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Valentine: Martyred for Marriage   Leave a comment

Seascape Valentine, date unknown

Seascape Valentine, date unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always look forward to Valentine’s Day. Not just because it’s the first cause for celebration in the New Year, but also because it’s often been a momentous day in my life. In 1980 I led a demonstration of international students outside the Welsh Office, receiving a police caution for doing so inside, after meeting with the Under-Secretary of State. Apparently, we needed permission to walk on the pavements in the civic centre in Cardiff, and the hearty and good-humoured chanting of ‘occupy the Welsh Office’ which I had nevertheless tried (unsuccessfully) to hush had reached the ears of the chief constable at the South Wales Police HQ nearby. Like many of his predecessors, he was not amused by our protest! Ever since, I’ve had to declare this long-spent caution on every application form I’ve filled in! Ten years later, on February 14th, 1990, I left my home in Coventry to begin my working and married life in Kecskemét, its twin town in Hungary, to which I returned this year after fifteen years in the UK and France. For me, Valentine’s Day is not just about erotic love between partners, but also the willingness to express ‘philos’, love between brothers and sisters which is the heart of civic life, and, of course, the love of God, ‘agape’ in Greek and ‘caritas’ in Latin, giving us the word ‘charity’. ‘Duw Cariad yw’ (‘God is Love’) was painted among the Welsh language slogans when I arrived in Upper Bangor in 1975.

It’s difficult to determine who Valentine was, but he was probably a Bishop in the early church in the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had issued an edict that soldiers should not marry, since domesticity reduced their fighting potential, but Valentine performed weddings in secret. When he was caught, arrested and imprisoned, he fell in love with the gaoler’s daughter, leaving a note for her when he was led out to his death, signed ‘Your Valentine’. The day became very popular in England after the Restoration of the Monarchy. In 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

This morning comes in W Bowyer who was my wife’s Valentine, she having held her hands over her eyes all the morning that she might not see the painters who were gilding the chimney.

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although Mrs Pepys took Mr Bowyer for her Valentine that year, the previous year the first man she met, who therefore, according to tradition, became her Valentine, was Sir W Batten, who sent her ‘half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters’. These were very popular gifts and were always accompanied by sweet words on a pretty card on which a pair of ‘gloves’ could indicate a pair of ‘loves’. These early Valentine cards were all hand-made until the development of colour printing and the expansion of the Post Office made sure that two hundred thousand more letters were received on Valentine’s Day than on any other day. The Penny Post in 1840 and the Halfpenny Post in 1870 led to the employment of three to four hundred workers on February 13th. In the early twentieth century the Christmas card became more popular, but the Valentine’s card made a comeback with the growth of specialist greeting card shops later in the century. It would be pleasant to think that this commercial imperative is not the only motivation for the revival of the custom, but is accompanied by a heart-felt longing for the romantic element so essential in human relationships, so well exemplified in the saint’s simple little private note, ‘Your Valentine’ before his very public sacrifice and martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Empire for the sanctity of Christian marriage.

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: "We...

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: “Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no”? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favourite hymns is ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’, and we sang this at our pre-nuptual Meeting for Worship in the Quaker Meeting House in Bournville, Birmingham, on 6th January 1990. Since the ‘real business’ of our legal wedding was to take place in Kecskemét on 17th March, our ‘Meeting’ was for celebration and blessing, including everyone from my Humanist family and friends through to my Quaker ‘Friends’ and colleagues to Hungarian Calvinists, Irish Presbyterians, Welsh Congregationalists, Coventry Baptists, Brummie Anglicans and Catholics. It contained very diverse forms of worship, including silence, hymn-singing, organ-playing, readings from D H Lawrence, prayers and blessings; a really positive celebration of all forms of love, human and divine. It had to be carefully planned and negotiated, however, to make sure that, while inclusive of all beliefs and none, it excluded any formal registration of the marriage on behalf of the state. All those present were left in no doubt that there was to be a clear separation between religious blessing and legal wedding. And yet it was clearly a public act of celebration for two public servants, teachers, from Coventry and Kecskemét, for whom civic and personal relations were inseparable. It seems to me that this is where there has been both a lack of legal clarity and a failure of human charity in the recent debate about marriage in the UK.

