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Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon to commemorate Carthusian Martyrs

Tuesday 4th May 2010

An ecumenical service was held at Charterhouse, London, to commemorate the 475th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of St John Houghton and his companions.

In attendance were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who delivered a sermon at the service to commemorate the Carthusian Martyrs. Also present was the Rt Revd George Stack, Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Westminster; and the Revd Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, Superintendent Minister.

The Archbishop's sermon was preceded by a Service of Solemn Vespers sung by Choristers of Westminster Cathedral in the Chapel at Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse with Bishop George Stack as officiant.

The Martyrs were commemorated by a series of readings of their passion, before the placing of a red rose for each Martyr by the Brothers of Charterhouse into a model of a Tyburn Tree placed on the site of the altar of the Priory Church, as the names of the Martyrs were read out. 

Sutton's Hospital in Charterhouse, has held a commemoration service for the Martyrs annually since 2004.

History of The London Charterhouse

Founded as a burial ground for the victims of the Black Death in 1349, in 1371 Sir Walter de Manny founded on the rest of the site, with Michael de Northburgh, Bishop of London, a Carthusian Priory (The London Charterhouse).

Finally completed in the early 16th century, the dissolution of the Priory came shortly after in 1538 when from 1534 onwards the community came into conflict with Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy. This lead to the martyrdom of 16 monks (choir monks and brothers converse) between 1535 and 1540 falsely found guilty of treason and condemned.  From 1545 the site housed a Tudor Mansion.

In 1611 the present foundation of school (Charterhouse School moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872) and almshouse was founded.  Sutton's Hospital, a Church of England foundation, now cares for a community of 45 single elderly men and the eastern part of the site previously occupied by the school now houses Queen Mary University of London (The Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry).

History of the Commemoration

Since 2004 there has been a Commemoration of the Carthusian Martyrs at Sutton's Hospital each year. 

In 2005 the Bishop of London attended with Bishop George Stack representing the Cardinal.

In 2006 the Commemoration was combined with a Requiem for Fr Geoffrey Curtis CR who caused the Carthusian Martyrs' Memorial to be erected at Sutton's Hospital on the site of the ancient Priory Church. 

In 2007 the first public Roman Catholic Service was held since the Reformation - Latin Vespers were sung by the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral and Monsignor Mark Langham, Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, gave the address.

In 2008 the preacher was Bishop John Flack who had been the Director of
the Anglican Centre in Rome.

In 2009 the homily was by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor but sadly he was unable to deliver it in person – Bishop George Stack did so.  The Apostolic Nuncio was in attendance and read the Second Lesson.

The full text of the Archbishop's sermon follows:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis:  'The cross stands while the world turns' - The motto of the Carthusian Order, familiar to many people in this Chapel this evening, and a phrase which has many levels of meaning,  many levels which, as we reflect on the meanings of martyrdom, we may begin to penetrate more deeply. 

The cross stands while the world turns.  So long as the world turns the cross is there.  In the words of Pascal "Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world, we must not sleep during that time."  As long as the world is there, there is suffering, there is injustice, there is butchery.  The horrors inflicted on John Houghton and the martyrs of this house are horrors that human sin makes possible in every age, past, present and to come.  And faced with that awareness that Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world, it is a very strong spirit that is not at some level alarmed, even cowed.

In one of the great historical novels of the twentieth century, Hilda Prescott's 'The Man on a Donkey' we follow the events around the Pilgrimage of Grace, events around the time, of course, of the martyrdoms we commemorate today.  And towards the end of that extraordinary novel, we watch and listen to Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in his last anguished moments, hanging in chains from the Keep of the Castle in York:  "God did not now nor would in any furthest future prevail.  Once he had come and died.  If he came again, again he would die, and again and so forever, by his own will, rendered powerless against the free and evil wills of men.  Then Aske met the full assault of darkness without reprieve of hoped for light, for God ultimately vanquished was no God at all.  But yet, though God was not God, as the head of the dung worm turns, so his spirit turned blindly, gropingly, hopelessly loyal, towards that good, that holy, that merciful - which though not God, though vanquished - was still the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man."

The cross stands while the world turns.  If Christ came again so would his cross.  Because that evil, that passionate commitment as it so often seems, to destroy and undermine the good, is written into the experience of fallen humanity.  There is no shortcut, there is no happy ending, in any ordinary sense.  The dying martyr in that passage can only turn to what he does not know;  and what he does not know is very distant from, and very different from, the God who is a God of happy endings and solutions.  But the cross that stands while the world turns is the cross of God: and so we are taken to a second level, where we realise what it is that is being transacted in the cross of Christ, and what it is that is transacted in every moment of reckless, generous, terrible suffering for the sake of God's truth. Aske turns to what is still 'the last dear love of a vanquished and tortured man'.  In darkness and in torture, men and women throughout the centuries have turned to the crucified Christ; they have addressed the crucified Christ with the last calling of their lips and the last movement of their hearts, as did John Houghton.  They know that whatever else may disappear, there is something on which they may call - and it is Christ crucified.

The God who has, it seems, been vanquished, is yet a God who cannot be abolished.  In many ages and many places, authorities even more appalling than Henry VIII have believed that they could abolish God and the cross of God; and they have had to discover that while they may vanquish, they cannot destroy.  That which is the last hope, the last longing of the condemned and tortured, remains.  The cross stands while the world turns. And whatever human power and human injustice can achieve and effect, the hanged God, the failed God, remains a sign forever. 

The cross stands while the world turns: the sign of our terrible human failure, the sign that God is not to be abolished, that justice cannot be extinguished forever; that the voice of the poor and the lost and the tormented cannot finally be silenced - not by any power that the universe can show, because it is rooted in what does not change.  The cross stands and the world turns.  The world changes, the world comes and goes - powers rise and fall, fashions come and go - sometimes the Christian faith looks attractive and fashionable in the world, and sometimes it looks stupid and marginal.  And always it is what it is because the cross stands.

The Christian who knows his or her business is the Christian who has the freedom to return again and again into that silent unchanging presence - the hanged God, whose love, whose generosity, springs out of depths we can never imagine.  It is the sounding of those depths that is the heart of the contemplative life - that life lived in such an exemplary way by the Carthusians then and now, lived by so many others in our world over the centuries, lived, we hope and pray, for many centuries and millennia to come.   

We treasure with perhaps a particular intensity the martyrdom of the contemplative, because the contemplative who knows how to enter into the silence and stillness of things is, above all, the one who knows how to resist to resist fashion and power, to stand in God while the world turns. In that discovery of stillness lies all our hope of reconciliation, the reconciliation of which John Houghton spoke in this place, this place where we are met to worship, before the community gave its answer to the King's agents.  A reconciliation of which he spoke (as do so many martyrs) on the scaffold, a reconciliation which is not vanquished, defeated, or rendered meaningless by any level of suffering or death. If Henry VIII is saved (an open question perhaps) it will be at the prayers of John Houghton.  If any persecutor is saved it is at the prayers of their victim. If humanity is saved, it is by the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ and all those martyrs who have followed in his path. 

Robert Aske hangs in chains still, but (as Hilda Prescott Prescott's novel portrays it) a discovery has been made as he falls from level to level of despair and desire 'For now, yet with no greater fissure between then and now, and as a man's eyes are aware where no star was of the first star of night, now he was aware of One, vanquished God, Saviour who could as little save others as himself.  But now, beside him and beyond, was nothing - and he was silence and light.' 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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