Project Canterbury

The Case for Charles

Sermon by the Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright, D.Phil. (Oxon.)
St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary and Historiographer of the Episcopal Church.

Preached at the annual Solemn High Mass of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, 27 January 2002, in the Church of the Transfiguration, New York City. It was subsequently published in The Anglican 31:3 for July 2002. Also published in SKCM News, Winter 2002.

"Be ready always to give account to anyone who asks of you a reason for the hope that is within you, but do it with gentleness and reverence." I Peter 3:15.

The Commemoration in which we are engaged this morning is part of an international movement for the recovery of Anglican identity. King Charles the Martyr (d. 1649) was commemorated in the Prayer Book of the Church of England from 1662 to 1859, then he was dropped. He never quite made it to the first American Prayer Book of 1789-90 because of our country's need for distance from monarchy at that time. Whether or not the Queen's Printers had statutory authority to remove his name from the English Kalendar in 1859 when the State Services were terminated [I think they did not], he did finally re-enter an official English liturgical calendar in 1980 with the publication of the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England in that year. Of course he has also entered the calendars of some other Anglican churches throughout the world, such as Canada. But most remarkable of all is the fact in this 21st-century post-deconstructionism world of searches for identity, that Charles as "King and Martyr" has been clearly and explicitly retained in the new calendar of the very modern Common Worship volume of the Church of England, just published in the year 2000. Whatever the word "martyr" may mean, and there are various acceptable definitions, the modern-day Church of England clearly recognizes him as a "martyr." The Commemoration of King Charles the Martyr is on the rise, even in official circles, in liturgical calendars, in special services, in shrines and memorials, and in other ways. There is a growing realization that he is part of who we are as Anglicans, and even in the Episcopal Church, in addition to the long-standing witness of the Society of King Charles the Martyr and other groups, The Anglican Society, which I serve as President, has by official action of its Executive Committee resolved to work for the addition of his name to the calendar of the Episcopal Church.

Charles could have avoided martyrdom if he had agreed to give up his witness to the catholic faith and order that is an essential ingredient of classical Anglicanism, in particular if he had agreed to settle for a church without bishops. Never have I felt his prayers and intercessions, his patience and determination, more personally than in the last several years when I have represented the Episcopal Church in our dealings with the Lutherans over the Concordat of Agreement and then the Called to Common Mission. I daresay that not every one of you here will wish to embrace every detail of the way that historic ecumenical venture finally came out on paper­ I know that I still have one or two questions, and especially with the way that the Lutheran church seems to have unilaterally altered a few details of what was already agreed. But that is not my point here this morning. My point is that the team representing the Episcopal Church stood for episcopacy then as did Charles in his day, made its witness for the same Gospel to which the doctrines of apostolic succession and historic episcopate are generally understood to attest. Our witness to that substance, if not to every detail, was (after much suffering on both sides) eventually accepted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And in all of those meetings with the Lutherans, amidst all those piles of papers, I became increasingly conscious of the witness and prayers of Charles Stuart, King and Martyr: that what I was struggling to defend, in this very different, very American, post-monarchical world in which we live today, was in theological and doctrinal substance the same thing that he had given his life for. By the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886-88, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are committed to the historic episcopate, and by action of our General Convention we even hold that it is "essential to the reunion of the church." But the term itself, "historic episcopate," we must admit, is not one that Charles would have known, any more than many of us would be prepared to defend every aspect of monarchy that he believed was integral to episcopacy as he knew it. There has to be a substance of episcopacy that can be distinguished from the accidents and incidentals that have accrued to it over time and history, and only upon its "absolutely essential features," its "first principles," as William Reed Huntington the Quadrilateral's author said, must we take our stand. Indeed there is no secret that one of the major Lutheran misunderstandings of us had been their perception that when we speak of episcopacy we presume the entire British church-state establishment as it is known in England. But neither can we assume that the form in which we hold it in the Episcopal Church today is the only form of episcopacy that is consonant with the Gospel, when, after all, the majority of the world's Christians in churches having the historic episcopate insist that it must be restricted to celibates who are male. On the other hand, "The bishop must be the husband of one wife," we read clearly in I Timothy 3:14, but does that mean that no celibate can be a bishop, or that no-one divorced and re-married can be a bishop, or­in apparent contradiction of I Peter 2:25­that Jesus Christ was not a bishop because he was not the husband of one wife? Must the episcopacy, the truly historic episcopate, include the papal primacy, as even some Anglicans have argued? There is a Roman Catholic form of the historic episcopate, an Eastern Orthodox form, and now a Lutheran form of it in this country, which, again, is somewhat different from our own. Anglicanism today, Anglicanism in the time of King Charles I and Archbishop Laud, did not and does not have sole proprietary right to define the meaning of episcopacy.

