter case, this has been rejected -- not becuase the dioceses in question have not been tolerated, but because they want to have absolutely nothing to do with our Primate even to the extent of dealing with a male bishop with whose assignment she has had anything to do. Clearly at this point we do reach a limit of what they will tolerate, and they are moving forward in a schismatic direction. But I think this is a result of their intolerance, not the church's.

I realize you come from a RC environment and mindset, and I know many RCs are bemused by the looseness of Anglicansim -- right on up to the pope! But there are RCs who seem to understand -- Sr Joan Chittister, for example, who applies the notion of Benedictinism (in which stability of the community is vowed, and in which expulsion from the community is a rare last resort) and which is at the roots of the Anglican foundation going back to Gregory the Great (an admirer of Benedict of Nursia) and Augustine of Canterbury. As you may recall, Gregory advised a kind of synthetic (if not syncretic) adaptation of other Christian (and even pagan) customs into the new life of the Church of England. So to some extent this kind of elasticity is in our ecclesiastical bloodstream.

Perhaps one of the great differences in modern Africa can be traced to the fact that Nigeria was evangelized by the Evangelical Church Missionary Society, while South Africa was evangelized by the High Church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Those who see the church's task as primarily about personal salvation will tend towards one side of the toleration spectrum; those who see the church as church, that is as a community in which all together come to know God, will tend towards the other end. This is now being played out in the life of the Anglican Communion.

cryptogram said...

I sit typing this on my lap-top looking out of my window on the place where Hooper was burned in 1555. He was in many ways a good bishop, but he had a degree of fanaticism about him, evidenced first in his joining the most severe of the orders, the Cistercians, and later in his polemics. Another touch of the special grace of Anglicanism is in our lack of fanaticism: we make a virtue of NOT claiming absolute possession of the whole truth, as others seem so ready to do. That is easy to say 450 years after the burnings, and it probably looked different then. But I hope we never sacrifice our liberality of mind and either give excuse for, or worse still perpetrate, further burnngs.