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Prayer Book & Persecution II   Leave a comment

 

When John Bunyan had been brought before the judge in 1660 he had been told that if he did not stop preaching he would be hung. He replied, ‘If I were out of prison today, I would preach again tomorrow, by the help of God’. He remained in prison for twelve years, during which time he wrote many books, including The Pigrim’s Progress, once to be found in almost every home in England. He had friends, even among the judiciary, like Sir Matthew Hale, who tried to get him out of prison and who also helped Richard Baxter, when he, too, found himself in prison after 1672.

The picture below shows Bunyan in the stained glass window which was installed in Bedford Free Church for the 300th anniversary of The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1978.

This was made into commemorative postcards, one of which found its way to Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury‘s  special envoy, who was held captive by ‘Hizbollah’ in the Lebanon in the 1980’s. It was sent by Joy Brodier, with the simple hand-written message ‘We remember, we shall not forget. We shall continue to pray for you and to work for all people who are detained around the world’.  When he was eventually freed, Terry Waite brought the postcard home with him and  showed it to the world’s press as Joy watched the scenes at the airport on television. She said,

“Like everyone else I was glued to the television, celebrating his release. Then he mentioned the card. I could hardly believe it. I knew we couldn’t put anything too explicit. We addressed it to the Party of God just to be flattering and hoped that it would get through.”

Terry Waite said that the message boosted his hopes more than anything else during the darkest days of his captivity, despite his envy of Bunyan’s apperently better conditions.

When he was in prison, Baxter wrote the following poem:

Must I be driven from my book

From house and goods and dearest friends?

My Lord hath taught me how to want

A place wherein to put my head.

No walls or bars can keep Thee out

None can confine a holy soul,

The streets of heaven it walks about

None can its liberty control.

In the period of  Bunyan and Baxter prisons were very crowded and unhealthy. In winter they were bitterly cold and damp, and in summer they were full of flies and rats, spreading disease. Baxter became ill and may have died had his friends not managed to get him released before his sentence was over. However, after his release, he could not return to his house in Acton, but had to spend the winter in lodgings near Barnet. He could not preach, but continued to write to help men settle their quarrels. He received letters from many ministers who had also lost their homes because of the Act of Uniformity. One wrote that his wife and children had lived ever since his ejectment on black rye-bread and water, and another that he had to spin all day and night to make a living.

James, Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and heir, was Roman Catholic and Charles was also secretly a Catholic. He wished to protect the Catholics. Left to himself, he would probably have allowed both Catholics and Non-conformists to worship in freedom, but Parliament wanted to uphold the Act of Uniformity. However, many magistrates understood the King’s sympathies and allowed preaching in private homes. In 1672 the King went further in issuing a ‘Declaration of Indulgence‘ which granted licenses for preaching to some non-conformist preachers, Baxter among them. He came back to London and settled in Bloomsbury, but Parliament soon forced Charles to put an end to the Declaration, and it wasn’t long before Baxter found himself in danger of being imprisoned once more. Despite feeling too ill to travel, three friends persuaded him to leave London for Hertfordshire, and he therefore avoided six months in a common prison, which probably would have killed him.

While at Rickmansworth he met the famous Quaker, William Penn, who later founded the American colony of Pennsylvania, based on principles of religious toleration. He and Baxter held a meeting in which they discussed and disputed in front of an audience, from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon, without a break. Penn, like other Quakers, such as James Nayler, had won fame as a soldier and had become a favourite at Court, but had long-since left the Army to uphold the Peace Testimony of the ‘Society of Friends‘, as they called themselves. Baxter and Penn respected each other, though they disagreed on many points, since they were both courageous men in constant danger of persecution. Here is a description of the persecution of the Quakers by Bishop Barnet, who wrote a history of his own times:

‘When they were seized, none of them would get out of the way. They all went together to prison; they stayed there till they were all dismissed, for they would not petition to be set at liberty, nor would they pay their fines…and as soon as they were let out, they went to their meeting-houses again; and when they found these were shut up by order, they would, they held their meetings in the streets, before the doors of those houses. They said they would not be ashamed of their meeting…but would do it the more publicly, because they were forbidden to do it.’

As a result, the authorities simply didn’t know what to do with the Quakers, who showed so little fear and so much firmness. They crammed them into prison, but they still held their meetings there. They told their jailers that ‘they might as well stop the sun from shining, or the tide from flowing whilst two of them were left together’.  The children showed the same courage as their parents. At Bristol, Reading and Cambridge, when all the men and women were in prison, the children continued the meetings. A letter to George Fox, dated November 15th, 1664, says that ‘our little children  kept up the meeting when we were all in prison‘, so that ‘the wicked justice, when he came and found them there, beat them with a staff he had with a spear in it’. In Bristol, the children were also savagely beaten, but ‘bore it patiently and cheerfully’ and ‘were unmoveable’.

After his disputation with William Penn, Baxter felt strengthened to return to London to preach to the many thousands who, after the Ejectment and the Fire, were still without churches and ministers. He decided to sell all his remaining possessions, including his books, so that he would have nothing for the authorities to seize. Losing his books was a great sacrifice, but he was determined to have some peace in order to continue preaching. Then, in 1678, national events took another turn for the worse…

Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday   1 comment

‘Shrove Tuesday’ can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women aged eighteen and over who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner is kissed by the verger and receives a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantagous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormondizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May. More on this next week….

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