Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 31 January 2016
Sermon preached by Father Julian Browning
Yesterday was the Feast of Charles King and Martyr. For those of you who are not familiar with this Feast, and those of you persuaded into thinking that this Feast is the preserve only of tweedy young Royalists and other misfits, drawn from congregations such as this one, January 30th was the day when King Charles I was executed on a black draped scaffold in Whitehall.
On 30th January 1649 King Charles’s tormentors kept him waiting over the lunch break. They had to pass a Bill making it illegal to proclaim King Charles II. So the King had to wait in Whitehall from about half past ten to nearly two o’clock, making conversation with William Juxon, the Bishop of London. The King had spent days in prayer, preparing for the inevitable. “I fear not death. It is not terrible to me. I bless my God I am prepared.” He said he died a martyr of the people; he certainly died a martyr of the Church, the seventeenth century Anglican Church, one of the spiritual ancestors of the Oxford Movement and this church. For over two hundred years he was included in the Kalendar of Saints in the Book of Common Prayer.
Does the trial and execution of King Charles I add anything to our religion? The King said, as he handed his badge of St. George from the Order of the Garter to Bishop Juxon on the scaffold, “Remember.” What is it that we need to remember? There is much I could say on this, but I think we’ll stay on the lower slopes today, and consider just one subject, torment, the torment of body and soul through which many have to pass in this life.
There were two trials for the King. There was the trial in Westminster Hall, with all those uncouth soldiers clumping about, and there was the trial of faith. Here was a man who had the spiritual resources, gained through years of prayer and devotion, to see it through without blaming God. Charles, of all unsuitable people, the fastidious connoisseur, the devoted Anglican, the champion of episcopal order, Charles is confronted by a God who is somehow at work in the collapse of royal order, even in his own judicial murder. When the king was moved from Windsor to Whitehall in January 1649, he remarked only that “God is everywhere alike in wisdom, power and goodness”. Charles saw his fate as God’s judgement for his betrayal of the Earl of Strafford, the one time he abandoned his principles.
But there was another torment the King had to suffer. He was dehumanised by his enemies, made out to be “that man of blood” who had infected the kingdom. The popular literature was full of violence against this unfortunate man, full of hate and blame, creating the scapegoat for all the ills contaminating the nation. In Charles’s last moments he saw to his horror a symbol of this contempt, for near the execution block which was only eight inches from the scaffold floor, were bolted two iron rings so that the monster could be restrained if he lashed out, an act of which the fastidious Charles, resigned to the judicial procedure, was not capable.
I’m going to bring us with a jolt back to the present day and ask you to remember those pictures we have all seen of the executions in the Islamic State. And we can revisit the near past, for this week also saw Holocaust Memorial Day. Dehumanising, extreme violence, are designed to preserve unity among the tormentors, by creating scapegoats for all that they fear and hate. The innocence or guilt of the tormented ones no longer matters one way or the other, as was shown in the terrorist massacres in Paris.
How did King Charles face this torment, why did he not buckle in the end under the weight of these personal attacks? Somehow or other he held to the belief that he was God’s servant and was engaged in God’s work, whatever men might say, and that this relationship with God is what mattered in the end, not the hateful circumstances in which he found himself, partly through his own fault. He said he died a martyr of the people, and in his eyes he was giving his life, not having it taken away. Now I would not dream of vouching for Charles’s character or behaviour, any more than I would vouch for my own. He had many faults. For those trying to fight a war for him, his indecisiveness was maddening. But character is not the point. God does not choose wonderful virtuous people as his martyrs; they could be anybody, they could be us, they are those Christians slaughtered in Syria. The test can come at any time, maybe not physical martyrdom for us, but a test nonetheless which need not break us but rather moves us closer to the likeness of Christ. King Charles did not die cursing his enemies and so he denied them their victory; this strange man, who moved through his days like clockwork, who loved his paintings and the ordered routine of the court, faced chaos and violence at his end with Christian acceptance and understanding, believing above all that there was a future in which all would be well under God’s providence. As the Royal Martyr said, as he took off his cloak before kneeling down for the last time, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance at all.”