This week I write upon returning from a nine day trip with friends to England, where much of my visit centered on an examination the English Reformation. I was fortunate to be exposed to the lessons of history through two groups, Christian Heritage Cambridge and its spinoff, Christian Heritage London. These groups focus on reminding Britons and their guests of the influence of Christianity on Western civilization and inspiring and equipping Christians to demonstrate the reasonableness and transforming power of their faith. Since my wife and I worship in an Anglican Church here in the States, I was particularly interested to learn more about the history of our "mother church," the Church of England. What I found was an incredibly rich history that testifies to the breadth and depth of Christian influence upon the British Isles and upon western civilization as a whole.
We spent most of our time exploring Cambridge, Oxford and London, where Christianity’s influence and impact is abundantly evident. Cambridge and Oxford are homes to centers of learning with names like Jesus College, Christ's College, Emmanuel College, Magdalene College, All Souls College, and Corpus Christi College. These colleges were inspired by the Christian notion that since the universe was created by a rational being, it would be worthwhile to investigate the principles underlying its order. Sir Isaac Newton’s life and career is a testament to the power of this belief. A devout but unorthodox Christian, Newton studied at Trinity College in Cambridge and became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. A renowned physicist and mathematician, he formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation and put to rest the mistaken notion that the earth was the center of the universe.
Then there are the churches and cathedrals that dominate the landscape. The most prominent of those houses of worship is St. Paul's Cathedral, the architectural masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, which sits atop London’s highest point, Ludgate Hill. It was designed to glorify God and to draw the gaze of worshippers to the Transcendent. St. Paul's is to London as St. Peter's Basilica is to Rome. Recognizing its central importance in English History, Hitler sought, and failed, to bomb it into powder during World War II. In so doing, he only reinforced the will of Britons to resist the Nazi menace.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was a visit to Ridley Hall, a seminary of The Church of England in Cambridge, where we enjoyed lectures by author and social commentator, Dr. Os Guiness and commentary by Professor Greg Jesson, Director of the Center for Ethics and Public Life at Luther College in Iowa. Guiness and Jesson discussed with the students how pastors can be more effective in communicating the Gospel in a postmodern world that has largely rejected Christianity.
Sadly, despite its rich Christian heritage, England and its flagship universities have embraced the reigning culture of secularism and with it its handmaidens, materialism and consumerism. If you doubt that, all you need to do spend some time in the Mayfair District in London, which is populated with Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and other high end automobile dealers. Or stop into Holland and Holland gunmakers and cradle a shotgun that sells for $1.5 million dollars. Or if your tastes run slightly less expensive, spend a little time in Harrods or perhaps Selfridges, which contains a sculpture of a couple of hippos humping in the shoe department and which runs footage on its animated store calendar of a fashion show for gays, lesbians, and transgendered folk. Suffice it to say that England has come a long way from the Christian heritage that made it the center of the Western world and produced world leaders like Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher.
As I flew out of Heathrow Airport en route for home, I could not help but reflect on the story of Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, Englishmen who were martyred together for their Christian faith. Dr. Ridley, a Cambridge grad, is the person for whom Ridley Hall is named and was a leader of the English Reformation. In better days, Ridley served as a chaplain to King Henry VIII and as Bishop of London. He was a leader of the Church of England and participated in the compilation of The Book of Common Prayer. Latimer had matriculated at the University of Cambridge at age 14 and served as the Bishop of Worcester. Both were deemed to be enemies of Rome when they refused to recant of their Protestant faith. Consequently, when the Catholic queen, Mary, ascended to the throne, Ridley and Latimer found themselves sentenced to die a heretic’s death. "Bloody Mary" was determined to discourage others in the realm from embracing the Protestant heresy by making an example of the pair.
Because being burned at the stake is a horrific way to die, Ridley's brother tied a bag of gunpowder around each of their necks to hasten their demise. The gunpowder necklaces didn't work, but nonetheless Ridley and Latimer showed great courage. John Fox, in his famous Book of Martyrs describes the scene:
"A lighted fagot was now laid at Dr. Ridley's feet, which caused Mr. Latimer to say: 'Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God's grace, light up such a candle in England as I trust will never be put out. When Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him, he cried with a wonderful loud voice, 'Lord, Lord receive my spirit.' Master Latimer, crying as vehemently on the other side, 'O Father of heaven, receive my soul!' received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stoked his face with his hands, and as it were, bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth with very little pain or none."
Ridley was not so fortunate. He died much more slowly. It took him 2 1/2 hours before he succumbed to the flames. The green wood used for the fire initially burned only his lower body and he was heard to cry over and over, "Lord have mercy, I cannot burn. Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn."
Sadly, the story of Ridley and Latimer was repeated over and over as Bloody Mary ordered the executions of hundreds of Protestants. In doing so, she only reinforced the resolve of the Protestant movement in England, proving the truth of Turtullian's observation that "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
Fortunately, in the intervening time persecutions of Christians in England abated and relations between Protestants and Catholics have improved dramatically. Religious tolerance in England and the West is the norm, although there is increasing tension between the secular movement and the dwindling Christian community. Still, however, there is no persecution in the West akin to that of Mary's time. As I flew back over the Atlantic, I could not help but wonder if this lack of trial accounts for the flaccid nature of the faith that characterizes much of Christianity, including my own. Are there Ridley's and Latimers in the established church who would undergo such persecution for their faith? How many Christians today would be willing to die in the name of Jesus Christ? One name outside the West immediately comes to mind. Sudanese wife and mother Meriam Yehya Ibrahim has been sentenced to death by a Muslim court for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and for marrying a Christian man. The severity of her sentence has prompted an international outcry, and illustrates the persecution still endured by many Christians around the world for whom the terrifying spectre of Bloody Mary is still alive and well, only clothed in the garb of radical Islamic clerics and murderous jihadis.
But for Christians lucky enough to live in the free West, we have in large part become complacent and apathetic. Our embrace of relativism and our addiction to material things, coupled with our self-obsession, has dulled our sense of the Transcendent and diminished our faith. We take our freedom and our God for granted. What will it take to rekindle the vision of Christian martyrs past? Would even the rise of a modern day Bloody Mary be enough to shake us from our stupor, or have we reached that fatal point where perpetual diversion and comfort are more important to us than truth? If this is the case, then the Christian heritage preserved in the cathedrals, monuments, and universities of England and Europe may be all that will endure of Christianity in the West.