Today marks the 450th anniversary of one of the most famous executions in British history. There have been many deaths and executions in Britain. But the double execution on the 16th October 1555 has always stirred the hearts of Christian people.
During the short reign of Mary Tudor several hundred Christians were executed for their belief. But amongst them this day stands out, together with the execution of Thomas Cranmer, as one of the blackest days in our Christian history.
Hugh Latimer at 70 was the old man of the reformation. He had been a leading preacher in England even before his conversion. His understanding of justification by faith led to a changed man and made him a new preacher. Always fearless, he was a man of great eloquence and yet a common touch. But from the time of his conversion he did more than preach against the corruption and abuses of church and society—he preached of salvation by Christ’s death as the substitute for our sins.
Latimer was appointed Bishop of Worcester in 1535. In the later years of Henry VIII he fell from favour. Twice he was imprisoned for his beliefs. When Henry died and Mary came to the throne, Latimer was imprisoned a third time. He was forced into disputations with the Roman Catholic theologians over the sacrifice of the mass and transubstantiation. Latimer refused to recant his Biblical views. So on October 16th 1555 he was burnt at the stake in Oxford.
Nicholas Ridley was as much an academic bishop as Latimer was a preacher. Ridley had been the Master of Pembroke Hall in Cambridge University. He became the Bishop of Rochester and then the Bishop of London. Reading the famous 9th century monk Ratrammus he became convinced of the error of transubstantiation. From the 1530’s he was persuaded to the view of the reformers. He was instrumental in the compilation of the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer. He removed stone altars in churches in London, replacing them with wooden communion tables.
Seeing the danger of Mary’s reign Ridley was a supporter of Jane Grey. For this political error he was imprisoned upon the accession of Mary in 1553. Enduring the same Roman Catholic disputations at Oxford with Latimer and Cranmer—Ridley refused to recant his Protestant views of the communion. For this he was sentenced to death.
And so on 16th of October 1555 both Latimer and Ridley were tied to the stake. It was not a quick or humane death. It was designed to be a painful, public humiliation. Their death was to be an example and a warning. As the fire was lit, Latimer famously called out to Ridley:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.
Sadly the light is now flickering very low. The false teaching of the mass and the re-introduction of altars are widespread. The rejection of the Bible and its teaching is common within the church. Roman Catholicism is worse. It has moved further away from the truth. Without recanting of the errors that lead to the reformation it has added the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and Papal Infallibility in the 19th century and the bodily assumption of Mary in the 20th century.
We can and should be thankful that the separation of state and church has overcome barbaric executions of people with whom we disagree. Tolerance has been a hard won privilege that we do not want to compromise. Today in Sydney we enjoy good relations with people of varying traditions and religions. Old prejudices and tribal hostilities are not to be renewed.
However we must not confuse these better relations with an acceptance of error. We must always be ready to recognise the truth and stand up for it even to our own hurt. We enjoy the freedoms of believing and teaching the Biblical gospel in the Anglican church and in our society because men like Latimer and Ridley were willing to die for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. They lit a candle that we in our age must keep alight and pass onto the next generation.