Martyrdom and Church growth image 1While 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 and Church growth image 2Martyrdom 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.

Martyrdom image 3aHowever, 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.


  1. I read somewhere recently of the difference between ’red’ martyrs and ‘White’ martyrs. The former are those who lose their life for the faith. The latter are those who are denied the possibility of education, good jobs,etc. If only our apathetic Western Church could learn from those in Africa and elsewhere, seeds would spring up and grow all over the place.

    1. Thanks for the distinction between red and white martyrs and for your comments about the western church. We have much to learn from other churches.

  2. Thanks Brian. You reminded me of the remark by Marilyn Robinson. “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind”. Appreciated. DW

  3. Bishop Brian Castle, thank you for such a brilliant essay. It reminded me of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda. I quoted Tertullian’s words in my sermon in Great St Mary’s Church , Cambridge. His death called out more confident “martyrs “(witnesses)to Christ.He inspired me to cut up my clerical collar as a witness against the brutality of Robert Mugabe’s government. May the Lord pour out the Holy Spirit and inspire us to witness to the good news of God in Jesus Christ!

    1. Thanks, Archbishop Sentamu. When Archbishop Janani Luwum was martyred, I was a student at a World Council of Churches’ Study Institute (Bossey) near Geneva. Three fellow students were Ugandans, two of whom were advised it was too dangerous for them to return to Uganda and so they went to Kenya and their children were smuggled out of Uganda to join them. One of them later became a bishop. We were making contingency plans for the third Ugandan to come to UK, but, in the end he returned to his family in Uganda. As a person training for ministry, I was deeply moved by the courage of my Ugandan brothers and sister and experienced, at a ‘safe’ distance,, some of the consequences of martyrdom.

  4. An interesting and thought-provoking post by Bishop Castle. I found the mention of Zoom (or streaming) Services problematic, however. One might well be willing to risk one’s own life for the in-person Liturgy, _but_ one might well spread the virus to many others, chancing lives one has no right to risk. Even more crucial, one risks further overwhelming a medical system already seriously overburdened by patients suffering, many dying, of the virus. It seems to me that risking death from non-Christians determined to avoid the spread of Christianity is one thing; spreading a virus, with its concomitant dangers, is another.

    1. Thanks. I was not being critical of Zoom, which has been a life-saver for many – but I use it as a comparison to what has and has not been discouraged. I agree that one should not be reckless regarding the virus, but health-care workers (suitably protected) needed to take the risks that church ministers would have been willing to take – and, as the article says, some were allowed to do so.

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