From the time of the New Testament onwards, there has been room for much diversity of incidentals in different understandings of how episcopacy relates to the Gospel, but one thing is certain: Charles I, King of England and Scotland, gave his life for it on the 30th of January in 1649. For those of us who struggle to define it and defend it still today, for every true Anglican, he is in this sense our patron. In devotional language, we can be confident that we have his prayers on our behalf at the throne of Grace. He was ready, as Scripture says, to give account to anyone who asks a reason for the hope that was within him, with gentleness and reverence, and so must we. As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, we do not seek to unchurch or unchristianize those churches not yet standing in the historic episcopacy, but it is our conviction, displayed on pages 876-878 of our Prayer Book and endorsed by action of our General Convention, that the historic episcopacy, in its substance although not in incidentals, is essential to the reunion of the church. It too is part of the hope that is within us. It is a treasure that we seek to share, not one that we possess exclusively. The historic episcopacy is not the Gospel, but it is very closely tied to the witness and proclamation of the Gospel, as the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey was known to say.

Before I conclude, let us think back in history to the situation in England that Charles faced in the years immediately preceding his execution in 1649, as he was being spirited from place to place in varying degrees of confinement under guard. A civil war was under way, there was the Solemn League and Covenant, and the Westminster Assembly appointed by the Long Parliament had drawn up a very thin book published in 1645 and entitled A Directory for the Publique Worship of God, mostly containing exhortatory suggestions rather than set formularies, and certainly nothing like an Ordinal for the transmission of the threefold ministry. Printed at the very beginning of that little volume (of which I own a copy), was the ordinance of the Long Parliament passed on 3 January 1645, the very day that Archbishop Laud was condemned to die for treason. That ordinance, sad to say, was entitled "For the taking away of the Book of Common Prayer," and by it the book that had defined classical Anglicanism since 1549 was abolished and any use of it thereafter was made a penal offense. "The said Book of Common Prayer," it decreed, "shall not remain, or be from henceforth used, in any church, chappell, or place of public worship within the kingdom of England or dominion of Wales." This Directory declares that there are to be no festivals or holy days apart from the Lord's Day, and thus it contains no seasonal prayers or calendar of the church year at all. Even Christmas, for example, is no longer kept. Church buildings may continue to be used for public worship, but they possess no sanctity in themselves. Bowing or any other external adoration is forbidden. Even the text of the Lord's Prayer is not printed, and if used it is to be recited by the minister alone. Apart from the metrical psalms there is nothing for the people to say, not even the litany. At the burial of the dead there are to be no prayers or ceremonies of any sort, only silence. My friends, it was against those directions, which continued to be mandatory from 1645 until the Restoration on 29 May of 1660, that Charles resisted until his execution on 30 January 1649. It was one thing to hold, as Richard Hooker had emphasized for Anglicans, that anything could be said or done in worship so long as it was "not contrary to the Word of God" as interpreted by antiquity and reason, and quite another thing to demand, as did the Directory and most Puritans, that nothing could be said or done that was not explicitly required in Scripture. Against that directory and in that context, Charles Stuart gave his life as a martyr for classical Anglican identity, Anglican orders, Anglican spirituality, Anglican polity, Anglican mission ­ for the Anglican understanding of the Gospel's manifold implications. He died pointing to the Lord, to the Gospel, to the apostolic and catholic tradition that Anglicans have received and still try, in our own very different world, to proclaim. Charles stood ready, as the Scripture says, always to give account to anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is within. He did it with gentleness and reverence, and that cost him his life.

I have already observed that the Commemoration in which we are engaged this morning, in this 353rd anniversary of his martyrdom, is part of an international movement for the recovery of Anglican identity. The Caroline understanding of Church and Gospel that Charles Stuart was unwilling to give up, in obedience even unto death, has well been described by the historian Kenneth Hylson-Smith as "an example in faith and conduct of that Churchmanship which emphasizes catholicity: continuity with and descent from Christ and his Apostles; the central importance in the life of the Church of episcopacy; a deep concern that the worship of the Church should be of prime importance in the life of the Church, and should be conducted with reference and awe; a focus on the altar, in churches furnished and adorned in such a way as to enhance the beauty of holiness and stimulate worship; the centrality of the sacraments, and a doctrine of the Eucharist which stresses the presence of Christ, but which admits of neither the transubstantiation of Roman theology nor of the consubstantiation of Luther; and an affirmation of the English Church as part of the historic Church, joined still, in spite of outward division, by the one Catholic faith." Who would deny that these are many of the major emphases we stress in the Episcopal Church today as derived from our understanding of the Gospel? In affirming Charles's sacrificial self-commitment to classical catholic Christianity, the same that we have inherited in the Quadrilateral, we underscore the cost of discipleship, even unto death. In affirming the substance of what Charles stood for, we add clarity to the profile of Anglican identity even today. And such clarity is of central importance not only to our worship but also to our evangelism and mission. For good reason the Church of England has restored Charles Stuart, martyr, to its official calendar of saints, and so should we. So integral a part is he, to our own self-understanding of who we are and of what we offer, that we too may say, and should say: Holy Charles Stuart, King and Martyr, pray for us!

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