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May 24

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What to believe

On the evening before Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake, he ate a meal of fish and had threepence worth of wine. He was also billed for a haircut, the wood used to burn him and the chains required to hold him. Interestingly, he was not billed for the stake because the stake used to burn the two Protestant martyers, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, had survived the flames and could be used again.

The C16th gaoler had a neat hand and recorded the details carefully. I held the original document in my hands as I did a letter from Anne Boleyn written not long before she was beheaded by her husband, Henry VIII. There was also a charming letter written by Edward VI. It was written entirely in Latin which was not a bad effort by a boy aged eleven years. There were other gems of original correspondence, but the best of the them was the original draft of the Thirty Nine Articles.

This priceless document resided in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The draft had been carefully edited by Elizabeth 1. I felt this to be quite something. I doubt there would be many royals up to the task of editing the most defining document to shape the doctrine of the Church of England. It was a very necessary document for there had been some confusion about what doctrine to follow. The burnings at the stake were the result of a battle as to whether England would be ruled by Roman Catholic doctrine or by Calvanist doctrine. Just what should the church in England believe? What should be central to its faith?

Things started to get a touch hazy as to what Christians should believe in England after the excommunication of Henry VIII in 1553. If you got this sort of thing wrong, you could end up being chained to a stake. Thomas Cranmer wrote his opinion on the subject in 1552. His Forty Two Articles were crafted during the reign of Edward VI. Unfortunately for Cranmer, Edward died shortly after and was succeeded by Queen Mary I. The new queen was a Catholic and didn’t much care for Cranmer’s protestant leanings, hence his appointment with the stake.

However, things changed when Queen Mary died and the Elizabeth became Queen. Elizabeth I re-established the separation of the English Church from Rome, and appointed Matthew Parker, whose library I was standing in, to become Archbishop of Canterbury. It was during this time the Thirty Nine Articles were written, and these articles of faith have given the Anglican church its character and purpose ever since.

I was handling the document that birthed the Church of England, that proclaimed what it would believe. These beliefs were to form the basis of the 1662 Prayer Book, which has been in constant use by Anglicans ever since.

With my head full of what I had been able to see, read and hold, I returned to my flat in Cambridge to wonder at the confusion Britian must have felt about what to believe during the C16th. Then I began to realise there is probably a similar confusion today. Should we ordain women? Should we allow homosexuals to be priests? Do we believe words in the Bible to be the literal truth? Do certain expressions of Christianity have legitimacy?

It boils down to what is taken as the proper authority in these matters. Of course, the answer is ‘God’. However, who decides what God has said. Does God speak through prayer and spiritual meditation? Yes. Does God speak through His Holy Spirit and through nature? Yes. Does God speak through the Bible? Yes. Does God speak through prophets and priests? Yes. Does God speak through King’s and Queens? Hmmm.

In this post-modern world, we have tended to make God’s of ourselves. Our views are elevated to a status equal and even superior to that of priests and Gods. Today, we are invited to invent our own faith and to determine our own doctrine. However, to do so without the sort of scholarship and prayerful research undertaken by those that crafted the thirty Nine Articles is dangerous. We need to be guided by scholars who were prepared to die for their beliefs. We need to be guided by the scriptures, and we need to be guided by the lessons of the past that suggest that as soon as man takes a higher profile than he should on spiritual matters, terrible things can happen. People can get burnt.

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