BY SIMON CALDWELL
FOR CENTURIES the headless body of one of the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation has lain buried in an unmarked grave.
The remains of St John Fisher, one of the most significant figures in English religious history, are hidden among the corpses of hundreds of executed prisoners in the crypt of the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.
But on Monday, the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he received the recognition he always deserved when he was jointly honoured by Catholic and Anglican leaders in a ceremony inside the tiny church on Tower Green.
Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor joined Anglican Bishop Richard Chartres of London, the Dean of the Chapels Royal, in unveiling a plaque inside the crypt which finally acknowledges that the man who died a traitor’s death in the summer of 1535 was in fact a “bishop, cardinal, martyr and saint”.
The plaque stands yards from the saint’s remains and those of St Thomas More, his contemporary, who was honoured with a bust and plaque in the crypt in 1970. It was the initiative of Peter Bearcroft, Knight Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, who for the last 13 years has arranged Masses in the Bell Tower cell where St John spent his last 14 months.
He said: “Nowhere is the name of Fisher commemorated in the Tower. No one knew he was a cardinal and a saint and I thought that had to be redressed and I thought I had to do that ... the important thing to remember is that Fisher, if anything, is the saint for ecumenism. He really tried to maintain the unity of the Western Church.” Mr Bearcroft’s sentiments were echoed by Auxiliary Bishop Alan Hopes of Westminster, a former Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism in the 1990s. “It’s a very splendid occasion,” he said. “We have brought the Churches together for this great occasion. St John Fisher has brought us together with his prayers. St John Fisher has brought us this far, we have to carry on until we reach completion.” The dedication of the plaque came at the end of an evensong service in the Chapel Royal, an event which included addresses from Bishop Chartres and Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, only the second post-Reformaton cardinal, after Cardinal John Heenan in 1970, to attend a service there.
Bishop Chartres began his address by pointing out that the Tower had “seen much death” but was now a “place of renewed hope” and “ecumenical adventure” before he explained why a “brace of Anglican bishops” were paying tribute to a man who died to uphold the authority of the Pope. “No Church emerged from the 16th century without radical change for good and for ill,” said Bishop Chartres.
“John Fisher was himself a reformer, a fact that was sometimes obscured by polemics. He has been miscast as an unbending champion of an old order ... he knew very well and he showed in his preaching that the Church needed reform and renewal in its spiritual life, which, of course, it always does.” Bishop Chartres called Henry VIII a tyrant and a “masterpiece of egotism with a genius for propaganda” and said that by placing the plaque in the crypt the Church was honouring “protest against any state with messianic pretensions” and was saluting the courage and discernment of Bishop Fisher.
Introduced by Bishop Chartres as “our cardinal”, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said martyrs were people animated by love for God, something, he said, which was as true of Protestant reformers such as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and the Lollards as it was of 16th century Catholics.
He said: “For some, the story of the martyrs of 16th century England can still touch a sensitive nerve in ecumenical relations — four-anda-half centuries after they died. So I think it is appropriate to pay tribute to the generosity of spirit and imagination which lies behind today’s service. Our celebration this evening is rich in symbolism, and I would like to think most powerfully rich in the symbolism of our reconciliation in the truth ... today is an occasion for giving thanks that we have come as far as we have. But it is also an occasion to ask the prayers of St John Fisher and all our Christian martyrs to keep us moving forward.” Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester concluded the service by calling on the intercession of St John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley, “both bishops of Rochester”.