"I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and nonbelievers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience.Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at Westminster Hall in September 2010
“The fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever changing terms as new social conditions emerge.
“Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?”
Today is an uncomfortable feast (actually a memoria in Wales) for all of us from the Anglican tradition, wherever we find ourselves at the moment.
But any re-telling of the history of division and disunity is meant to be an uncomfortable experience, and one from which we can learn many lessons. So the observance of today's feast of Ss John Fisher and Thomas More by Anglo-Papalists has been neither inconsistent nor particularly ironic; it is a conscious act of rebellion: a gesture of defiance and a pointed criticism both of the history of the reformation itself and of the modern Church's all too bland acceptance of our disunity and schism. More positively, it was an unambiguous affirmation of the divine 'ownership' of the Church regardless of the worst the civil power may do to disfigure it.
As we know, the modern Common Worship calendar of the Church of England (and the modern calendars of many other Anglican provinces, too) essentially seeeks to evade the issues at stake by attempting to celebrate and validate those on both sides of the sixteenth century conflict; disturbingly, we then end up merely praising human conscience but not the divine truth which is meant to inform it. Relativism rules.
More and Fisher have many things to say to us both about the nature of conscience and the nature of the Church herself. Sadly, these are lessons we still seem to prefer not to learn. I have a sneaking suspicion that our preference for evasion and 'inclusion' (of which the modern Anglican calendars are just symptomatic) may prevent us from drawing the necessary present day conclusions about the on-going clash between religious freedom and the increasing tendency of the modern 'democratic' state (somewhat like its despotic Tudor predecessor) to try to impose the prevailing values of the culture upon all its citizens.
"...Yea, and though I should feel my fear even at point to overthrow me too, yet shall I remember how Saint Peter with a blast of a wind began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray Him to help. And then I trust He shall set His holy hand upon me, and in the stormy seas, hold me up from drowning. Yea, and if He suffer me to play Saint Peter further and to fall full to the ground and swear and forswear too, which our Lord for His tender passion keep me from, and let me lose if it is so befall and never win thereby. Yet after shall I trust that His goodness will cast upon me his tender piteous eye, as He did upon Saint Peter and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and abide the shame and the harm here of my own fault...."from a letter written by St Thomas More to his daughter, Margaret.
Two scenes from the film, A Man for All Seasons: