This address was given by Professor Eamon Duffy DD D Litt FBA FSA at the Fisher Mass in Great St Mary’s Church on 2nd May 2011. Professor Duffy very kindly stepped in at extremely short notice when the scheduled guest preacher, Mgr Tony Rogers, was injured in a car accident.
One of the things Royal weddings can do, even for ageing closet republicans like myself, is to prompt reflection on the relationship between religion and society. I’m a naturally conservative man, but I have mixed feelings about the idea of religion as the cement of society, and about an established church, whether that’s manifested in the presence of archbishops and deans at state banquets, or the local vicar blessing scout banners on Armistice Day, or in the more elaborate proceedings in Westminster Abbey last Friday.
Of course it was good to hear the Dean of Westminster setting out the essential purposes of marriage in the majestic language of the Prayerbook: it was good to see an endearingly towsel-haired archbishop receive the vows of a handsome young couple, as they promised before tens of millions of witnesses to love and cherish each other till death do them part : and it was good to hear the bishop of London speak eloquently and well about the personal and social value of stable and loving relationships. I hope it will all do good.
But I suspect that the religious dimension of the ceremony may well be absorbed into the lush heritage aspect of the whole occasion, another decorative amenity, like the scarlet tunics of the horse-guards, or the hushed respectful commentary of Hugh Edwards, or the gilded carriages wheeling down the Mall, the Union Jacks, the razzmatazz: in general, the British establishment doing what it does best, providing bread and circuses for a time of austerity, a jolly good show.
Up to a point, St John Fisher would have had no problems with the jolly good show. He approved of established churches, and for most of his life, he was an enthusiastic establishment man. He approved of royal families, and he made the most of his connections with them. As Chancellor of this University he milked the great and the good – whether they were successful lawyers, or bankers, or dowager duchesses, or kings and queens, he milked them, to finance his pet project, the modernisation of this University of ours.
He himself was the middle child of a prosperous middle class family, cloth-merchants from the wool town of Beverley in Yorkshire, and he believed firmly in exploiting the networks and advantages that kind of background gave you: family networks, neighbourly networks, county networks, connections with the people you know and trust, exploited in ways we might nowadays feel verged on corruption. He believed in the ties of blood and locality, and whenever he could, he used his position to give jobs to his family and his Yorkshire friends.
He was a Yorkshireman to his finger-tips, and that Yorkshire pedigree stood him in good stead in early Tudor Cambridge. Fisher’s tutor at Cambridge, William Melton was also from Beverley, and Fisher’s other Cambridge patrons were all part of an extended Yorkshire Mafia. His College, Michaelhouse, had been established a century or so earlier by a canon of York Minster, as a house of studies for northern priests taking theology degrees. Another Yorkshire chum was the bishop of Ely, John Alcock, the holy founder of Jesus College, who, like Fisher and Melton, had also been born in Beverley.
I’ve emphasised these mafia-like connections because in those respects Fisher was a man of his time, making his way up the establishment ladder, with people he knew pulling strings for him, and he in turn pulling strings to help friends and family from back home. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Fisher, of course, used his influence to do good things. Cambridge in his day was in the throes of change, absorbing the new ideas of the Renaissance, opening up to modern educational methods. As Chancellor of the University, Fisher pushed this process on, and he was instrumental in bringing to Cambridge the greatest classical scholar in Europe, Erasmus of Rotterdam, to teach Greek. He was a good priest, and so Christ’s and John’s, the new Colleges he persuaded the Queen Mother Margaret Beaufort to finance, were designed specifically to train a new kind of priest, educated and preaching. Fisher was one of those who helped persuade Pope Alexander VI (another man keen on family connections) to authorise the University to licence twelve graduate priests each year to preach anywhere in England, Scotland or Ireland. As Chancellor, Fisher himself issued scores of these preaching licences, to the elite humanist products of his reformed Catholic university. If you’ve been into the great chamber at Fisher House you’ll have seen the portrait of one of the best of them, St Richard Reynolds, angelic martyr of the Bridgetine house at Sheen.
With all these social connections, and all this zeal, it’s not surprising that Fisher was made a bishop at the very young age of 35. At the Queen Mother’s request, Henry VII gave him the see of Rochester. This was the poorest bishopric in England, with a miserable annual income of about £300. Lots of bishops started their careers there, but very few stayed long, most moving on as soon as possible to better paid dioceses. But Fisher never moved on, and his earliest biographer claimed that this was a sign of his sanctity: he stayed faithful to the poor of his first diocese. In fact it’s far more likely that he was never offered the choice. The young Henry VIII liked to boast that in Fisher England had the most learned and holiest bishop in Christendom. But the austere Yorkshireman had very little in common with the bumptious and flashy young king, who probably associated Fisher with the more puritanical and dingy aspects of his father’s reign. So once Lady Margaret was dead, Fisher’s upward climb came to a halt.
And if nothing else had happened, none of us would ever have heard of John Fisher. Smarter than the average university teacher or administrator, more conscientious than the average bishop, more successful than the average fundraiser, a better theologian than the average opponent of the new theology from Germany, Fisher was an achiever on all fronts, but hardly a name to conjure with five centuries on.
I started these reflections with a royal wedding, but it was a royal divorce which revealed that Fisher was actually in a different class from the rest of his contemporaries. It was Henry’s demand for a divorce from his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, which showed that this cautious man of the establishment understood better than anyone else in his time the limits of religion viewed as part of the big society. From the moment the King first raised the possibility of a divorce with Fisher as a matter of conscience, Fisher made it clear that in his view the marriage with Queen Catherine was good and valid. He never believed Henry’s protests of a tormented conscience, or his claim that the lack of a male heir was God’s punishment on him and Catherine for living in sin. And when it became clear that the King was set on pushing ahead, Fisher, who had spent a life-time soft-soaping royalty for the good of the University, turned his formidable theological intelligence to undermining the case Henry’s court theologians were manufacturing for him.
At first he had allies. There were other decent men, bishops, theologians, administrators, who saw that the Queen was being sacrificed and the truth twisted for the sake of the dynastic security of a male heir, and to satisfy the king’s growing infatuation with a clever woman who wanted a royal wedding as the price of entry to her bed. But as the ferocity of the King’s commitment to the divorce became plain, Fisher’s allies dropped away. The theologians discovered that after all they had overlooked important arguments, the lawyers found loopholes, the bishops with varying degrees of reluctance signed a petition to the Pope to ask him to oblige his Majesty with this small canonical technicality. One by one, and then in droves, the entire English establishment caved in. Even Thomas More struck a bargain with Henry: he would say or do nothing against the king’s proceedings, if Henry would leave him in peace with his private conscience.
But that wasn’t Fisher’s way: there could be no bargains about God’s truth. He spoke out against the divorce, and against the pressure the King was putting on the church to force it into line – in the House of Lords, in the convocation of the clergy, in the pulpit. And when open opposition became impossible, Fisher wrote and circulated a stream of deadly little pamphlets which drove a bus through the arguments for the divorce. And when that didn’t work, he wrote to the Emperor Charles V, calling on him to invade England and depose a king who was leading his people astray, and to halt the religious revolution which was now hitching a ride on the back of the Divorce.
There could only be one outcome. Fisher had been at the heart of the establishment for a generation or more, and his personal spiritual and intellectual prestige, in Europe as well as England, were just too dangerous to be ignored. His theological training, his pastoral sense, his craggy personal integrity, combined with his Yorkshireman’s proclivity to call a spade a spade if not a bloody shovel – all these drove him to say plainly that the king’s marriage was as good as his intentions were bad. And so he was arrested, kept frozen and half-starved in the Tower, and finally executed as a traitor.
Fisher is a salutary patron for the members of a great national institution. Even in these tough times, Cambridge is a place of enormous privilege. It’s a pathway to influence, to power, for some even to wealth. Everyone lucky enough to study or teach here has been gifted with natural talents, and with a good education. Some of you listening to me now will go on to positions of power and privilege, in education, in the sciences, in the professions, in the city. You will be movers and shakers, men and women of the establishment, part of the cement of society.
Fisher was all those things. But before and beyond all that, he was a disciple of Jesus Christ. He knew that Christianity could and should be the foundation of a healthy society. But he also knew that though the city of God and the city of humankind might converge or overlap, they were not the same. The way of Jesus was in the end the way of the cross, and to follow Jesus might take the disciple outside the walls of the city, to a place of execution. So this venerable man, friend and councillor of the great and the not-so-good, this Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, ended his life in disgrace and isolation. His headless body was thrown naked into an unmarked grave: his head displayed on a spike till it in turn was tossed into the Thames, to make way on the same spike for the head of Sir Thomas More.
So there are no relics of John Fisher, only the legacy of his example, and his intercession. In a more peaceful England, in this sunny Easter season, we celebrate his shameful end as a glorious victory, a reflection of the greater victory of Easter Day. We ask St John’s prayers, that we too may be enabled to serve our society generously and wholeheartedly, but without surrendering to its values: we pray that we in our time may be spared the terrible test of discipleship which he faced: and we pray also for the grace and courage to follow, wherever his Lord and ours may lead us. Amen.
Professor Eamon Duffy
2nd May 2011