Hallo again to all.
The weeks before and since Epiphanytide have been full of news of the exits of men.
It will be fresh intelligence to none of us that Rowan Williams—immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury, now Baron Williams of Oystermouth in Mumbles—resigned his archiepiscopal see effective the last day of last year. The once-embattled archbishop is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge; his successor Justin Welby has taken the requisite oaths and assumed office, although he will only be enthroned formally as archbishop on the feast of the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer.
A resignation from the Mons Vaticanus shocked a larger portion of the world last week. In joining il gran rifiuto Celestine V (for whom the current pope's admiration has been open for some time) as one of the very few Bishops of Rome ever to leave office voluntarily, Benedict XVI has modeled a kind of authority for which we have a self-surprising degree of admiration.* The choice to acknowledge infirmity and set responsibility aside is one often made too late or not at all, particularly in Christian traditions where the faithful seek wisdom from leaders with great longevity or extraordinary tenure.
The exit in which we have found the most material for personal interest, though, has been the ongoing series of revelations about the death of King Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard was just 32 when he suffered an ignominious death—which we now know included the barbarous mutilation of his corpse by angry soldiers—followed by hasty burial 'without pomp or solemn funeral'. Historian Philippa Langley's 'hunch' about the likely location of this interment has about it the stuff of wonder. Late last year, she and a team of archaeologists discovered the long-maligned king's body beneath what is now a car park in Leicester.**
We confess that we are not among the vast number of Plantagenet enthusiasts, whose aims seem often caught up with proving some kind of lucrative personal connection to the Angevins. (Indeed, we've never known a genealogist who could trace a lineage to Plantagenet times who failed to tell us so.) Yet this question has asked itself over and over in our minds since we learned of the discovery of the 'rudely stamp'd' young king: was he an Anglican?
It's a bigger question than these four short words portend, but on our answers to it quite a lot depends. It is undeniable that Richard's death in 1485 took place well before the excommunication of Henry VIII in 1538 or the even more definitive excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1588. Yet we know that he read the New Testament, and carefully, in English. We know that he opposed restriction of the still-new press. We know that some of his financial and judicial policies in a very brief reign look to modern minds rather like the top-down encouragement of common rights that would in the space of two generations earn the label 'protestant' when applied to religious practise.
We do not argue for the sanctity of Richard III (the large question mark over the fate of his Nephews in the Tower is still too big) any more than we would argue for our own. But we do make the argument for his identity and ours that he lived and died an English and Catholic Christian, and that the continuity between his religious life and ours is the same continuity between a garden before and after it has been rid of weeds.
Just this week, someone contacted us to ask 'when the Anglican Church started keeping Lent'. The answer is in our answer to the question about Richard III's religion. Bede and Wycliffe, Richard III and Henry VIII, William Wilberforce and Charlotte Yonge, Clement Marau and Rowan Williams, Henry Budd and Hilda of Whitby, Francis Russell Nixon and Jane Austen, Thomas Ken and Samuel Seabury, Elizabeth II and John William Colenso, Martin Frobisher and Mary Sumner, Brigid of Kildare and David of Wales and Margaret of Scotland and Bernard Mizeki and Richard Hooker—all are Anglicans, or none are Anglicans. Our tradition is as old as Christianity in England, and attempts to qualify this criterion with political, geographic, linguistic, and sartorial limitations have always failed.
This Lent, as our attention meets the beginning of the ministry of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the election of a new Bishop of Rome, and a decision about giving a proper religious burial to Richard III, we remind ourselves that even as we read the stage direction Exeunt omnes the stage itself remains the same on which each earlier acting saint has appeared. May we join them, early and often.
See you next week.
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