Saint Agatha, Landport: Patronal Festival 10 February 2001
The noble army of martyrs praise thee
Our church in Lewisham is dedicated to Saint Stephen, Protomartyr; yours in Landport to St Agatha Martyr. So from the protťgťs of one saint and martyr to those of another, let me extend our greetings and grateful thanks for this opportunity to share in your Patronal festival. If you have nothing else to do on 26th of December I can assure you that you will receive an equally warm welcome in Lewisham to the one which you have given me this morning.
But itís not about Agatha or Stephen as individuals that we shall be thinking, but about the subject of martyrdom as a whole.
The word "martyr" literally means "a witness" and itís applied as you know to anyone who by their life and death has "witnessed" to their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Persecution and martyrdom have been enduring features of Christian history. Lest you might suppose that martyrdom is a thing of the distant past, a historian, K.T. Ware, says: "in the thirty years between 1918 and 1948 [itís possible that] more Christians died for their faith than in the first 300 years after the Crucifixion"; and, of course, persecution continues to this day: not just in Asia and Africa and the Middle East, but in the form of the even more relentless and systematic persecutions of one lot of Christians by another, headed up in many cases by none other than their own diocesan bishop.
You, as members of the Traditional Anglican Communion, and we, as members of Forward in Faith have both experienced such persecutions over the past few years, and they are gathering pace, particularly, though not exclusively in the United States of America.
It might seem obvious, therefore, that two such regiments of faithful Anglicans, you and we, fighting for a common cause, against a common foe, would have everything to gain and little to lose by standing shoulder-to-shoulder, defending the "faith once delivered to the saints", Stephen and Agatha among them, which has been entrusted to us for safeguarding.
But it doesnít happen, and natural curiosity, if nothing else, bids us to ask "Why not?" If, as Tertullian once said "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" than that seed is much too valuable to waste by throwing it around all over the place willy-nilly. Thatís not how good harvests are produced. Careful husbandry demands that seeds are sown in carefully ploughed furrows, running roughly parallel with one another, not so close that they donít have room to grow, but neither so far apart that their harvesting becomes a hopelessly tedious and inefficient task.
During the past twenty years my studies have focused on this particular problem. Why canít we work together better than we do? Itís a problem which faces us all: a problem for Continuers; and for others who, like myself, have not, as yet taken the step of formally joining your ranks. How can we successfully build up a rapport with each other?
Itís a grave mistake to see this continued estrangement as being the result of anyoneís fault. Of course mistakes have been made, often in good faith, by those on both sides of the divide. However, itís a hard fact of life that some situations in life by their very nature have a Catch-22 or no-win element built into them. In such a situation, the will of God is discovered not by searching endlessly and vainly for a "perfect" solution which satisfies in one go every possible moral, intellectual, theological and aesthetic criterion, but rather to find a course of action which best enables Godís faithful soldiers and servants, each in his own different regiment, to fight alongside each other, in company with Angels, Archangels and all the heavenly host (which includes of course our two patrons). Always remember that they are striving just as hard, if not harder, than we are!
We are seeking then, not the "best possible strategy" (which might have to wait till Kingdom-come before it emerged) but the "best strategy possible" in the present circumstances. To enable us to understand what this strategy is, and why, despite all our efforts, so much good seed gets blown all over the place, let us not take a closer look at the business of witness and martyrdom.
If youíve ever had to be a witness in a court of law, you will know just how difficult it is. Itís extraordinarily hard to remember accurately, and express succinctly what we have witnessed and know to be the truth, especially when it took place some months previous to our appearance in court where we may be under all sorts of pressure from a hostile counsel for the defence.
