Fisher Mass 2009 Homily

This homily was preached by Fr Tony Philpot at the Fisher Mass in Great St Mary’s Church on 4th May 2009.

John Fisher

John Fisher was a Yorkshire lad come south. Sent to study at Cambridge, he did so well that he moved from undergraduate to fellow, it seems, effortlessly and seamlessly, and early in his life. His 17th century biographer, Hall, describes him:

Tall and comely, exceeding the common and middle sort of men, for he was to the quantity of six feet in height, and being therewith very slender and lean, was nevertheless upright and well-formed, straight-backed, big-jointed and strongly sinewed.

Cambridge was his great love. He was twice Vice Chancellor of the University. By the favour and support of Lady Margaret, Henry VII’s mother, he founded Christ’s College and St John’s. Much her junior, he was appointed her chaplain and confessor. And thus he caught the eye of the King.

His life as bishop at Rochester was austere, especially if you compare it with that of other bishops. He ate and drank with simplicity, he often fasted, and his household was soberly dressed. He was a hard worker, visiting the parishes of his diocese and demanding certain standards of his clergy. He wished above all to be a good shepherd, basing himself on the model in John’s Gospel which we have just heard. His biographer depicts him visiting the sick, sitting for hours on end in smoky cottages and climbing precarious ladders to find people living in the loft. He could do this because, unlike his contemporaries, he was relentlessly resident, on the spot all the time, except when the King commanded his presence at Court for state occasions. It was a poor diocese, but Fisher was heard to say “I would not desert my poor old wife for the richest widow in England.” Erasmus describes his damp house and draughty library. Rochester was on the main road between London and the coast, so he had to do his share of entertaining foreign dignitaries. You get the feeling that he was always glad to see them go, and that they, too, were quite pleased to go; John Fisher must have been a disconcerting host. “If any strangers came,” says Hall, “he would entertain them at his own table according to their vocations, with such mirth as stood with the gravity of his person.”

Compared with the balaclava boys hurling bricks at the windows of banks, John Fisher seems an unlikely protestor. But protestor he is. He takes on the prevailing power, and with quiet dignity he challenges it, he shames it. History has given what he did a patina of nobility. Even those who today do not share his ecclesiology would grant him the accolade of great and unflinching courage. At the time, however, government propaganda painted him in quite other colours.

There were not many natural protestors among the bishops at his time. By and large they were appointed by the King, with a nod from the Pope, and Kings tended to select supporters and courtiers. Here, however, is the text of Henry VII’s letter to his mother, in 1504:

Madam, An’ I thought I should not offend you, which I will never do wilfully, I am well minded to promote Master Fisher, your confessor, to a bishopric; and I assure you, Madam, for none other cause, but for the great and singular virtue, that I know and see in him, as well in cunning and natural wisdom, and specially for his good and virtuous living and conversation. [ … ] I have in my days promoted many a man unadvisedly, and I would now make some recompense, to promote some good and virtuous men, which I doubt not should best please God, who ever preserve you in good health and long life.”

There was a risk in naming bishops of great and singular virtue. John Fisher was just 36 when appointed to Rochester, and knew that this might seem a precocious promotion. He wrote a letter of thanks to the King: “Quippe qui paucos annos habuerim”, “Although I am still a young man”, but he was already a clear-sighted, courageous and very obstinate character. He would remain the same for thirty years.

A sermon is not the place for a history lecture; and if it were, there are many more qualified than I to deliver it. In broad outline, it is sufficient to say that when Henry VIII asked the bishops to advise him whether his marriage to Catharine of Aragon could be annulled, Fisher gave a decided ”˜No’; and he never moved from that conviction. When Henry legislated in Parliament to make himself Supreme Head of the Church, Fisher resisted him; and when Henry required all his notables to swear agreement to his supremacy, Fisher said that his conscience would not allow him to do it. He wrote to Cromwell, the Kings’s Secretary, “Not that I condemn any other men’s conscience. Their conscience may save them, and mine must save me.” He was grilled by Privy Councillors and pleaded with by his fellow bishops, but to no avail. It was one thing for the King to alter the succession to the throne; it was quite another for him to discard his lawful wife in favour of another, and moreover to break his country’s link with Rome. This issue dominated his life. In other circumstances one can imagine him as a saintly and peaceful pastor of his flock. Also as a speculative scholar of note, both in Latin and in Greek. But he was pitched into one of the most painful controversies this country, or Europe, has ever known.

I said that Fisher was a protestor, and he was. He had shown this well before what came to be known as “The King’s Great Matter”. In 1520 he had been swept up into the royal entourage at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when at unimaginable expense Henry VIII led a cortège across the Channel to swear undying friendship to the King of France. It was Fisher’s only trip abroad; his continental experience didn’t go much past Calais. He observed the proceedings there with a jaundiced eye, being personally vowed to a life of great austerity. All the more jaundiced three years later, when Henry, now at odds with France, looked for a war chest from the Church. It was Fisher who drily opposed this in the House of Lords. He was overruled, but the memory stuck in the King’s mind. Already in 1523 Henry realised that his grandmother’s chaplain was an inconvenient old man: just how inconvenient he was yet to discover.

