Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Trial of St. John Fisher

On June 17, 1535, John Fisher, former Bishop of Rochester (Henry VIII had stripped him of his title) left the Tower of London to be tried in Westminster Hall. The charge against him was that:

He falsely, maliciously, and traitorously wished, willed, and desired, and by craft imagined, invented, practised, and attempted to deprive the king of the dignity, title, and name of his royal estate, that is of his title and name of supreme head of the church of England, in the Tower, on 7th day of May last, when, contrary to his allegiance, he said and pronounced, in the presence of different true subjects, falsely, maliciously, and traitorously, these words: "The king our sovereign lord is not supreme head on earth of the church of England."

Rich, the Solicitor-General, was the main witness for the prosecution. He admitted to having played the part of an agent provocateur when he had visited the bishop in the Tower with the confidential message from the king, and he gave Fisher's denial of the Royal Supremacy in evidence against him despite the solemn promise given to him in the name of the king that this would not happen. The cardinal protested indignantly at Rich's treacherous conduct[.]

Of course, there was no real, just trial: the purpose of the gathering in Westminster Hall was to sentence to death the man Henry VIII had previously regarded as the holiest bishop in England. Although he argued that when he spoke to Richard Rich there was no malice or falsehood, Thomas Audley as Chancellor told him that any speaking against the King's position as Supreme Head of the Church of England was treason.

My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King's supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, Who is the searcher both of the king his Majesty's conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you plainly my mind, touching this matter of the king's supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that His Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God as he now taketh upon him; neither hath (it) been seen or heard of that any temporal prince before his days hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the king will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and harken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm and the quietness of all Christendom.

Speaking of "his Majesty's conscience", Bishop John Fisher had once given a sermon during Lent to Henry VIII's Court on "How to Kill Your Conscience in Seven [Easy] Steps":

Step One: The process starts with the individual facing the temptation of doing a sinful act: it seems to promise pleasure and satisfaction, but the individual knows that, objectively, it is a sin.
Step Two: The individual decides to commit the sin.
Step Three: He or she plans how to commit the sin.
Step Four: She commits the sin.
Step Five: She enjoys it so that much she commits the sin again and again with no regret or repentance.
Step Six: She faces a choice: repent and seek reconciliation from God and the Church or convince herself that the sinful acts are not sinful at all. She or he develops a habit of mortal sin and the will succumbs to the repetition of the habit; he ignores the voice of God in his conscience and the intellect decides that what he knew before was wrong is now right. He has killed his conscience, the voice of God. As Blessed John Henry Newman would say in the 19th century, he has adopted the right of self-will as his guide.
Step Seven: Now he wants others not only to accept his sin as being no sin at all, but also to partake of his sin as a good thing that leads to pleasure and satisfaction.

Thomas Audley, Henry VIII, and Richard Rich condemned a holy man to death on June 17, 1535. As Eamon Duffy commented on his spirituality and the modern misundertanding of by no less an authority as C.S. Lewis, we should study his works for their spiritual and moral insight:

St John Fisher's place in the history of English spirituality, like his place in the history of English humanism, is obscured by problems of definition. So austere a figure challenges expectations derived from the identification of the cause of the new learning (and the new piety) with Erasmus. Historians have therefore been tempted to describe his relation to the movements of the early sixteenth century in terms of contrast, rather than participation. Whether the polarities employed are those of ‘medieval’ as opposed to ‘Renaissance’, or ‘unreformed’ as opposed to ‘reformed’, the temptation is to opt for a single all-purpose descriptive category. C. S. Lewis, in what remains the most helpful brief account of Fisher as a religious writer, succumbs to temptation on both scores. Fisher, he claimed, ‘is almost a purely medieval writer, though scraps of what may be classified as humanistic learning appear in his work’, but ‘he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith: in him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking.’ For a mere historian to quarrel with Lewis about a matter of literature might seem as foolhardy as the attempt to anatomise the spirituality of a saint. Yet one may well feel that in Lewis's easy contrasts something has been omitted. It does not seem very useful to characterise any one figure as ‘representative’ of so complex a reality as late-medieval English religion.

A good place to start is his Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, which includes those notes on killing your conscience. May I suggest that Henry VIII misinterpreted Bishop Fisher's sermon as instruction instead of as warning?

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