Monday, 1 September 2014

Following the example of St. Thomas More

Sometime before noon on 6 October 1536 in Vilvoorde, Belgium  a deeply devout English born Christian and priest  was executed. Iron chains were fastened to the top of the stake; and a noose of rope passed through it at neck height. Kindling and faggots were piled up in a pyramid around the stake. The victim was brought from the castle, with a small retinue of guards and friars. After refusing a final opportunity to recant, he was securely bound to the stake, by his feet, and by the iron chains around his calves and chest; the noose was placed round his neck. He had then a brief period in which to pray. History records that he cried, with fervent zeal and loud voice: 'Lord, open the king of England's eyes.' The executioner, standing immediately behind the stake, tightened the noose at the appropriate signal. It had not been shown that Tyndale was a relapsed heretic, and he qualified for the mercy of being strangled in the moments before the fire was lit.  Then it appears that the executioner bungled his work,  that the prisoner was still alive as the flames engulfed him. The executioner added fuel to the fire until the body was utterly consumed. The ashes were then disposed of, probably by throwing them into the sullen waters of a nearby river, so that no trace of the individual remained to 'defile the earth'.

  Ironically, history records that the precise charges under which our victim was executed, and numerous others before him, were completely reversed less than a year after* he was burned at the stake.  His crime:  translating  the word of God into English. His name was William Tyndale. His genius for words, which apparently matched that of Shakespeare, was to change the literary, religious and political landscape forever.  But the young Gloucestershire tutor paid for his efforts with his life:  reviled, driven abroad and finally burned at the stake. 

 Today Christians around the world probably take for granted their favorite version of the Bible in the vernacular.   Wikipedia reminds us that  the Latin Vulgate was dominant in Western Christianity through the Middle Ages.  Only the educated clergy could understand Latin while the common people were completely under their domination. Hence the obvious threat it posed to the church.  Today the Bible has been translated into more than  500 languages, while another 3,000 languages have at least some portion of the Bible.  At the same time it should be noted that the Latin Vulgate was itself a translation  from the Greek and Hebrew.

  In the eyes of the Church Tyndale’s crime was considered a heresy.  Heresy had been declared to be ‘treason against God’ by Pope Innocent III in 1199, and regarded as the worst of all crimes.  The great medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas even declared that it separated man from God more than any other sin.  The Church imposed a double jeopardy on heretics.  The earthly poena sensus, the punishment of the senses, was achieved by the stake and the fire.  The poena damni proclaimed by the bishops on Tyndale damned him to absolute separation from God and to an eternity in hell.  The Church could not itself carry out a burning.  To do so would defy the principle under which the Church does not shed blood.  Pope Lucius III had bypassed this inconvenience in 1184 by decreeing that unrepentant heretics should be handed over to the secular authorities for sentence and execution.

  The story which led to the execution of William Tyndale is filled with intrigue and betrayal by the Roman Catholic Church ably represented at the time by Sir Thomas More.  The latter, not unlike Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, ruthlessly persecuted Tyndale with profound hatred and a zeal for blood. It is said that More’s obsession with Tyndale is to have unhinged him.  Lord Chancellor of England by day he devoted his night to penning half a million poisonous words attacking his great enemy which finally led to our victim's execution.

  According to Brian Moynahan in his  Book of Fire (2002) or God's Bestseller  “It may seem wrong, and perhaps it is wrong, that Thomas More should have been canonised in 1935 [,as a martyr of the schism that separated the Church of England from Rome]) and it is, at the very least, bizarre that he should have been further elevated in 2000 to become the patron saint of politicians.  Politicians persecute opponents readily enough without having More dangled in front of them as a role model.”

  It came as a complete surprise then that Cardinal Collins should recently urge Catholics ‘to follow the example of St. Thomas More and consider what More can teach us about religion’s role in civil society.’    Perhaps some Cardinals and other members of the Catholic hierarchy do not read secular histories and still adhere to reading only material dictated or approved by the Vatican.  However, in this age of instant electronic information/communication there is very little that escapes the spiritually hungry laity who should be extremely thankful to Tyndale and others that the Word of God  is now available in the vernacular to practically everyone.  Not to forget the Word of God placed upon their hearts,

  Finally, should we not all follow the one and only model Jesus Christ on which the Church supposedly built on to begin with? 

    For if God be on our side, what matter maketh it who be against us, be they bishops, cardinals, popes, or whatsoever names they will?    Quote from William Tyndale      

*   Even after English Bibles had been legalised and officially distributed, in 1543, social and sexual misgivings remained.  Noblemen and gentlemen were allowed to read the scriptures aloud in English to all in their households.  Noblewomen, and burghers, could 'read for themselves but for no one else any text in the Bible'  A statute was enacted to ban the reading of the English Bible absolutely to 'women, artisans, apprentices, and companions working for those of an equal or inferior rank to yeomen, farmers and manual labourers'.  - Brian Moynahan, Book of Fire. 

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