That instinct to protest was extended to abuses in the Church, of which there were many. In his sermons on the Penitential Psalms Fisher said “All fear of God, also the contempt of God, cometh and is grounded of the clergy”. He looked balefully at dereliction of duty on the part of his fellow priests and bishops. “Bishops be absent from their dioceses and parsons from their churches… we use bye-paths and circumlocutions in rebuking. We go nothing nigh to the matter, and so in the mean season the people perish with their sins.” His biographer says that, at a synod called by Cardinal Wolsey, “he reproved very discreetly the ambition and incontinency of the clergy, utterly condemning their vanity in wearing costly apparel, whereby he declared the goods of the Church to be sinfully wasted, and scandal to be raised among the people, seeing the tithes and other oblations, given by the devotion of them and their ancestors to a good purpose, so inordinately spent in indecent and superfluous raiment, delicate fare, and other worldly vanity, which matter he debated so largely, and framed his words after such sort, that the Cardinal perceived himself to be touched to the very quick.” If that was a discreet reproof, an indiscreet one would have been worth hearing. This was in 1518. Well before the King’s divorce, he was seen by his colleagues as a difficult man.

The King, even when young, saw himself a theologian, and published a defence of Catholic doctrine of the Seven Sacraments. Fisher wrote a book in support of the King, and against Luther. It was an honest book. He defended the authority of the Popes, but said at the same time, “If the Roman Pontiffs, laying aside pomp and haughtiness, would but practise humility, you would not have a word left to utter against them. Yes, would that they would reform the manners of their court, and drive from it ambition, avarice and luxury.” And again, “Would then that, if there is anything amiss, they would reform themselves, and remove the scandal from the souls of the weak. For it is greatly to be feared, unless they do so quickly, that divine vengeance will not long be delayed.” That was a bleak and biting Yorkshire wind directed at the Vatican of his day.

We are brought up to see protestors as suspect, eccentric, extremist, and almost certainly wrong. The presumption is in favour of the people currently in power. Both Catholics and the English tend to be anti-disturbance. We know what happened to Savonarola. I remember, as a young curate, listening to a blistering attack from the pulpit by my parish priest, on the anti-nuclear demonstrators who had recently passed the door. Galileo, believers in evolution, imaginative scripture scholars, advocates of vernacular liturgy, opponents of slavery and capital punishment, all have had to endure opprobrium and wait their time. And when history eventually caught up with them, it seldom had the grace to say “Sorry”. Politicians who, in the 1930’s, campaigned against the appeasement of Hitler were viewed as unreliable warmongers. They, at least, were vindicated in their lifetime. The older among us were educated for conformity in every respect: in handwriting, for instance. How many children were told that it was forbidden to be left handed? And in some circles there was a ”˜received pronunciation’ of English, to breach which was seen as protest.

I do not suggest that all protest, and all manners of protest, are justified. For Catholics, those who set the tone for society are not just a nameless ”˜them’. Within the Church the Magisterium is clear and focussed, and says, in effect, that there is a bottom line of belief and behaviour to which you must subscribe if you want to belong. For all the challenges he threw out to both Church and State, John Fisher believed this. There is a limit to protest, he would have said, and Luther has crossed it, and Henry VIII has crossed it, and what they say and do is not tolerable. Yet, in the context of the England of his time, he had the courage to be a minority of one. Simply by his lifestyle, let alone by his preaching, he was a powerful protestor.

In prison he knew all the trials St Paul describes to us today in the Letter to the Romans: tribulation, distress, persecution, hunger, nakedness. The account of his execution is moving. On his way out of the Tower to the scaffold, he had to wait. He leaned against the wall, opened the bible they allowed him to carry, and found in it the passage from John 17,3: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” He closed the book and said wryly, “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.” They took away his gown and tippet, he was left in his doublet and hose, and his biographer says, “There was to be seen a long, lean and slender body. Having on it little other substance besides skin and bones, in so much as most part of the beholders marvelled much to see a living man so consumed.” He prayed for the King and his realm, and was beheaded.

Retrospect clears the mind. We now see how the King cowed the powerful of the land and reduced them to ciphers. We can sympathise with them. How well would we have performed in the circumstances? But we have to acknowledge that compared with Fisher they were spiritually impoverished, surrendering to the prevailing wind. Fisher, with his clarity of vision, and his bleak, craggy, gaunt, inconvenient, uncompromising adherence to principle, towers above them all, a giant among men.

Last Thursday, I visited the church of San Vitale in Rome. It is the church allotted by Pope Paul III to Fisher when he made him a cardinal. It has been extensively made-over since then, with baroque decoration and 18th century frescoes. Fisher would not recognise it. But of course he would not have recognised it anyway, since he never saw it. Indeed, his nomination as cardinal accelerated his execution. While I was there, I prayed for Fisher House, and for the Chaplaincy. And I pray for the whole University of Cambridge, because it was, and surely is, the apple of his eye. And I reflected that S. Vitale is a faithful echo of the spiritual life of John Fisher. It is very old, a fourth century basilica; and it is half-submerged, well below the level of the street. In both its hiddenness and its antiquity, it echoes the spiritual life of a remarkable man.

He who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Fr Tony Philpot