Consider the following example: Once, while walking down the street, we saw three men break the glass of the jewellerís shop; we saw that one of them had a sledge hammer and was wearing green trousers; that the second had a stocking-mask and was wearing a blue anorak; and that the third had a white cap and carried a sack over his shoulder. But three months later, at the actual trial, our confidence begins to evaporate. Are we quite certain about all the details. Were there really only three men, or was there, as another witness alleged, a fourth? Are we sure that the one in the anorak had a stocking mask or was it the one in the white cap?; and are we quite positive that it was a sack and not a supermarket shopping carrier-bag (Exhibit A) that he was carrying? "I put it to you, Father Gardom, says the counsel for the defence wearing a look of painful concern as if for our sanity, "I put it to you that you really donít remember at all clearly what you really saw."
The same can easily happen to anyone who bears witness to his faith in Jesus Christ. We think we know what we believe, and why; we think our faith is secure beyond question; we think we know why the particular beliefs we are defending are important; but all too often it happens to even the doughtiest "defender of the faith" that he finds himself defending something quite different. It may be a particular liturgical practice because "weíve always done things that way" (though the truth is it only dates back to the last vicar but one); we may try and defend some belief on the basis that "the Bible says", forgetting that the New Testament was written in Greek and our Lordís words were spoken originally in Aramaic, so what he intended is different from what Jacobean English might lead one to think.
In short, unless we really understand what weíre defending and why we shall find ourselves isolated in some indefensible outpost of Godís Empire, far removed from our comrades-at arms.
Thatís one problem about being a martyr. Now, hereís another:
If you or I have the courage of our convictions to "stand up and be counted" it places us, inevitably, at some distance from such of our fellow-men who have, for reasons which may be good or bad, decided not to make this move, or at any rate not for the time being.
But this "distancing", which always feels really painful at the start, becomes over the course of time something that we unconsciously grow into, in such a way that it not only ceases to be painful, but actually begins to feel quite comfortable.
As a result we become more and more critical of and hostile towards those who are hesitant about their decision; worse than that, we may start actually treasuring our separation as an end in itself. Whatís more natural than to want to preserve something which makes us feel so good? And how very natural that we, who have paid such a heavy price for our convictions should try to make as sure as we can that all those hesitant, Laodicaean hangers-on do not get inside our palisade without paying a price comparable with ours?
Of course, weíre quite right to beware of camp-followers and fellow-travellers who wait until the war is half-won before standing up to fight. One of the Apostles, you remember, turned out to be a traitor, and of some of his followers Jesus is recorded as saying "He who is not with me is against me"; but Jesus also said in another context "he that is not against us is on our side" In other words, even for our Lord himself, the business of distinguishing ultimately between friend and foe wasnít simply a matter of being able to tell black from white.
Speaking of "white", have you ever wondered what that word "noble" is doing in that verse of the Te Deum which I took as my text: the noble army of martyrs praise thee? Noble is a translation of the Latin word candidus which literally means "white" and from which we get our word "candidate".
It reminds us of course in the case of the martyrs like Stephen and Agatha of the white robes, washed in the blood of the Lamb, with which they are clothed. The word may also be an allusion to a particularly Roman regiment renowned for their bravery who were called the Whites because of their white uniforms, as we today have the Blues and the Buffs and the Greenjackets.
But the word is also the one which gives us the adjective "candid" which my dictionary says means "free from bias, impartial, favourably disposed, kindly, frank, ingenuous, sincere in what one says"
Thereís something very positive to learn from that, isnít there? If you and I and the constituencies to which we belong could become the Candid Regiment of Witnesses for Jesus, it would mean that we would not only learn more about him but more about each other as well.
We need to be unbiased in our judgements of each other, especially when it comes to our failings; we must be favourably disposed, which means seeking nothing but the best for what the other is trying to achieve; we must be frank and sincere when we criticize what we see to be each othersí mistakes; and we must be ingenuous, "letting our love be without dissimulation, always abounding in the work of the Lord."
Then we shall be a noble army indeed, worthy to take our place alongside our patrons Agatha and Stephen. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer let us pray that God willÖ. "give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions, [taking] away all hatred and prejudice and whatsoever else may hinder us from Godly union and concord: that as there is but one Body and one Spirit and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
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