The prophet Isaiah reminds us that you should never forget “the rock from which you are hewn.”
And in the Book of Deuteronomy we are told to “remember the days of old; consider the generations long ago; ask your father to recount it, and your elders to tell you the tale.”
Knowing who we are and knowing our personal and family story is one of the reasons why the New Testament contains a detailed genealogy through which Jesus traces all his forbearers.
Knowing who you are and cherishing your community’s and your family’s narrative is an essential part of everyone’s make–up. Knowing who you are gives self knowledge, security and confidence; the absence of this knowledge sows seeds of insecurity and instability.
The Oracle at Delphi offered the wise advice to the Lydian King Croesus, “Know thyself and you will know how to live.” The deep desire to know the rock from which we were hewn undoubtedly explains why television programmes such as “Who do you think you are?” and genealogy sites are so popular.
The importance of knowing your story – who you are – the rock from which you are hewn – is not a new urge or a need identified by modern psychiatry.
Central of the Jewish community’s celebration of Pesach, or Passover, is a 3,300 year-old ritual which involves a child questioning an adult about the Jewish story – the Haggadah. It is a story which Jews say begins with the bread of affliction and ends with the wine of freedom.
It is a loving act of remembering and through more than a hundred generations of Jews have handed on their story to their children.
The word Haggadah means “to relate, to tell, to expound.” But it also means “to bind, to join to connect”.
The old story binds one generation to the next; connecting past with future; and joining people of the present with their community throughout the world and throughout time; and above all, the telling of the story honours the presence of God in the affairs of mankind.
Being deprived of your story is a most serious deprivation.
Self evidently, there are many forms of material deprivation, and this is a tough time to be young and leaving school.
My generation used to agonise over the prospect of a nuclear war; this generation agonises over the lack of economic security, especially the lack of jobs.
But, in many respects, a far worse deprivation is the loss of identity experienced by so many young people today. I think of the 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers. All too frequently there is no longer a father or an elder to tell the tale of their family or to explain their community’s history to the rising generation.
Consider also the effect on children who will deliberately be denied knowledge of their biological origins.
I strongly opposed the last Government’s decision to allow any two people to be listed as the parents of a child on the child’s official birth certificate. This was a classic example of how, instead of placing a child’s interests first, we treat them like accessories.
Biologically these men and women are not the child’s parents and the State has no business collaborating in a lie. Straightforwardly, this deceit is simply identity theft.
As if all of this were not bad enough, consider the gravest deprivation of all – the loss of religious identity and the loss of faith.
This, too, as I will argue tonight, is also a consequence of a combination of the breakdown of strong family and community life along with the deliberate actions of the State.
There is nowhere better to make the case for knowing the story of our faith – and recalling the price which has been paid for our right to practice and to share our faith and the things which we believe about the dignity of the human person made in God’s image– than Tyburn.
From the crucifixion of Christ Himself, to the stoning to death of Stephen; from the execution of Peter, Paul and the early disciples, to the deaths of maybe as many as 100,000 people at the hands of emperors such as Nero and Diocletian; to the executions of Penal times and the mass murders of the bloodied twentieth century – when more people lost their lives for their faith than in all the previous centuries combined – we have a precious narrative entrusted to us and which must be passed to those who follow.
This is sanctified, holy ground: As T.S.Eliot wrote of the murder of St.Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Wherever a saint has dwelt,
Wherever a Martyr has given his blood for Christ,
There is holy ground,
And the sanctity shall not depart from it.”
And, on this ground, just yards from where we are gathered, between 1535 until 1681, 105 Catholic men and women gave their lives for their faith – a sacrifice which paved the way for the religious freedoms and liberties which we enjoy today, and which, too often, we take for granted.
I do not believe in theocracy and would go to the scaffold myself for the principle that a man must be free not to believe in God. Paradoxically, the new ideology of angry atheism would, however, deny to believers the right to pray in a public place; to preach openly what they believe; or even the right to wear a necklace bearing a cross.
In Britain the principle challenge to Christianity is a combination of this Dawkins/Hitchens school of angry atheism and the more insidious threat of the sheer indifference of those who don’t know what it is they have rejected; who don’t know their story.
The late Christopher Hitchens, author of “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” claimed that religion is “the main source of hatred in the world”. Dawkins asserts that the crimes committed by Stalin and Hitler were not attributable to their atheism but because they were able to manipulate people’s religious sentiments.