St Valentine's Day card, embossed and printed ...

St Valentine’s Day card, embossed and printed in colour, with silk panel and printed message “My Dearest Miss, I send thee a kiss”, addressed to Miss Jenny Lane Lowe, or Love of Crostwight Hall, Smallburgh, Norfolk, and inscribed on the reverse “Good Morrow Valentine” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the one hand, Christianity should not need the official support of civic society to worship and celebrate anything in human relations. On the other hand, Humanists, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Atheists, can and should surely make clear their solemn commitment to public service by acts of reflection and affirmation, as an appropriate way to approach to nurturing relationships of whatever kind. That is not to say that every relationship has to be given the same status in law. Marriage, as well as providing a proper context for erotic love and companionship, is also concerned with the civic duty of bringing up children. That’s why those who don’t want this role should have the freedom to enter into a civil partnership, regardless of their sexual orientation. As Christians, we cannot separate our family lives from our public duties. We approach both with sense of vocation. We don’t do our jobs simply to get paid, nor do we get married and have children simply for our own personal gratification and satisfaction. It is our form of ministry, just as in government this is indicated at the highest level by the use of the word ‘Minister’. Public administration and Christian ministry have always been two sides of the same coin in British life. MPs have been paid a salary for less than a century. Before that it was seen as a voluntary service, but one which excluded people who had to work full-time for a living. Therefore a change had to be made in order to ensure that all could have equal access to that ministry, not to do away with their different backgrounds and roles in society.

When I worked for Devon County Council in Hungary in the mid-nineties, the role of councillors in Britain as essentially charitable in nature, was a difficult concept for their professional, salaried, counterparts to understand. So, it is entirely appropriate that public meetings in Britain begin with an ‘act of prayer and affirmation’, unlike in Hungary and France, where, for historic reasons, there has been a strict separation in law and practice between Church and State. Religious ‘Liberty’ and ‘Toleration’ in Britain is upheld by a carefully ‘engineered’ compromise between the churches and the state. For this reason, the exemption given to the Church of England and the Church in Wales from the requirement to register same-sex marriages is paradoxical. Whilst the Queen in Parliament has the right to grant this exemption to the national churches, the ‘non-conformist’ churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, now have no protection from the requirement under European Law, if not the Law of England and Wales. The Toleration Act of 1689, guaranteeing freedom of worship, has been undermined by the passing of a flawed bill which allows Quakers to marry couples according to their conscience in a Meeting for Worship, but does not give equality of rights to local ‘dissenting’ congregations, ministers and bishops, to appoint and conduct acts of worship (which is what church weddings are)  in accordance with the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ, as interpreted through their consciences. No doubt, the aggressive atheists would be pleased to see the division this has created within the Danish Lutheran Church happen in the UK, thus picking apart the carefully woven cloth of five centuries. Already there is pressure on the German government to follow ‘the British Example’.

It is said that Charles Wesley got his idea for his hymn from a popular song of the day, ‘The Song of Venus’, which comes from John Dryden’s play, King Arthur, set to the music of Henry Purcell:

Fairest isle, all isles excelling,

Seat of pleasure and of loves,

Venus here will choose her dwelling, 

And forsake the Cyprian groves

John Wesley changed the second line of his brother’s fourth verse from ‘Pure and spotless let us be’ to avoid suggesting that Christians could achieve a sinless perfection in this world and indicate that sanctification, like justification, stems from the reception of God’s universal grace, which perfects us only when we take our place in heaven, ‘lost’ in the Love of God. Until then we remain both saints and sinners. However, through His ‘loving spirit’ in the here and now, our hearts are ‘set…at liberty’ and we are called to ‘pray and praise….without ceasing’ and to glory in His ‘perfect love’. Nowadays, the hymn is sung to two great Welsh Hymn tunes, ‘Hyfrydol’, by Rowland Hugh Pritchard (1811-57), a loom-tender’s assistant in a Holywell mill, and Blaenwern by William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937), to which my Welsh friends also sang ‘Calon Lán’, the Welsh hymn which equates a happy heart with a clean, honest one, ‘whiter than the whitest lily’. If Dryden’s words remind us of the ‘excellence’ of our own island, the other two hymns remind us of our own human imperfections and our need for the help of a more divine love in our service and ministry to others. An acceptance that some of us ‘do do God’ in public life and that we feel the need to witness to this, is based on an understanding that Christians accept their own shortcomings, not that they occupy the moral high ground. If more ‘politicians’ adopted this more modest attitude, rather than an arrogant belief, stemming from aggressive atheistic attitudes, in their own superiority and invincibility, they might recover some of their standing in the public eye and help us recover a position of moral excellence and leadership as an island of tolerance and liberty, a model of multiculturalism and integration. Equality cannot be imposed from above, it needs to grow from below, in all its diversity. The traditional, organic, worms-eye view of society is also the most radical one.

Thankfully, in Europe at least, our faith is no longer tested through persecution, and we no longer need to win over an Empire, but the example of Valentine witnesses to our need to keep ourselves as clean as possible from the demands of warrior states and to reflect divine love in the love between humans, whether fraternal or erotic.

 

The first secularists: Puritans, Separatists and Baptists   1 comment

January 2015 Preface:

I first published this blogpost in April 2012, but have decided to re-publish it because of the number of times I have heard ‘secularism’ as a term misused over the last few days, mainly in response to the tragic events in Paris. ‘Experts’ have been called in to talk about ‘lycité’, and have pointed out that although there is a strict separation of state and church in France, the Catholic church still has a special status in terms of state funding, recognition in ceremonial events and the celebration of ‘holidays’ – not just Christmas and Easter, but also ‘Toussaint’ (‘All Saints’ – a two week school holiday) and ‘Shrovetide’ (‘La Jour des chandleurs!), among others. If France were truly a secular country, they have pointed out, equal preference in funding, ceremonial and celebrations would be given to the main protestant church and to Judaism and Islam. Eid would be made a national holiday, along with Pesach and Hannukah. Plus, there would be equal treatment in the display of religious symbols and dress. The other mistake which people make is to equate ‘secularism’ as practiced and/or advocated in Britain with ‘lycité’ in France. In the first place, secularism in Britain is much older. When Louis XIV got fed up with the Huguenots, he simply expelled them, and many of them settled in Britain, which had been briefly ‘secular’ under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, since there was no established church and each parish could choose the form of protestantism it wanted. By the end of the seventeenth century, although the Church of England had been re-established, there was broad toleration of those who wanted to worship outside it, i.e. who wanted to be separate from the state in matters of religion. The French state broke with the Catholic Church in the Revolution and Reign of Terror, even instigating a purely secular calendar, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century most of the links were restored, though other churches and faiths were ‘tolerated’. In Britain, ‘secularism’ refers to the complete separation of church and state, or ‘disestablishment’ (which happened in Wales a century ago), but Scotland still has a ‘national’ church which has a special relationship with the state and, of course, the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. However, the passing of the ‘Equal Marriage’ Act in 2013 has created a definition of marital status which is at odds with the definition of marriage in canon law and scripture, and this anomaly is already leading to some ‘nonconformist’ churches voluntarily giving up their right to marry couples on behalf of the state. So, in all but ceremonial life, the whole of Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) is a secular state, and there is little difference with France in overall status in reality if not in theory. Secularism therefore is not the equivalent of atheism, and both are multi-cultural liberal democracies in which subjects/ citizens have the rights and responsibilities of freedom of speech and worship.

