“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (Matt. 18:4).
There’s a plaintive quality to the liturgies that used to mark the commemoration of King Charles the Martyr in the Church of England: a religious and political observance introduced, with the restoration of the monarchy, after the overthrow of the Cromwellian regime. This reversal of course, in both church and state, brought back the order that had vanished with the execution of Charles I, over a decade before. A diminished band of elderly bishops was restored to their sees; exiled politicians were suddenly back in favor; impoverished priests and royal hangers-on were once again eligible for office.
But all was not jubilation. Those who had been most closely involved in the judicial murder of Charles were mostly allowed to flee the country in their turn, but not all; there were scores to settle and further blood to shed. There was the lasting trauma of the English Civil War, between supporters of the King and supporters of Parliament, now concluded but not forgotten. There were also fresh divisions, as hundreds of clergymen who would not use the Prayer Book lost their positions and were ejected from their pulpits.
The note of lament that’s present in these traditional liturgies, stems, I think, from this aspect of the commemoration. It was introduced as a fast day, not a feast day, recognizing at least implicitly that there was a need to mourn, a need to do penance. Not just for the murdered King, the son of the householder in our parable today; but for the nation as a whole in the aftermath of the interregnum. The liturgies of the Daily Office and the Holy Communion appointed for this day were much more like the liturgies of Ash Wednesday than they were to any other commemoration. The air of supplication and penitence, and of sober recollection, lingers in these liturgies.
“We thy sinful creatures here assembled before thee, do, in the behalf of all the people of this land, humbly confess, that they were the crying sins of this Nation, which brought down this heavy judgement upon us…”. Or this, “… grant, that neither the splendor of any thing that is great, nor the conceit of any thing that is good in us, may withdraw our eyes from ourselves as sinful dust and ashes…”. Or this, “… grant, that this our land may be freed from the vengeance of his righteous blood, and thy mercy glorified in the forgiveness of our sins…”. It’s bracing stuff, you’ll agree, suitable for national mourning.
I won’t hold the restoration Church of England up as a perfect example of anything, but a vindictive political culture could learn something here from these liturgies. In the face of trauma in national life, the instinct to go for the jugular of one’s political enemies is probably not the best. The place to be when there are times of testing is on one’s knees, begging God’s mercy. In its appointment of a day of fasting, and in its supplication for forgiveness, on this day, the framers of these liturgies got it right.
Today we commemorate the royal martyr, Charles Stuart, remembered after his death as a mainstay supporter of the Church of England. We join in the worship of God, not in the precise words of the 1662 liturgy, but in the same spirit of faith and penitence, and in grateful thanksgiving to God. We take stock at the present, in the midst of pandemic, which has more profoundly affected many places in the world, but not left us untouched. We too seek the mercy of God.
People fret about this feast because they are not sure of the example that Charles set. Was he really a martyr of Christ, or more truly a political martyr? Much polemical ink has been spilt over this in the past, and I have no desire to add to it. Best, perhaps, to put it to one side.
But we could say, with St. Augustine, that the saints are those who desire that, above all, God be praised. The martyrs in his day suffered for speaking the truth, and, as he says, “among all the truths they speak this is the most important: that Christ rose from the dead and first displayed the immortality of the resurrection in his own body, and promised that it would come to us at the beginning of the new age…” (De civ. Dei 23:10). God be praised, for this truth, and for all his gifts given to his saints, who point the way ahead for us into the kingdom which never ends.