There are many faith traditions within Christianity that celebrate the memory of the saints who have gone before us. One of them revolves around the celebration of Halloween that will be upon us in a few weeks. Halloween actually is a word that combines (All) Hallows Evening (E’en), the day before All Saints Day, a day dedicated to the saints, martyrs and all other faithful departed Christians.
As I was contemplating the process that deals with who are saints and/or holy men and women in our churches, I was struck with the fact that, in the Episcopalian tradition, today is the day that we celebrate Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer as martyrs within our tradition. At the same time that I was contemplating their martyrdom, I realized that, since the Episcopal Church represents the Protestant tradition, that the Roman Catholic tradition would no more consider Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer as martyrs than any other heretic at the time.
The times were extremely difficult in England after the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward. Edward’s sister Mary had ascended to the throne and was insistent upon two things in particular, the first being that she would be the instrument by which England returned to union under the pope, after her father, Henry VIII, had placed himself as the supreme head of the English Church. The second was that she would marry the heir to the Spanish throne, further cementing them under the direction of the pope. Unfortunately for Mary, she failed to realize how much her own people would rebel against what they considered was making England a province under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Empire. Mary was ruthless in her conviction that burning “heretics” would be the most effective means of controlling those who had left the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. After re-establishing the heresy laws, Mary was instrumental in the trials and burnings of such men known as the Oxford martyrs. Hugh Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester and was known for his preaching for all people to live upright lives and be devout in their lives of prayer. Nicholas Ridley was a chaplain to Thomas Cranmer as well as King Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury and a great translator and writer of much of the Book of Common Prayer still used in the Episcopal Church. All three were tried for heresy and burned at the stake as a result. All are known to have faced their death with dignity and fortitude, and are celebrated on Oct. 16 every year as martyrs in the faith.
England would go through many transitions dealing with the faith of its citizens, moving back and forth between the Roman Catholic traditions, the Puritans and their influence and even Presbyterian influences. Eventually the form of worship remained somewhat consistent, however, and with a little delving into history, it is easy to see where all of the traditions have melded into one, albeit, not always without difficulty. During the time of Elizabeth I, this process became known as the via media, a middle ground in which all would be accepted from the varying traditions that influenced the Anglican Communion.
I constantly am humbled by the lives of the saints that came before us, and proud of their willingness to suffer for their faith, yet at the same time glad that we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, may worship and work with each other in many different traditions to proclaim the Gospel to all.
Bain White is the pastor St. Mark’s Episcopal Church/Lutheran Church of Grace.