John Gibbs writes:
It was an early Sunday morning walk with my brother and Ben, his black Labrador, which resulted in my hearing Ian Bradley (WH 63-68)’s sermon from St Andrews on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship. His sermon was delivered in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and although I am not a historian, it seemed too good to be missed by other OTs. Ian reflects on the city’s turbulent past, when it was at the heart of the violent upheavals of the Scottish Reformation, as well as its vibrant present as a thriving university town.
In the middle of the cobbled pavement outside this Chapel the initials PH are picked out in stones. They mark the spot where Patrick Hamilton, a young graduate of this University, was slowly burnt to death at the stake on 29 February 1528. Today’s students carefully steer round the initials as stepping over them is regarded as bringing bad luck and specifically as risking failure in exams.
Hamilton, who was just 24 when he faced his agonising end, was the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. He was far from being the only one. Here in St Andrews alone, three other men were put to death as heretics for their Protestant beliefs. They are commemorated on a stark obelisk erected in 1843 overlooking the sea and by the former Martyrs Church opposite this chapel which was recently turned into a University library.
There are other powerful physical reminders here in St Andrews of the violent animosity between Protestant and Catholic Christians in the sixteenth century. The massive Cathedral, once the biggest and grandest in Scotland, now stands roofless and ruined. It was first attacked by an angry congregation, whipped up by the preaching of the reformer John Knox in 1559. Nearby the former Bishops’ Palace is also in a ruined state having been stormed by Protestant nobles who assassinated Cardinal David Beaton, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and hung his body out of the same window from which he had earlier watched one of the Protestant martyrs, George Wishart, being burned alive. Visitors have sometimes said to me that they feel the streets of our small and beautiful city are still haunted by the legacy of this bloody and violent period.
Why were men put to death by their fellow Christians during the time of the Reformation? The four St Andrews martyrs had all been deeply influenced by the writings and ideas of Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk whose statements and actions are generally taken to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s followers were brought before the church authorities and condemned for propagating what were regarded as dangerous heresies, including reading the Bible in their own language rather than Latin and supporting the marriage of priests.
At the heart of what took these Protestant Reformers to the stake was their belief in justification by faith alone. This was the crux of Luther’s theology, a breakthrough which ended years of anguished agonising about his own salvation. It came to him while he was reading the passage in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that we heard this morning. Luther became convinced that salvation is not dependent on our own merits or on any works that the church does - rather God in his infinite mercy pardons our sins and welcomes us to eternal life with him, offering a new start and complete forgiveness – all we have to do is to respond in faith. In the words of Paul, the power of God brings salvation to everyone – the righteous will live by faith.
In the eyes of its opponents, the Medieval Catholic Church preached and practised a very different view of salvation which rested on the power of priests, on performing works to gain merit and on obtaining indulgences to reduce the time spent in Purgatory, that intermediate state between this world and the next where souls would be purged before the Last Judgement. The Reformers, by contrast, preached the priesthood of all believers and the centrality of faith alone in the attainment of salvation and eternal life.
And it was for holding and propagating these beliefs that the St Andrews martyrs were put to death. I am always struck by their huge age range – Patrick Hamilton was just 24 when he died, Walter Mylne, the oldest St Andrews martyr, was 82. Today St Andrews is a town similarly dominated by the young and the old. The two biggest groups in the population here are students in their late teens and twenties and retirees in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
The prophet Joel spoke about a time when the Spirit will be poured out on all people and the young shall dream dreams and the old shall see visions. Peter repeated this prophecy at Pentecost, taken by Christians to mark the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. There is a sense in which the young and the old still share a sense of idealism and are more inclined to dream dreams and see visions than those in the middle age groups who are perhaps more preoccupied with the daily grind of work and the responsibilities of family life. We should celebrate the idealism of those of us reaching the twilight of our years, and I speak as a soon to be retired baby boomer. It is often said that our generation, which has had it so good, has left the young without the chances and benefits that we had. Perhaps the least we can do is share something of our dreams and visions with them and stand together across the generations, just as Patrick Hamilton and Walter Mylne did, not as martyrs, but in a shared hope and faith.
For many years I have organised a walk of witness and prayer through the streets of St Andrews every Good Friday afternoon. We pause to reflect and pray at several of the sites associated with our troubled religious history. Initially, this walk involved just the congregations of the Church of Scotland parish churches but some years ago I invited the local Roman Catholic priest to join us.
Standing in front of the castle, the old Bishops’ Palace, scene of so much hatred and violence, he publicly apologised for the atrocities committed by the Roman Catholic Church against Protestants in the past, and spoke from the heart about the importance of people being able to follow their own consciences. I replied acknowledging that Protestants too had done some pretty terrible things in this period and asking for forgiveness. I think it touched all of us who were present, and it was certainly one of the most moving personal experiences I have had in more than 30 years of living here in St Andrews.
It’s spontaneous ecumenical and eirenic gestures like these which begin to heal our wounds and bring us together as one in Christ. In nine days’ time there will be a service here in St Andrews commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and involving virtually every church in the town. We will pledge ourselves not just to work together, but to be open to the insights of others and to listen to and learn from one another rather than just condemn and judge. We will acknowledge the deeply held convictions of the past but look to the future, a future where, filled by the Spirit, the young will dream dreams and the old will see visions, joined together in faith, in hope and in love.