While the Church of England has been debating church growth and the aspiration to create ten thousand new Christian communities by 2030, I went to a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum commemorating the 850th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The exhibition tells the story of the events leading up to Becket’s death at the hands of knights from King Henry II’s court and it charts the profound effect that the whole affair had on church and society. Becket’s martyrdom not only inspired the faithful, but it raised the profile of the Church, encouraged a network of pilgrimages and commerce, had an impact on church finances and created great interest beyond the shores of England. Ironically, the martyrdom of Becket and its aftermath speak into challenges being faced by the Church today. Even though Becket had been a close friend of the powerful, he was bold and clear in his challenge of those in power, something that led to his death. However, I want to focus on the significance of martyrdom and its relationship with church growth.
The second and third centuries was a prime period for persecution and martyrdom. At this time a person who witnessed to their faith by suffering hardships was regarded as a martyr. Eventually, the term was restricted to those who suffered death. In this blog, I use ‘martyrdom’ in both senses of the word. Aware of Christians witnessing in these ways, the early church theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ Rather than discourage onlookers, martyrdom was the spark that inspired faith and ignited growth within early Christian communities. Martyrs had a profound effect upon wider society. St. Alban, the first British martyr, is said to have become a follower of Christ after being impressed and moved by a fugitive priest seeking refuge. Seeing the way the priest handled persecution and hardship, Alban took the priest’s place when soldiers came searching and suffered as a result of his self-giving.
Martyrdom did not stop in the second century. Indeed, the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review, sponsored by the Foreign Secretary, on Christian persecution (2019), reports that Christians are being persecuted more now than at any time in history, with some facing abduction, killing and even genocide. Often, it is in the places where this has happened (usually in the southern hemisphere) that the Church has grown the most. Through my previous role as Bishop of Tonbridge, I had the privilege of developing a close relationship with the diocese of Harare, Zimbabwe, where Anglicans were forced from their churches, faced beatings, persecution and even death and had their property confiscated by government-backed police. The people remained faithful and fought hard for the right to worship and they were on occasion allowed to do so in public places. The result of this was that the Church grew in numbers. Some police, sent to oversee their gatherings, were so impressed by the faithfulness, witness and courage they observed that they joined the church they were sent to subdue. One ‘problem’ that Harare Anglicans faced when they were finally allowed back to their Churches in 2012 was that many buildings were too small to contain the increased numbers.
Every Christian is a potential martyr. All Christians are called to witness to Jesus Christ and, hard as it may be, that witnessing can be costly. Christian leadership is not primarily about making people happy, but rather it is about creating a culture within the Church that points to the cross, the source of life. Self-giving is at the heart of faith. It is a calling to take risks – leaps of faith – when circumstances demand.
However, we live in a risk averse society and this has infected the national church. Risk-taking is discouraged and even penalised: add the environment of fear that has been generated as a result of the pandemic and a form of institutional paralysis arises. There have been times, over the last sixteen months that Christians have been discouraged or even prevented from following their calling of witnessing to Jesus Christ. They have been deprived of the opportunity of being martyrs. We have been allowed to worship on zoom but discouraged from visiting the sick and comforting the dying. Thank God for clergy and lay ministers, hospital chaplains and health professionals who have creatively and selflessly shouldered much of this burden. In addition, those who do not usually attend churches but who have sought peace, solace and sanctuary within their walls have too often been greeted with locked doors and barred gates.
As the Church works on strategies for growth and different ways of organising itself, it would do well to encourage Christians to reflect on our calling to be martyrs in risk-averse, twenty-first century Britain. We should not be thinking of martyrdom as a means of Church growth, but as a way of being faithful to the Gospel. Wouldn’t it then be wonderful if, like the diocese of Harare, we need a strategy to welcome and accommodate those who want to be part of the Church of Christ.
Image 1 – Image Ljuba Brank – Canterbury Cathedral – 4 swords, knights who killed Becket.
Image 2 – Earliest known portrayal of murder of Thomas Becket. Original in British Library.