A Man for all Seasons

Yesterday the church remembered St Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of Henry VIII. The life of St Thomas More was made especially well-known through Robert Bolt’s play ‘A Man for all Seasons’ which was made into two film versions: one starring Paul Schofield, and the other Charlton Heston.

Thomas More was a man of conscience, who would not do what he knew to be wrong. He was a scrupulous judge, who could not be bribed. He was a committed defender of the Church. He refused to accept that parliament could make King Henry VIII head of the church and grant him a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. He suffered much in prison in the Tower of London. His family had to pay dearly for his upkeep, though in the end he was deprived of the comfort of their company, as he was likewise deprived of the pleasure of his books.

On 6 July 1535, he was taken from his cell and beheaded on Tower Green.

In making that journey, Thomas More took up his cross and followed in the steps of his Christ. More, like Christ, was an innocent man, unjustly accused and imprisoned, and executed by a tyrant who would have no opposition to his wishes.

More could easily have saved himself, taking the Oath of Supremacy with crossed fingers. But he would not. The reign of Henry VIII was a very dangerous time in which to hold office, queens, counsellors, abbots, would also lose their heads as ‘traitors’.

‘Take up your cross’, says Jesus, ‘if you would be my disciple.’ We are fortunate not to be put to the ultimate test of our faith in Christ. But in smaller ways we are put to the test. Do we sometimes conceal our Christian faith for fear of criticism, awkward questions or ridicule? How committed are we to upholding what we know to be right? Do we speak out, or do we remain silent for the sake of an easy life? Are there times when we have been in a situation where someone has said or done something we have not agreed with, and we have gone away thinking to ourselves, if only I had said this or done that? Maybe that is the Holy Spirit chiding us for our inaction.

A later Lord Chancellor was Richard Rich. (in the Schofield film he was played by John Hurt). He was a complete contrast to Thomas More. Although a friend of More and his family, he perjured himself, twisting the truth about what More had said, thus providing the pretext for his trial and condemnation. Rich was a man who would do anything to advance in life. His ambition overcame any scruples of truth or loyalty. He changed his politics and religion to suit whoever was in power. Whereas Rich sold his soul for the sake of his career, More, forfeited his life in this world for the sake of that to come.

Once again in the news we have reports of cover-ups and a  failure to expose mistakes and corruption. People are intimidated into concealing what they know to be wrong. Surely whatever profession we are in, we want it to function as best as it can, we want to be aware of failings and put them right. Unfortunately, there are still tyrants in the workplace. Whatever profession we are in, whatever situation we find ourselves in, we have to be true to our Christian faith.  We have an obligation to be Christ-like at all times, and not give in to what we think will bring us short-term gain in popularity or success, or get us off the hook. We have to be true to ourselves and true to Christ.

As St Paul said, we have to be clothed in Christ, putting him on. When I baptized a baby here yesterday we wrapped her in her family christening gown and I said, ‘you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.’

In the eyes of the world Richard Rich was a successful man, who lived to the age of 70, earned promotion and great wealth. More, died a poor man, a traitor’s death, but he remained true to Christ and his church. His honour and goodness are now renowned while Rich is largely forgotten. The Christian dignity of  St Thomas More remained unstained and proves to be true that anyone who loses his life for Christ’s sake, will save it.