Alexis de Tocqueville better understood human impulse and the nature of evil when he argued with passion that religion is central for the upholding of freedom itself. All who love liberty should “hasten to call religion to their aid, for they must know that the reign of freedom cannot be established without that of mores, not mores founded without beliefs.”
Be clear, when we fail to reappropriate and tell the story of those who gave their lives that we might be free to believe; when we fail to locate the Tyburn story in today’s continuing worldwide struggle for religious freedom, we create freedom without mores – and whether it is in the culture of the City of London or the new rampant materialism of China, freedom without mores has disastrous consequences.
Suppression of religious belief simultaneously dishonours memory and in robbing our children of their own story we rob them of their identity.
Sharmi Chakrabarti, the admirable Director of Liberty, put the same thought into the domestic context when she said that “The Christian’s right to wear a cross must be defended as fiercely as any other religious liberty….the struggle for religious freedom has been strongly connected with the struggle for democracy itself.”
And Amnesty International is right when it asserts that: right
“The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental component of the universal and indivisible human rights framework that applies to all people everywhere, as laid out in international law.”
“Restrictions on religious freedoms, as well as other freedoms including social, cultural and linguistic freedoms, can often lead to other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience or even death”
We must be clear about that struggle and the interconnectedness of history with the present day, and the interconnectedness of the banning of a person’s right to wear a cross with the most vicious forms of discrimination and persecution. The Tyburn story is a story has great application in our own times.
The first recorded execution at Tyburn occurred in 1196 when William Fitz Osbern – a populist leader of London’s poor – was seized at the church of St Mary le Bow and was dragged naked behind a horse and hanged.
Four hundred years later the public execution of Catholics began. The first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation – St John Houghton and his four companions – were executed together at Tyburn on 4 May 1535. In June, John Fisher and in July, Thomas More, would be executed outside the Tower of London.
Two years later, the focus shifted back to Tyburn when, in 1537 Nicholas Tempest, one of the northern leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace – the king’s own Bow bearer of the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, close to where I live – was hanged on the orders of Henry VIII, whose death did not signal the end of Catholic persecution.
In 1571, during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the Tyburn Tree was erected – allowing three condemned people to be hanged at once.
Among them were the 105 Catholic men and women Tyburn martyrs. They included Edmund Campion (1581), Robert Southwell (1595), Anne Line (1601), John Southworth (1654); and the last of the martyrs, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland, Oliver Plunkett (1681).
Tyburn’s is a poignant and disturbing story of immense cruelty and barbarism; it is a story of a perverted legal system; and it reminds us to what intolerance, the crushing of conscience, and what Thomas More described as the breaking of “the unity of life” inexorably leads.
The story of Tyburn is not a story calling for revenge or to be used for the stoking of old hatreds but it is an instructive story which the elders fail to tell their children at their peril.
As Edmund Campion stood on the Tyburn scaffold, he famously prayed that the day would come when he and those who were sending him to his death would meet in heaven:
“I recommend your case, and mine, to Almighty God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.”
Our faith teaches us to forgive but until we meet in heaven we are not commanded to forget.
The Tyburn story must never be forgotten because the moment a nation slips into collective amnesia it risks repeating the old mistakes. Never again happens all over again.
Tyburn’s is an instructive and inspiring story which must be told because of the courage, heroism and virtue which it represents. It must be told because of the high price which was paid. We all know that when a faith is worth dying for, it is worth living for.
I am always struck by the effect which the gruesome spectacle of Tyburn and the bravery of the Catholic martyrs had on their compatriots.
Even as Campion was being racked and interrogated at the Tower, Philip Howard, 20th Earl of Arundel, was observing Campion’s ordeal and being strengthened in his own faith – and which would lead, in turn, to his death in the Tower.
As Campion stood on the scaffold facing his executioner his blood splattered onto the young Henry Walpole, a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Walpole was sufficiently inspired to give up his law practice, to become a Catholic, a Jesuit, and in 1595, like Campion, to be hanged drawn and quartered – in his case at York. What price faith?
In its wider historical context the Tyburn story calls to mind questions of justice: the continuing use today in many jurisdictions of the death penalty; the case for restorative justice; and temptation to incarcerate or execute opponents rather than address the reasons for their dissent.
And beyond the sacrifice, what are the links between the Tyburn tree and events around the world today?
In 2011 speaking in Westminster Hall, where More, Campion and others were tried, Pope Benedict XVI said that “the difficult dilemma which faced More in those difficult times was the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.”
Benedict said that it had ultimately come down to a question of conscience for the man who asserted he was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Remaining faithful to conscience and faith are not theoretical issues if you live in one of the 16 countries listed last month by the United States Commission on International religious Freedom. In each of these countries people of different faiths – from Baha’is to Sufi Muslims – are being persecuted for their beliefs. Uniquely, the only group to be persecuted in each and every one of the 16 countries is Christians.
In the 16 countries of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, North Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, China, North Korea, Burma, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Vietnam some of the most egregious examples of violations of human rights and religious liberties occur. But they are no means alone. The Pugh Foundation says that 70% of the world’s 6.8 billion people face moderate to severe religious persecution. Religious freedom in many countries is a vanishing right and minority faith communities are disappearing with that right. Closer to home, two Scottish midwives were recently told by the courts that they had no right to refuse to take part in the ending of a life of an unborn child though abortion. What price faith? What price conscience?
Article 18 of the 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights insisted that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Today, Article 18, the right to religious freedom, thought and conscience, is honoured in its breach rather than in its observance. And these violations occur with barely a passing murmur of protest or coverage in our media.
Within the last week 21 Christians were killed and 22 wounded in attacks during worship services at a church and university in Northern Nigeria. The north-south conflict is reminiscent of Sudan – when 2 million, mainly Christian people, were killed, Christian pastors have been beheaded by Boko Haram who openly say their interim goal is “to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country.”
And now, in Sudan, a new genocidal campaign against Christians has been launched in the Nuba Mountains and South Kordofan by Khartoum’s Sharia regime.
The ancient churches in the Middle East have been under unprecedented and relentless escalating attack. I’m often struck by the story of the Palestinian Christian who would reply to the ill-informed question from westerners, “When did your family become Christians?” “About 2,000 years ago”. Pope Benedict has said: “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence”.
The European Union of Human Rights Organisations says that more than 100,000 Coptic Christians have left Egypt during nine months last year. This quotation is from its director:
“Copts are not emigrating voluntarily; they are coerced into that by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime”
The hoped for changes anticipated in the Arab Spring have simply evaporated as liberal and democratic forces have largely been usurped by Salafists and others intent on imposing Sharia law – intolerant of non-adherents.
Think of the execution of Christians in Iran – murdered because they changed their faith. There are now hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have become Christians. Are they all to be sentenced to death?
In Pakistan, it is just over a year since Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s courageous Catholic Minister for minorities was murdered. He is fast becoming the unofficial patron saint of religious liberty.
There are just 1.5 million Christians in Pakistan (3% of a population of 172 million). Bhatti had attempted to put into practices the principles of the founding father of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who argued for religious toleration and respect. Bhatti said that his stand “would send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was “dedicated to the oppressed, the down trodden and the marginalized” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”
Following Bhatti’s murder, Pope Benedict prayed that “I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of Shahaz Bhatti may arouse in people’s consciences the courage and commitment to defend religious freedom and human dignity.”
I genuinely am staggered at our indifference to the deaths of men like Shahbaz Bhatti and Iraq’s Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave – one of an estimated 600 Iraqi Christians murdered as their churches have been bombed and desecrated. Hundreds of thousands have fled – many to Syria – where the horror is being played out all over again. Christian sources in Kirkuk say:
“The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we had been swallowed up by the night”. Remember the admonition of Dr. Martin Luther King who said:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.
When you think of modern martyrs dying for the faith, think, too, of China and North Korea – a country which I have visited four times and where no priest has been permitted in sixty years. In 1845, St Andrew Kim, the first Korean-born priest aged just 25 was arrested, stripped and decapitated – one of 8000 Korean martyrs. And the suffering continues as we speak.
The United Nations estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 people are held in gulags and some of you will have seen the recently published harrowing account by Shin Dong Hyok of his “Escape from Camp 14.” Shin, who born in the camp saw his mother and brother executed and he was with me in London two weeks ago.
I have spoken in North Korea’s one permitted Catholic Church and seen the resilience of a community outlawed since 1953.
As if to underline the durability of faith when, 60 kilometers north of Pyongyang, I asked if there were any churches in the town of Anju I was told “no, they were destroyed in the war, but the believers meet in the rubble of the Catholic church every week.”
