Thomas Hemerford was an English Reformation martyr. A native of Dorset, he was educated at Oxford and then studied for the priesthood at English College in Rome. He was ordained in Rome in 1583, and returned to England, where he was swiftly arrested. Condemned for being a priest, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn with four companions. He was beatified, the first significant stage to being declared a saint, in 1929.
I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!’
Recently in worship I asked two of my congregations what they had to be thankful for. In one the simple freedom to worship was mentioned and we reflected on parts of the world where this isn’t possible. An article in this week’s Tablet indicates that the Holy See and the Peoples’ Republic of China are edging towards signing an historic agreement to both establish diplomatic relations, after a 70 year break, and to end the conflict about the appointment of bishops (both Rome and the Chinese government wish to do this). In other parts of the world the Church is more severely persecuted and the State doesn’t seek to interfere with Church governance but to completely suppress it.
In the West we live in very tolerant, even indifferent, times and the idea of people being persecuted for their faith seems both horrific and distant. We have selective memories and don’t often think of Protestant Christians killed by Catholics nor Catholic Christians killed by Protestants in these isles in the Reformation era.
Hemerford had the misfortune to be called to ministry in the middle of Elizabeth I’s reign. In many ways Elizabeth was a religious moderate but the entwining of Catholicism and treason meant death for priests sent, after training, from the Continent to the “English Mission.” I always marvel at the bravery of those called to minister in the face of persecution and am thankful to live in a more tolerant age and work within a denomination which sees itself as both catholic and reformed. I pray that one day, soon, no one will be persecuted for their beliefs and that, one day, all will be reconciled in God’s all-powerful loving presence.
Lord Jesus, You were killed for your faith, and many now suffer discrimination, imprisonment, torture and death for their faith in you. Comfort those who live with persecution, bring the persecutors to repentance, that we may live in a world where oppressed and former oppressor can run free together. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland.