A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

St John Kemble

JOHN KEMBLE PILGRIMAGE, 18th August 2013, at Welsh Newton Church



Sermon preached by Richard Barton

During the last few weeks my bedtime reading has been a biography of the nineteenth century Free-Thinker, Charles BRADLAUGH. As you may know BRADLAUGH was a respected, at least by some, Rationalist, Atheist, Liberal Politician, Republican and Champion for Social Justice. In one of the many Tributes, published in this book, we find the words – ‘BRADLAUGH was a Martyr.’  I suppose in many ways he was. He wasn’t burnt at the stake or hung drawn and quartered but he certainly suffered for his beliefs, or rather lack of them, and he received cruel treatment from many of his religious enemies.

The gunning down of CHE GUEVARA near to the remote Bolivian town of HIGUERAS, in 1967, gave the twentieth century its most iconic Martyr.  Depending on your political colour you might label CHE a Terrorist, Guerrilla, Freedom Fighter, Hero, but many throughout the world still cry MARTYR.

The term ‘Martyr’ is, of course, loaded and pliable. GUNTER GRASS in his acclaimed novel ‘CRABWALK’ explores Martyrdom and Heroism in the light of the sinking of the WILHELM GUSTLOFF during January 1945. This former Nazi, Freedom through Joy, cruiser / turned refugee carrier, was sunk one bitterly cold night by a Soviet submarine. Some 9,000 people, most of them women and children fleeing from the advancing Red Army, went down in the Baltic Sea, making it the deadliest maritime disaster of all time, yes, topping the TITANIC. Built around this event is the actual murder of Swiss Nazi Leader WILHELM GUSTLOFF by a man with Jewish background.  Many years later there is a fictional murder of a Jewish sympathiser by the Neo-Nazi grandson of a survivor of the sinking. GRASS leaves us to ponder – who are the heroes of these events? who are the Martyrs? In his book different groups honour as Martyrs the murder victims whilst others revere the two murderers. Alongside all this, colleagues struggle to have their submarine commander designated a Hero of the Russian People.

The point that I am trying to make with BRADLAUGH and GUEVARA, and the novel CRABWALK too, is that our use of the word Martyr is as potent as ever and has become ever more emotive and ever more elastic. In the novel the second victim was shot dead because he dared to spit on GUSTLOFF’s grave. He died, then, because he dared to defile a Nazi martyr’s grave – in refusing to recognize one martyr he becomes a martyr himself in the eyes of others. This is nothing new and that leads us to religious martyrs and why we are gathered here today.

At the age of twenty-seven I was largely responsible for the formation of the Gloucestershire Catholic History Society. What a coo when it was announced that eighty-five Roman Catholic martyrs of England and Wales were to be beatified by Pope John Paul II in November 1987. What an opportunity to promote our fledgling society, after all five of these martyrs had links with Gloucestershire.  I arranged for an eminent historian to lecture on Gloucestershire’s Catholic martyrs. The day came and a large crowd gathered to hear him. To my horror the good professor, an expert in the field, proceeded to question the justification for the beatification of some of the eighty-five. He suggested that the reasons for their trial and execution may have been tainted by political activities as distinct from purely religious ones. He highlighted too the paucity of factual evidence. O dear this was not what I wanted to hear! I had hoped he would present a set of Catholic pin-ups to out-shine the more famous of Gloucestershire’s sons who had perished in Mary’s flaming pyres.

So here I am, a quarter of a century later, Parish Priest of the Church of the English Martyrs in Gloucester, standing beside the grave of Saint John Kemble. Well I certainly feel very honoured to have been invited to share your pilgrimage day and I also feel grateful to you because you are offering me an opportunity to move on from the narrow vision that I have just expressed from twenty-five years ago.

It has taken years for me to appreciate that the stories of our different Christian communities are not separate and competing stories, with goodies and badies, but that as Christians we all share one story. In fact, history can actually be a useful tool to help us all along the road to reconciliation. It can speak of what we share rather than what has divided us. Some Christians seek to claim an exclusive continuity with the past. We have all heard the claim bandied – We are the real Church – you lot were only formed in such and such a year. Conversely others cry ‘Italian Mission.’

When I was an eighteen-year-old Theological student in London I dismissed Westminster Cathedral as a symbol of papal aggression. Ten years later, having swum the Tiber, I saw my own kinsman, WILLIAM TYNDALE, and his fellow martyr, JOHN HOOPER, as heretics who deserved what they got. We can all attempt to interpret the events of history so as to reinforce our own message; we can all simplify complex situations that we barely understand. For me, today then, our past history is a shared history, both good times and bad, and we can all learn valuable lessons from it.

Digging through the pages of our rich Christian story we encounter John Kemble. For many of you gathered here, today, he is a local man who suffered for his faith long, long, ago. Certainly in his life he must have witnessed much. During his youth he saw the results of Elizabeth’s religious settlement; his family were Royalists and he may well have stood alongside his brother George and watched the castle at Pembridge being pummelled to dust during the bitter days of the Civil War. He saw the ascendancy of Independents and Presbyterians during the Commonwealth. He probably rejoiced at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and would have followed events as the state Episcopal Church was re-created and the Prayer Book published two years later. But Kemble seems to have looked back to earlier days. He tried to remain faithful to what he considered to be the Old Ways, the Old Church, in his own words ‘THE RELIGION THAT FIRST MADE THIS KINGDOM CHRISTIAN’. None of the new ways seem to have attracted him.

So Kemble ministered quietly at Pembridge for fifty-three-years as traumatic events unfolded around him; the hysteria surrounding the alleged plot, informants, arrests, trials and executions, then the knock on the castle door. He quietly accepted what was happening to him as he was led away with snow under foot. As an old man of eighty, he faced imprisonment, his own trial, his last pipe, the cup of sack with friends, the hurdle, the gory execution. He firmly denied any connection with any political plot – “I die only for the profession of the Catholic Religion.”

Here his body lies, undisturbed, in this quiet churchyard. Here he lies alongside his neighbours – with some who perhaps share his genes, with those who experienced with him some of the turbulent events and changes of the seventeenth century and yet responded to them in a host of different ways.

It is good to be here, to feel the calm, the holiness of this ancient church, to experience the welcome of those who worship here today, to be with those who gather year after year from far and wide.

What I love about this place is that there is no gaudiness, no tinsel show, no attempt to dig up an old man’s body and snatch him away from those whom he loved. No plans to move his remains to some church down the road where he will be claimed exclusively by a group that wants him entirely for themselves. Here he belongs to all of us. His story is shared by all of us – whatever type of Christian we may claim to be. May this long continue to be a place where we can gather, not to indulge in religious polemic, or triumphalist rant, but to smoke our pipe together and honour a fellow human being who sought to serve Our Lord as best he could.

In those words of St Paul that we heard earlier:

‘We are often troubled but not crushed, sometimes in doubt but never in despair. There are many enemies but we are never without a friend.’

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