Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Them That Be In Error

Sunday 8 May 2022
Easter 3
Revd Nicholas Mercer

As many of you may know, I went to St Andrews University

I spent four very enjoyable years in a wonderful medieval town and made many lifelong friends

One of my friends at University was ordained shortly after he left but, in his case, I lost touch with him for many years thereafter

However, quite by chance, and shortly after I was ordained, I was invited to Israel with the Council for Christians and Jews

It was an all-expenses paid tour for senior clergy [and me] and a wonderful once in a lifetime invitation

The chosen group all met for the first time at Heathrow day and, to my amazement, our paths crossed again

However, whilst I was now a curate, he was now a Canon at Westminster Abbey

We have kept in touch ever since

But a couple of years later, when I could not get into my Club, I contacted him to see if I could stay at Westminster Abbey – where the Canons have small apartments

There was no problem and, as result, we had a very pleasant evening reminiscing

During the evening, I asked him whether there were any parish churches he looked after as well as his duties in the Abbey

“Oh yes” he said, “I look after a parish across the road” – he then added “they still use the Catholic Missal”

With my lawyers hat on I pointed out that using the Catholic Missal was in breach of Canon Law

“Oh I know” said my colleague, “but if we said anything, they would just go over to Rome”

It was a peculiarly Anglican conversation

For those of you who don’t know, the Roman Missal is the liturgical book of the Roman Rite

Which contains the texts and rubrics for the celebration of Mass

But we split from the Roman Catholic Church nearly five hundred years ago

As an Anglican Bishop once remarked, Anglicanism has “an exceedingly chaotic system of truth”

This week we celebrated the “Feast Day of English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era”

On this feast day we remembered

“Christian men and women of holiness [who] suffered for their allegiance to what they believed to be the truth of the Gospel”

But this petition begs the question where is the truth to be found?

Peculiarly, I think that a clue to this question comes from our Reformation Saints and Martyrs and subsequent Reformation History

When I think of Reformation Saints two memorials come to mind

The first is in St Andrews where I started my studies

Down by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club is a large obelisk

Known as the Martyrs Memorial, it was erected in 1842 as a tribute to those who were killed during the Scottish Reformation

Scottish Protestants, such as Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were burnt at the stake for their adherence to Protestant teaching

Indeed, the initials PH for Patrick Hamilton are made out with cobble stones in North Street marking the exact point where he died

The second memorial which came to mind was another Martyrs Memorial

This time in St Giles Oxford where I did a Master’s degree many years later

The memorial is to Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer

And of whom were burned at the stake in 1555 for refusing to adopt Catholic teaching rather than promoting Protestantism

In this case they refused to profess belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation

The doctrine that the bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ –

Something we adhere to today at Bolton Priory

Both memorials bear powerful witness to those who witnessed to the faith during the Reformation

But interestingly both were erected in the 1840’s

This was not just by accident but a moment in Anglican Church History when there were competing truth claims about the Reformation

Was it a Protestant Reformation or just a reform of Catholicism? –

A complete break or simply “the resetting of a broken limb”?

The reason I have focussed on this issue today is two fold

First, as I have mentioned, because we have just celebrated the feast Day of English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation

But secondly, because I was strangely drawn to the Collect this week rather than the Bible readings

As we heard, the Collect requests that

“[all] them that be in error the light of thy truth… may return to the way of righteousness”

However, if the Church of England has “an exceedingly chaotic system of truth”?

What does it mean to “return to the way of righteousness”?

This is a question which has long vexed the Church of England

A former professor of Divinity at Durham University accused the Church of England of being an institution “without any specific or doctrinal standpoint”

Or, more bluntly “a tolerant institution with its doors ever open to the many vicars of Bray who shelter within its ample structure”

Ouch – I feel the sharpness of his criticism

But I would turn the issue round on this professor and ask instead “What is truth?”

The 1938 Doctrine Commission stated that the Church of England is

“Heir to the Reformation as well as the heirs of the Catholic tradition…held together in in a single fellowship of worship and witness”

This “complementarity”, as it is called, leads to the understanding of what has been termed a “greater truth”

A truth beyond our factionalism and an acknowledgement that this is something that can only happen in time

Indeed, the truth will probably only be fully known when we see God face to face

And so on this Sunday when we petition God for those in error to “return to the way of righteousness”

May we do so, in humility, acknowledging our limitations and failings

But giving thanks, at the same time, for the space to explore God’s truth and the ability to tolerate those who do not always agree

Those who disagree may not go “over to Rome” but, if we are too dictatorial, “we might lose them forever”