The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.
Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.
Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?