Dying to Be Protestant: Oxford Martyrs’ Day

On Oxford Martyrs Day it is worth asking: "What did Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer die for?" Answered simply, they died for the Protestant faith.

On October 16, 1555, Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, having been tried at the University Church of St. Mary and condemned for heresy, were tied to stakes and burned alive. On March 21, 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, primary author of the Book of Common Prayer and The Articles of Religion, also died at the stake.

 

During my lifetime the the United States has won one war, the first Gulf War. The others – Korea, Viet Nam, and the second Gulf War – resulted in loss or draw. I have come to think that our nation ought not to go to war unless our President can say to parents who have lost sons, wives who have lost husbands, and children who have lost fathers, “This is what your loved one died for, and it was worth it.”

Oxford Martyrs’ Day, October 16, 1555, Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, having been tried at the University Church of St. Mary and condemned for heresy, were tied to stakes and burned alive. On March 21, 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, primary author of the Book of Common Prayer and The Articles of Religion, also died at the stake. Cranmer’s faith stumbled after the deaths of Ridley and Latimer. He signed documents renouncing his Protestant faith, but on the day of his execution (Mary decided to make an example of him), when he was supposed to make a public recantation of his errors, he recanted his recantations, and said he had in those recantations affirmed what he did not in his heart believe.

Under King Henry VIII, the English church renounced the primacy of the Church of Rome and the authority of the Pope. Though the reforming of the Church of England was slow and little because of Henry’s hesitancy, freedom from Rome opened the possibilities for reform as Cranmer and other scholar-leaders came under the influence of the continental Reformation, in both Lutheran and Reformed manifestations. Upon Henry’s death his young son, “the Boy King” Edward VI, came to the throne. Edward sincerely believed the Protestant faith for himself and assented to and supported the reforms proposed by Cranmer and his allies. However, Edward’s life was cut short, and he died at age 16 in 1543.

Upon his death, an attempt was made to install his cousin Lady Jane Grey as Queen, but she was deposed and decapitatited, and (Bloody) Mary, a Roman Catholic, assumed the throne and tried to return the Church to its allegiance to Roman authority, doctrine, and practice. It was Mary who saw Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer, and about 200 others put to death.

On Oxford Martyrs Day I believe it is worth asking, “What did Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer die for?” Answered simply, they died for the Protestant faith. While the whole Protestant faith as set out in The (then 42, later 39) Articles of Religion was on trial in the persons of these Martyrs, two issues came to fore, Papal Supremacy and the Mass. The Martyrs stuck by The Articles on the matter of Rome:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation, so that whatsover is not read therein, nor may be proved therein, is not to be required in any man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith…(VI)

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith (XIX).

It is not lawful for the church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written…although the church be a witness and keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought to decree any thing against the same, so besides it ought not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation (XX).

General Councils…when gathered together…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. 

Cranmer represented the view of all three when in his recantation of his recantation he said, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” One can disagree, as do I, with Cranmer’s identification of the Pope with the Antichrist, yet fully agree with him in his rejection of the supremacy of Rome and the authority of the Pope.

With regard to the Mass, there were two related issues, if and how Christ is present and whether any propitiatory sacrifice is made in Holy Communion. Again the martyrs stuck with The Articles:

The sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them (XXV). 

The Supper of the Lord…is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. 

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of our Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The body of Christ is given taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. and the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped (XXVII).

The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of the Masses, in which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead. to have remission of pain and guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits (XXXI).

At his trial Ridley answered the charges against him. “I do not deny that in the sacrament, by spirit and grace, is the very body and blood of Christ. Every man receiving the bread or wine spiritually receives the body and blood of Christ. But I deny that the body and blood of Christ is in the sacrament the way you say it is…There is a change in the bread and wine, and yet the bread is still bread and wine is still wine..” Asked if Christ were sacrificed in the Mass, Latimer replied, “No. Christ made one perfect sacrifice. No one can offer Him up again. Neither can the priest offer Him for the sins of man, which He took away by offering Himself once for all upon the cross.”

The Oxford Martyrs Memorial, which was completed in 1843, bears this inscription:

To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI.

If the martyrs died in the mid-1500s, why was the Memorial built and dedicated 300 years later? The mid-1800s saw the rise of the Tractarian Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. In response ministers of the Church of England had the Monument erected to remind the Church of the content its Faith and price some paid to bear witness to and preserve it.

The question remains today: Was it worth it?

Celebrating Christmas Eve last year in another city, I was happy to find that there was a nearby Anglican parish where a service would be held. I went to the service with high expectations. The minister and I shared of history of having come to Anglicanism after being part of the Presbyterian Church in America. The parish’s Facebook description of itself, included these statements, “As a traditional Anglican parish we believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and that they contain all things necessary to salvation. We further affirm…the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England in their literal and grammatical sense…” The first thing that disturbed me was the smoke. But, then it became serious. The priest repeatedly genuflected before the consecrated elements (hosts) on the Table (altar), including the unused consecrated bread (host) placed in the “Tabernacle.” In distress I thought to myself, “The English martyrs burned so that we could do this?”

On November 4 I will have been an Anglican for a year. That was the date my Bishop received me as a Presbyter into the Reformed Episcopal Church. On this my first Oxford Martyrs’ Day, I bear witness that I believe the deaths of the Martyrs was worth. What they died confessing I do now confess. And for their witness I give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ. I am a Protestant Anglican. (Isn’t that a redudancy?)

Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Roanoke, Va.  This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.