John Hunwicke reflects on his own church in Oxford and the changing allegiances during five turbulent centuries

The King ordered the ports to be guarded to prevent papal letters I being brought in. And if any monk brought them in, the King ordered that he should have his feet chopped off; if any clergyman, he should lose his eyes and his genitals; if any layman, he should be hanged; and if a leper [I think environmental health considerations come in here] he should be burned.’ That seems a fairly fierce set of penalties. The king was a Henry; he was scheming and plotting against a pope.

These details are found in a biography of St Thomas of Canterbury, written by Bishop John de Grandisson of Exeter – the builder of that splendid cathedral which presides over Devon. If you go in its west door and look directly up, you’ll see a gigantic roof-boss put there by Grandisson depicting the martyrdom of St Thomas.

The copy of his book from which I have just translated is in the Bodleian Library here in Oxford, in attractive binding of the Renaissance period. Inside, in elegant Italianate script, are the words Regi-naldi Pooh Liber, The Book of Reginald Pole. And Cardinal Pole seems to have acquired the book in 1539 – a troubled year in England and not least in Oxford. The great Abbey across the way there in Oseney was being suppressed: a vast church and a set of buildings the size of all the then university put together.


But Pole was not in Oxford or even in England to see all this. He was in Italy dodging Henry’s assassins. He had just written a book called The Defence of Church Unity. It made Henry hopping mad, or ‘very concerned’ as modern management-talk would put it. He passed an act of Attainder enabling him to execute Pole’s relatives and associates without trial; eventually he got round to beheading Margaret, Pole’s mother. At Glastonbury and Reading and Colchester the abbots and some monks were being hanged, drawn and quartered.

The atmosphere, I suppose, was rather similar to that in the Germany of 1944, after the German colonels tried to assassinate Hitler and the paranoia-filled tyrant set out upon his murderous revenge; Gregory Dix called Henry’s England the closest we ever got to the rule of the Gestapo. And how similar it was to the England of that other Henry, Henry II, who eventually had Thomas a Becket murdered. Indeed, Henry VIII spotted the parallels and banned the observance of St Thomas’ festivals, so that our little church had to change its title, temporarily, to St Nicolas.

When the nightmare of Henry’s reign ended, and after a bloodthirsty interlude of six years, England breathed again and this church recovered its patron saint and his festivals were again observed. Pole became Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury and, on that happy St Andrew’s Day in 1554, reunited England with Rome.

He must have felt that his book and the blood of his martyred mother had borne their fruits.

Desire for unity

Of course, the turmoils of the Reformation period hadn’t really gone away, and after Pole’s death the unity of Christ’s Church was again broken (and this church ordered to change its patron again). And how the English Church has suffered from 450 years of disruption: one king executed, another exiled, civil wars, revolutions. Things improved in the twentieth century as the Catholic Revival struggled to restore the customs and texts of Catholic worship; and always, there has been the desire for the unity of all Christ’s Church.

For a while, the ideal of Christian unity became fashionable; committees laboured, archbishops visited popes, popes visited archbishops, the prospects looked bright. But fashions pass; and a fashion for Christian unity was replaced by a fashion for women priests and bishops. All of a sudden Christian unity now took a very secondary place. Students of Scripture might be puzzled. The Lord prayed ‘that they all might be one’; he did not beg that ‘they may all be divided so that some of them can have women bishops!

Sometimes we are told that we can leave the Church of England and become Roman Catholics – what’s stopping us? -we’d be happier there. But why should we abandon our churches? Who built them? Who built St Thomas’?

Medieval Catholics, probably the monks of Oseney. And to whom did they dedicate it? To St Thomas a Becket, who worked and died for unity with Rome. And who built our daughter churches, St Frideswide’s, St Paul’s, St Barnabas’? They were not built by Protestants and they were not built by Liberals. They were built by Anglican Catholics who suffered and spent to create shrines for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and who longed for unity.

Freedom to continue

My own dearest hope is that, since the Church of England has decided to set aside the dream of unity and to pursue its own bright ideas, churches like St Thomas’ will be allowed to go our own way and have the freedom to continue our Anglican Catholic tradition and to find peace and unity and full communion with the wider church throughout the world; thus to be the true Church of England, the Church of Augustine and Becket and Pole, while the innovators go their way and follow their fads. Surely, there are enough church buildings for a fair division that would suit all.

Which reminds me: there is one of our former daughter churches which the Church of England deemed surplus to requirement. It is now a place of entertainment; but not even a smart and saucy place of entertainment.

If it were sexy and stylish, even that would be better than the sight of the plaster hanging off the walls. It makes you wonder whether, if the powers that be in their frantic quest for funds wanted to realize the value of the St Thomas’ site, they might sell off this building to become Railtrack’s new ticket office, perhaps, for their planned new platforms, or the West Oxford Mosque.

No – let congregations keep their churches and seek their separate futures. Such an outcome would rejoice the heart of that turbulent priest to whom this little parish church has clung as its patron over so many centuries, come Henries, come high water.