They had been doing that for the past sixty years without priests or sacraments. What price would you attach to faith in those circumstances?
In neighbouring China an estimated 250,000 Christians have been martyred since the Nestorians first introduced the Gospel in the seventh century.
Nine hundred years later Matteus Ricci and the Jesuits endured enormous hardship and risk in the service of the same Gospel.
From the earliest times Christians in the Far East have suffered grievously for their faith. In the twentieth century, between 1900 and 2000 more Christians were killed in China than in all the other countries of the world combined.
When I first visited China in 1981 I was taken to a piece of waste land in Shanghai and, as dusk came, at the barred window of a small apartment, the bishop Shanghai appeared and gave a blessing. Bishop Kung spent 30 years in prison or under house arrest. What price can you put on his faith and the endurance of the Catholic community in China?
As real evidence of the truth of Tertullian’s adage that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”, it is a fact that, before this twenty first century is out, in terms of numbers, more Christians will be living in China than in any other nation.
In considering the plight of Christians in the Far East reflect for a moment on an ancient Chinese story about a man named Bian. He lived around 500 years before Christ.
One day Bian found a large stone. It was actually an unpolished piece of the precious and highly valued stone, jade. Bian was so excited by his discovery that he resolved to present the unpolished stone as a gift to the Emperor of China.
Unfortunately for Bian, when he received it the Emperor saw nothing except a large stone with its rough and disfigured surfaces.
Believing that Bian as trying to make a fool of him the Emperor angrily ordered Bian’s left foot to be amputated.
The Emperor died and Bian tried again – presenting the large stone to the new Emperor. Once again, the potentate reacted angrily, and seeing only the exterior of the unpolished stone, he ordered that Bian’s right foot should also be amputated.
Now a third emperor ascended the throne. The cruelly mutilated Bian asked to be brought to the Palace. For three days and nights he lay outside, clenching the jade in his arms.
This new emperor, exasperated but also intrigued, sent one of his courtiers to investigate and then ordered that the stone be polished to see what it concealed. This was when they discovered a stunning and beautiful jade hidden beneath the rough and ugly exterior.
It has been suggested that the badly used Bian and his jade is not unlike the grievously misused and persecuted Christian communities of the Far East.
After much suffering and the disfigurement of these believers, the beauty of what is concealed is being revealed and at last being valued even in previous atheistic dictatorships. China, especially, with its rampant unfettered materialism replacing the ravages of Maosim desperately needs the Christian church and the hidden beauty represented by Bian and his jade.
The sacrifices which Catholic missionaries made to plant the seeds of faith in these remote and far away places – just like the sacrifices made here at Tyburn – is a direct response to Jesus’ great commission – it gives meaning to the Catholic Church’s central claim – to be universal. And it has always accepted that suffering and martyrdom may be the price which has to be paid. Campion was right when he said that the price had been reckoned and that if the enterprise was of God – Auctore Deo – it would not fail:
“The expense is reckoned,
the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood.
So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.”
When I think of the reckoned price of Tyburn and God’s enterprise in our world today, I think of some of the men and women I have met since I helped establish the Jubilee Campaign for religious liberty in the 1980s.
I think of the bishop I met in the Ukraine – Pavlo Vasylk – and Ivan Gel, the lay Chairman of the Committee for the defence of the Greek Catholic Church. Between them they had served nearly 40 years of prison sentences.
The Bishop’s chaplain had been sent to Chernobyl to clear radioactive waste, without any protective clothing – as a punishment for celebrating the liturgies in the open.
I think of the elderly villager in Nepal who had walked for two weeks to give me his first hand account of how he had been brutally beaten after refusing to renounce his faith; the nun who had been put in the stocks; or the Indian nun in Orissa who was raped in an orgy of violence.
I think of some of the other people and places which I have visited:
the bishop in Sudan who showed me what had been his home, church, school and clinic – all obliterated by Sudanese bombers; the great Romanian bishop, Cardinal Todea, who had languished for years in Communist prisons; the Orthodox dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov, who was kept in solitary confinement in a Soviet jail because he had a organised Christian renewal movement; Lech Walesa and his Polish Solidarity workers, the inspiration of the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, the future Pope John Paul II; the Assyrian and Chaldean Catholics hanging on by their fingertips in South East Turkey; and the dignity of the Karen Christian tribes people in Burma; and many others enduring their own versions of Tyburn in this inhospitable world for Christians.
