Today, we remember the life and death of Charles I, king and martyr. For many of us, our association with Charles I is one in which we remember the sad saga of a fight between crown and parliament over the monarch’s role in the British constitution. Here in the “Roundhead” stronghold of Cambridge, it may seem peculiar to revive the old custom of commemorating this Royal Martyr.
For those unfamiliar with this episode of British history, I will summarise the story. In 1625, Charles I inherited the realms of his father, becoming king of the separate kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Along with the crowns of these nations, Charles inherited an expensive war with Spain which Parliament, against the wishes of the king, had demanded and then refused to adequately fund. The increasingly Puritan Parliament, suspicious of ecclesiastical figures who did not conform to their narrow view of Protestantism, quarrelled with the new king over his marriage, to a Roman Catholic princess of France, over his protection of traditional Anglican theologians and bishops, and over his seemingly lax enforcement of anti-Catholic laws. Finally, in an attempt to force through further anti-Roman and anti-traditional Anglican laws, the Puritan faction in Parliament went too far and prevented the legal ending of Parliament by physically holding the Speaker of the House in his chair until after they had passed their “progressive” laws through the House of Commons. Determined to punish those who had contravened Parliamentary custom and, through force, had ensured the passage of laws Charles found morally repugnant, the king dissolved Parliament and arrested those who had most egregiously transgressed the laws. As English law prevented the monarch from raising new taxes, the king had no choice but to make peace with Spain and France—against the wishes of the Puritan faction.
Charles is often accused of being “absolutist”—that is, he believed that the king was answerable to God, alone. He respected the legal rights of Parliament, as enshrined in the English Constitution, but ultimately believed that his “assent” could not be granted to laws that went against his conscience. Determined to further the Reformed Catholic cause in their European struggle against Roman tyranny, the king began reviving practices, enshrined in English law, which would allow him to continue to contribute to the embattled French Huguenots and the German protestants. But radical ideologues at home, determined to alter British ways of life to suit their social agendas, rose up in rebellion, first in Scotland and then in England, and finally in Ireland. I will skip over the events of the Civil War but, as is known, the radicals were better managed, better resourced, and seemed to be in the cultural ascendancy. They finally defeated the king’s armies, led him captive to London, and imprisoned him. At first they offered Charles a deal, give up your right to your own moral convictions and give up the episcopal structure of the Church of England, and we will spare your life. When the king refused to conform to group think, they did the unthinkable, they “cancelled him.” They put the king on trial, in contravention of the laws of England, Scotland, and Ireland and in contravention of both the Old and New Testaments. Ideological purity, it seems, trumped even the Puritans’ commitment to scripture.
Condemned to death by an illegal trial for his commitment to Catholic truth and his own conscience, Charles died as a martyr and, to quote his speech from the headsman’s block, he went ‘from a corruptible crown to an incorruptible one’.
While all of us can applaud Charles for his commitment to his conscience, even unto death, his commitment to Catholic truth is even more important. Our church is not a social club. It is not a man-made institution with custody over the doctrines to which it subscribes. It is not a reflexion of the beliefs of its members nor is it a reflexion of culture. This is the Catholic Church of Christ in England. Its founder and head is Christ, who has appointed bishops as His vice-regents over the affairs of the Church and given to them the cure of souls. In so far as our bishops keep the Faith and conform to the doctrines of Christ, we owe them obedience, as we owe that same obedience to Christ.
In a few moments, we will witness the delegation of the episcopal authority, used to reconcile our souls to Christ in the Eucharist. The challenges of the 21st– century man are not dissimilar to those which are universal afflictions of mankind. Our lives are predisposed towards inevitable separation, from God, from family, from friends, through sin and death. Episcopacy is God’s answer to that problem. In the episcopal structure, the individual is tied to the priest, who is tied to his bishop, who is tied to Christ. The glue which binds these people to each other and Christ is the Sacraments. This is why some call the Eucharist, Holy Communion; because, in the visible sign of the Sacrament we receive the Grace of God as a healing balm to our souls. When we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, our sinful bodies are made clean and we become one with Him and He with us. Similarly, at Baptism, our old and dead bodies are drowned and we rise again in His Body. We receive the gifts of the Spirit in Confirmation, which nurture us in the Christian life. We rely on the bishops, as overseers, and the priests under their leadership, to nurture our souls through instruction in the doctrines of Christ and through their ministry in Sacramental and Communal worship. Thus, under their tutelage, we may learn the Words of Eternal Life, repent of our sins, receive forgiveness from God, and be made whole. Through the holy mystery of the Eucharist, we may be made one; one with Him and one with each other through the sharing of One Bread.
When Charles refused to bow to the pressures of an extreme and radical attempt for man to seize from God control over their spiritual and temporal affairs, he was not merely asserting his conscience or his beliefs, he was standing for divine truth. It is not merciful to lie and escape injustice in this life so that others may find misery and justice in the next. The Christian message is one of mercy. That mercy is extended to us through reconciliation with God through the Atonement of Jesus as offered to us in the Sacraments of the Church.
Traditionally, this feast day was used to remind us of our obedience owed to God, His Church, and His appointed Sovereign of this land. In these times of strife, where we face radical ideologies which seek to overthrow our society, a Global Plague which has had disastrous consequences on the physical, mental, and spiritual health of many, and economic collapse, it is easy to succumb to ideological tribalism. It is easy to quickly identify perceived “bad guys” who threaten our existence, identity, or community. This was one of the temptations to which the Puritans succumbed. They saw enemies all around them, believed the world to be irretrievably damned, and sought to escape the world by eliminating perceived institutional threats. Charles, King and Martyr represents an alternative. His is an example of commitment to conscience which, without surrendering the claims of moral truths, sought to support the reconciliation of his subjects with the Divine Order, on God’s principles.
So what must we do? I would urge that we ought to of course be obedient to our Sovereign Lady, the heir to Charles’ earthly crown. I would similarly urge us to be reverent and obedient towards our bishops. Let us pray that they may be guided to rule us according to the dictates of God, that their consciences will be pricked to the fulfilment of their duty. Let us pray that we may be reconciled to God and each other in the Sacraments of God’s holy and apostolic church. Let us pray that we may be nourished by the Bread of Life, that we may be made one fold, united under One Shepherd. In the name of Christ, amen.