Archbishop of Westminister on Saint John Fisher
The following are excerpts from the introduction of the Archbishop of Westminster's book: "St John Fisher: Bishop and Theologian in Reformation and Controversy", published by Alive Publishing (www.alivepublishing.co.uk).
As a man of his time, who carried many of the strengths and weaknesses of his age, John Fisher might appear distant from us today. Yet that need not be so. There are many themes of his thought and writing which carry strong echoes for us in this age.
Throughout his life, John Fisher had a deep concern for the well-being and ministry of the clergy. He realised that the health of the Church depended largely on the health of the parish and, in turn, this depended on the work and presence of the clergy. Many of his initiatives, especially during his years of academic life, were aimed at the support and improvement of the priests of his day.
Fisher's concern was of the hardheaded variety. He did not hesitate to point out the failures of the clergy. Indeed he did so at times with vigour: Perhaps his most famous phrase in this regard is to be found in his Sermons on the Seven Penitential Psalms, printed in 1509. Preaching on Psalm 102, he said that whereas in the past there had been "no chalices of gold but there was many golden priests, now there be many chalices of gold and almost no golden priests". What is clear, however, is that this kind of admonition had been very much in fashion for some time. Indeed this very phrase use by Fisher had been taken from an Advent sermon of the Florentine Dominican Friar Savonarola. Many standard sermons and exhortations listed the failures of the clergy in a manner which changed little over a great number of decades.
Yet the evidence of parish life, as far as we can tell, did not support such an entirely pessimistic outlook. There was real hardship among the clergy. Also there was real support given to them, at least in the publications and hand-books available to them, sound advice about pastoral practice and clearly focussed help for their weekly sermons.
All of this has some resonance today. It is again popular to criticise the clergy. Has it not always been so? Of course now as then some of the criticism is justified. But its generalisation is not. Now as then there is much evidence of the untiring work of the majority of priests and those who assist them. There is ample evidence of the ongoing formation for priests, of the resources and opportunities available to them. There is a need today, as then, to look at the facts of parish life rather than the popular impressions.
It might also be a consolation to recall that in the fourteenth century too the question of clerical celibacy was contentious and its abolition proposed as the solution to many of the failings attributed to priests.
Fisher's main effort in support of the clergy was in the area of education. He wanted a clergy that was better educated, thereby better able to inform and form itself for its important ministry. And in that ministry the task of teaching the faith was uppermost in his mind. He wanted his priests to be able and ready to study. He wanted them to bring the fruits of that study into their preaching. He wanted a laity that understood their faith and not be led astray by erroneous opinions and error. Thus was behind his initiatives at Cambridge.
Together with Lady Margaret Beaufort he pushed forward the priority that academic work in the University should be at the service of the parochial clergy. This was to be seen most clearly in the foundation of St John's College. For this College both the vision and purpose of education were crystal clear. The vision was one of faith, uprightness of life and education coming together in the closest harmony. Its purpose was the formation and support of the parochial clergy. Nor was this a narrow or backward-looking enterprise. Fisher worked hard to integrate the best of the new learning that was beginning to come into English University life. This consisted in the study of the Biblical languages themselves and a new attitude and use of the Scriptural texts as a source of inspiration both academically and spiritually. Fisher was not afraid of innovations. Rather he firmly believed that they could serve the greater good of the Church and revitalise its traditions and practices.
What would be Fisher's view of similar matters today? He would be dismayed at the public failings of even one priest. He would be adamant about the need for personal renewal and discipline of life. He would look to us bishops and priests in particular to give a clear and helpful account of the truths of faith in a manner which spoke to people of today. I think he would be delighted at the richness of resource available to us, embracing with enthusiasm some of the potential of contemporary means of communication while always on guard for the way in which these same means can be used to circulate misleading or corrosive views. In short, he would recognise a similar pattern of strengths and weaknesses and would offer to us today the same example of steadfast study, disciplined self-application, courage of expression and faithful observance of duty, not least the duty of personal prayer and devotion.
As a reformer, then. Fisher's stance was clear. Reform was not a matter of radical change of structure or teaching of the Church, but rather an issue of personal lives being reformed to the age-old wisdom of the Church in each contemporary setting. I cannot believe that his stance would be any different today.
He understood well that structured efforts were needed in patterns of education and in its content so that the best of academic work could be brought to serve the ministry of the Church. This, after all, was the real purpose of research: the greater service of the truth of Christ proclaimed in and by the Church. Such reforms were matters for those who carried academic responsibility and oversight Fisher would be dismayed, perhaps even astonished, that theological academic effort today has, for the most part, moved so far from its origins and its definition as faith seeking understanding. But this would not turn him away from such effort. Rather it would reinvigorate his determination that theology again finds its traditional "raison d'etre".
At the heart of this study, however, is the figure of John Fisher, theologian and bishop, in a period of profound controversy. Here too there is much for us to learn today.
As a first step, it is important toremember that the first controversy to envelop his life was not that of divorce of Henry VIII and his subsequent break with the Holy See, but that of the proclamations of Martin Luther. This is the context in which we first see Fisher at work in defending the teaching of the Church and engaging with those who were opposed to it. Here the central issue was that of the Lutheran claim of the priority and authority of Scripture alone. In his defence of the Catholic
position, Fisher did not concede any ground at all. He used every argument from the tradition of the Church, as well as from Scripture, to insist that the views being expressed by Luther were erroneous.
This appeal to the weight of tradition and to the voices of the Fathers of the Church, while being thoroughly traditional, also bears more modern resonances. This is the pathway also taken by John Henry Newman as he struggled to come to terms with the need for continuity in the teaching tradition of the Church alongside the development of that teaching. Newman's study of the Church Fathers convinced him, that there was, within the Catholic Church, an unbroken line of teaching
which was discernable within a proper development. This was essentially Fisher's argument, too, although put forward in conflict with the Protestant reformation of Luther.
In the context of his conflict with Luther, Fisher's intentions and method were not shaped for dialogue. He was interested in defeating Luther's arguments, not in engaging with them.
One of the conclusions of this study was that Fisher's long and arduous efforts in theological controversy may not have been closest to his heart. He was, in many ways, an academic, but only when understood in its contemporary sense: one who wished above all else to pursue the deepest riches of faith in a setting of prayer and community life as experienced in the University colleges of his day.
This deepest longing emerged again in his prison cell in the Tower of London as he awaited trial and execution. During this time his writing turned again to the quest of the soul for God. His final end came after a year of imprisonment. We are told that on the morning of his execution, 22 July 1539, he was awakened by the prison officer at 5:00 a.m. and told that his execution was to be at 10:00 a.m. He promptly asked to be allowed to sleep a few more hours!
Herein lies his true greatness: peace before God and within himself. May his example continue to inspire us today.