An Unholy Muddle:

Britain is in a constitutional muddle over Church Schools, House of Lords reform and ‘Gay Marriage’. This muddle is the result of a series of compromises between church and state dating back to the sixteenth century, which have left the state at the centre of religious life in Britain, in the shape of the established Church of England and its supreme governor, HM the Queen, and, by the same token (over on the other side of the coin!) the ‘Church’ at the centre of political life, or at least very close to it, in the shape of the Bishops in the House of Lords. Marriage law is being fought over in a way it can’t be in other ‘Christian’ European countries where there is a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, and a clear separation between church and state. In Hungary, most couples who want to get married in church, a pub, the woods, or wherever, still have to ‘tie the knot’ in front of a civil registrar at some point. In Britain, there is only one ceremony, either in church, or in the registry office, which is both civil and religious. All the original religious words can be left out, but it’s still, effectively, a religious service. But it is secular, just as the church service is. That is, the couple chooses where to have the marriage witnessed, not the church or the state, and that’s an important principle which our forefathers, and foremothers, fought for. We may consider ourselves to be ‘British citizens’ but, in reality, we are ‘subjects’ of the Queen, and while we are free to worship in whatever way we want, or not at all, the English (at least) are still subject to the church, the Church of England, that is, which the Queen was charged with ‘defending’ when she took the coronation oath nearly sixty years ago now. Therefore, the government minister is clearly wrong. The Church does, quite clearly, own the ‘patent’ on marriage, though it now shares this with the state. This situation results from the ultimate failure of the first secularists to achieve a society in which they could worship freely, without interference from the state. These people were the ‘Baptists’, ‘Independents’ and ‘Congregationalists’, later joined by ‘Quakers’ and still later by ‘Methodists’ who formed the ‘free churches’ outside the Church of England.

The first Puritans:

The Elizabethan puritans wanted to reform the church from within, to make it more like Jean Calvin‘s church in Geneva, as part of a ‘Corpus Christianum’, a Christian state. They simply wanted to purify the national church from all the ceremonial remnants, vestiges and vestments of Roman Catholicism. They also questioned whether there was any biblical basis for the authority of bishops over the Church. Some wanted to replace them with a system of elders and synods, with stricter discipline. This became known as Presbyterianism. Elizabeth I resisted these changes and James I hated Presbyterians, threatening to ‘harry them out of the land.’ While many compromised uneasily within the state Church, others eventually left of their own accord, like the Pilgrim Fathers. However, a small group of separatists grew up alongside the main puritan group. They had formed their own independent congregation at Norwich in 1581, withdrawing completely from the Church, which they believed to be so polluted it could not be cleansed from within. The government of their chapel was based on a ‘covenant’, marking the beginning of the ‘Congregationalist’ movement. They were persecuted by the authorities and driven abroad to the Netherlands. The Dutch were tolerant of religious nonconformity, and allowed the English independents refugee status and freedom of worship. It was from Leiden that one of these groups emigrated to New England, via Plymouth, in 1621. Other groups returned to England, led by Thomas Helwys, who, in 1612, founded the first openly ‘Baptist’ church in London, four hundred years ago this week.

The first English Baptists:

Helwys’ group formed the first General or Arminian Baptist Congregation in England at Spitalfields in 1612. Arminianism was a rejection of Calvinist ideas of predestination and ‘God’s Elect’, and the belief that God’s grace is available to all. They practised believers’ baptism as a sign of this.  By 1638, there were also Calvinists in London who practised believers’ baptism, and these became known as ‘Particular Baptists‘. They had grown out of the first independent congregations in the capital, and their understanding of the church as a gathered community led to them professing that only the baptism of believers fitted such a view. Helwys’ group had been much influenced by the Dutch Mennonites, but both the General and Particular Baptist churches developed out of a conscientious search for the true pattern of the ‘apostolic church’ of the New Testament and the first century.

Church, State and New Model Army:

These youthful Baptist churches were soon at the centre of the debate about the relationship between church and  state, or, as they put it then, ‘the magistrate’.  They sought guidance from the scriptures about proper Christian obedience. At the same time, the Presbyterians within the Church of England were growing in strength and becoming more vocal in their opposition to Charles I’s reactionary changes in church worship. They also found their political voice in Parliament, Charles’ dissolution of which and his attempts to impose his new Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Scots, led ultimately to Civil War between the Monarchy and Parliament. Many of the officers in the New Model Army which won the war under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell were drawn from Independent and Baptist congregations, as were the professional, often radical, rank and file. Since it was the ‘New Model’ which effectively won the War for Parliament, their views had to be taken into account in the shaping of church and state without the King and ‘Supreme Governor.’

Grace Abounding:

John Bunyan (1628-88) was one of these poor ‘russet-coated’ soldiers who became a member of an independent congregation in Bedford in 1651. Despairing over his spiritual state for several years, he eventually received assurance of  God’s ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,‘ the title of his first book.  Under Cromwell’s Protectorate the established church continued, but its pulpits were filled with Baptist, Independent and Presbyterian ministers, alongside Protestant Anglicans. Those who still wished to worship separately were allowed to do so, provided they did not disturb the peace. The majority of Baptist ministers continued to serve independent congregations, which achieved the peak of numerical strength and national influence during the Commonwealth period, though even then their strength was being reduced by a drift to more radical ‘sects’ like the Quakers and ‘Fifth Monarchists’, like Vavasour Powell, who openly opposed Cromwell’s rule. Baptist congregations were more ‘quietist’ in manner, claiming their local independence as congregations, free from state interference through the established church.  This did not mean that they thought the local congregation had complete competence to decide in religious matters. That was to be discerned from the reading and preaching of God’s word by ministers ordained in the apostolic succession, in association with the church meeting, its ‘deacons’ and with other churches in each ‘region’. These ‘regional associations’ led to the setting up of a ‘General Assembly’, providing for mutual assistance between the churches. Through this, they also continued to discuss ‘the place of the magistrate’.

By the time of the Restoration of Charles II (1660) there were roughly 300 General and Particular Baptist Churches. The Broadmead Records for Bristol at this time, give graphic accounts of the price of dissent in the years between the Act of Uniformity of 1662 and the Act of Toleration in 1689. Bunyan’s preaching in Bedford soon led to his imprisonment after the Restoration, and he spent much of the next twelve years under lock and key. Following a further spell behind bars in 1676, he wrote his epic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which ‘Christian’ overcomes many hazards, fleeing the ‘City of Destruction’ and the ‘Slough of Despond’ to the foot of the cross, before finally reaching ‘the shining city’. Bunyan’s language is a happy mixture of homespun phrases and echoes of the English Bible. His beliefs come straight from the pages of the Bible, shaped by his own fiercely Independent position, and his book soon became a perennial classic, second in popularity only to the ‘King James’ Bible, and the only other book in many village cottages and humble town dwellings for the next 150 years or more.

Evangelicals and Empire:

Even after Toleration, many Baptist Congregations stuck tenaciously to their local autonomy, and it wasn’t until 1792 that the need to establish a Missionary Society, pioneered by William Carey, also led to the development of denominational organisation.  Carey’s many-sided work in India included Bible translation and production, evangelism, church-planting, education and medical relief, as well as social reform, linguistic and horticultural research. The message of his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation gave British evangelicals a world-wide vision, and revived the churches at home. Of course, all this was achieved before the British Empire and its establishment Anglicans jealously took over the work of ‘civilising’ the Indians, eventually leading to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 and the establishment of ‘the Raj’.

Dissent, Definition and Division:

So, British life and culture owes much to these early secularists, who achieved so much in the face of prejudice and persecution. Their ‘Dissent’ was creative, not simply iconoclastic. The atheistic secularists four hundred years later might do well to examine their consciences before they cause further division and destruction to the shared, independent values of the majority of British people, even if these people are largely unaware of the origins of those values.

All of these people should think very hard before they allow the state to interfere again in their right to worship according to their conscience. We may only be, in Quaker terms, witnesses to a marriage ceremony, but even for Quakers, this takes place in a ‘Meeting for Worship’ and in a place of worship. The state cannot insist that churches marry couples against their consciences, which is where the proposed legislation redefining marriage will undoubtedly lead. It is not a question of equality, but it is one of liberty.

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