The answer to the question “what price faith?” – the subject of tonight’s lecture – s to be found in these people and in these places. So much of what we take for granted or contemptuously reject they treasure and preserve in their hearts. These are today’s Tyburn martyrs. We must treasure and pass on our own story but never neglect to apply it in our own times too.
In March, and appropriately enough, speaking in Cuba’s Revolution Square Pope Benedict reminded us of two things:
First that religious freedom solidifies society :
Strengthening religious freedom consolidates social bonds, nourishes the hope of a better world, creates favourable conditions for peace and harmonious development, while at the same time establishing solid foundations for securing the rights of future generations.
And secondly that:
Anyone who acts irrationally cannot become a disciple of Jesus.
Faith and reason are necessary and complementary in the pursuit of truth. God created man with an innate vocation to the truth and he gave him reason for this purpose. Certainly, it is not irrationality but rather the yearning for truth which the Christian faith promotes.
On the Western wall of Westminster Abbey there are some statues of modern martyrs. First among them is the Franciscan Polish priest, St.Maximilian Kolbe
In February 1941, when the Nazis promised him that they would permit him to continue his work so long as he made no social comment and did not speak out against them, and so long as he restricted himself to religiosity and pietism, they would leave him alone. He responded by stating in words which sent him to Auschwitz:
No one on the world can change truth.
He insisted that when we had found truth we had to serve it because
of what use will be the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves?
Kolbe chose the defining battle ground. It is a battle between a religious faith which pits good against evil and truth against lies. And the defence of truth implies sacrifice; it will always require a price to be paid.
Let me end:
Our task must be to assert the importance in all places of rooting religious freedom in the dignity of the human person. The claim for religious freedom is a universal one, securing the freedom of all people of conscience-Christian or not-to embrace the religious belief of their choice.
In turn, the elevation of religious freedom brings great bounty to society in the working out of charitable endeavour and the deepening of the common good. Perhaps-in the context of the challenges to which I have referred-this Governments should be seized by this other important reason for promoting freedom of religious belief.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Council, in its great declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae forcefully set out the case for religious freedom. It includes this telling admonition to lawful authorities:
“A society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched; one that doesn’t will decay”.
As Edmund Campion journeyed from Rome’s Venerable English College he knew what fate awaited him but he loved his country and knew that without its historic faith it would decay.
He came to tell them their nation’s story. And in our own times, and in different ways, the elders must tell the children their story.
More than that, we who have voices must be prepared to use them and our freedoms to speak for those who have none – and who face the ordeal of Tyburn each day of their lives: “In the end” as Dr.King said “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
David Alton (born 1951) was a Liberal and then Liberal Democrat MP for constituencies in Liverpool 1979-1997 and was for a while Chief Whip of his party in the House of Commons. In 1997 he became a member of the House of Lords as Baron Alton of Liverpool, where he has sat as an Independent, having left the Liberal Democratic Party because it replaced the right to conscience on the issue of abortion with party policy. In the early 1990s he helped to found the Movement for Christian Democracy. Alton is especially known for his pro-life stance and in the Commons introduced a private member’s bill to stop late abortions. He was also foremost in opposing the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 and has been active in campaigning against the legalisation of euthanasia. Earlier this year he successfully led a parliamentary campaign to assist victims of mesothelioma. Alton has always devoted attention to international questions (in 1987 he co-founded the lobby group for human rights, Jubilee Campaign) and in recent years has focused, for example, on the persecution of Christians and human rights abuse in such countries as North Korea (he is chairman of the British North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group), South Sudan and Egypt. Appointed Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University in 1997, where he founded the Foundation for Citizenship and chairs the Roscoe Lectures, Alton is also an academic and author, and has written on political issues and aspects of faith. Amongst his publications we may list Citizen Virtues (1999), an exposition of his views on citizenship in contemporary society; Pilgrim Ways (2001), a description of his personal visits to Christian pilgrimage sites; Euthanasia: Getting to the Heart of The Matter (with M. Foley, 2005); and Abortion: Getting to the Heart of the Matter (with M. Foley, 2005). An active speaker and lecturer in Great Britain and abroad, he is a Knight Commander of the Order of St.Gregory. Full biography at: