Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things? The Feast of the English & Welsh Martyrs 2017

Long-term readers of this blog will know of my profound admiration for the Carthusian Martyrs and many, but not all, of their contemporaries (see, for example, this blog post). They will also be familiar with my numerous reflections on the nature of martyrdom (see, for example, this blog post). When one is guilty of so many words, it comes as no suprise that some are offended, misunderstand or simply want to argue away the facts on which my opinions are based. The awkward fact is, there was a time when we murdered one another because of our beliefs — or rather, we believed our prospect of heaven or hell rested upon our believing rightly, so anyone who, in our view, did not believe rightly, or whose beliefs threatened the civil order, had to be forced to do the right thing; and if they refused, we had to try to save their souls even though it meant sacrificing their bodies. Or so we told ourselves. Augustine’s compelle intrare has had a long and bloody history in England, as elsewhere, and only someone wonderfully naive would discount the role of personal grudges, old grievances and sheer neighbourly nastiness. We comfort ourselves with the thought that we would not act like that nowadays and leave the brutal butchery of others to IS and similar groups we conveniently label ‘extremist’.

That leaves us with a problem, of course. Can we celebrate with a good conscience the martyrs of former times, or are we obliged to a kind of ecumenical wishy-washyness, which means we never actually admit that we do hold different beliefs in some matters and may even be prepared to die for them, albeit not as readily or bravely, perhaps, as our forebears, because we honour truth and know that it is important? For myself, the answer is clear. I pray daily for the unity of the Church, and have not the slightest hesitation in invoking the prayers of the martyrs of every generation for all the varieties of Christian there are today — Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, etc. The Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period tend to be, like the Carthusians, people I know and honour chiefly through the records they have left; those of the later period, the seventeenth century especially, are family and, as such, have a personal claim on me to remember them. It is an act of pietas to ask their prayers. To ignore them, or to play down their role and importance in my own religious history, is unthinkable. The ‘old, unhappy, far-off things/ and battles long ago’ still have power to move minds and hearts. Acknowledging their defects is one thing; to build on them is another, and brighter, prospect altogether.

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