20 September 2008

The Asperges and Martyrdom

In August, 1549, the parish priest of the church of S Thomas the Martyr, Exeter, Fr Robert Welsh, was hauled to the top of his church tower, vested as for Mass, and hanged from a gallows at the top, 'havinge a holye water bucket, a sprinkle ... and such other lyke popyshe trashe hangued aboute him'. The holy water bucket related to one of the most 'up front' features of his weekly ministry.

The procession at the beginning of every Sunday's Parish Mass had just been abolished by Dr Cranmer. Very probably, the absence of the Asperges at the start of Sunday Mass on Whit Sunday 1549 (the day the First English Prayer Book was ordered to be used) represented the first moment at which the people of England realised, with a fury that mounted as that Mass continued, that they were being robbed of the communal rituals which cemented not only their religious but their secular life: if, indeed, one may distinguish the two. The Asperges was not just a preliminary to Mass or (as in the modern rite) an optional way of doing 'The Rite of penitence'; it was an elaborate procession which went around the church to sprinkle the altars (themselves expressions of the intricate common life of the medieval Christian and his guilds and chantries) and the members of the congregation. It perhaps went outside and sprinkled the graves of the departed, bringing into one unity the departed as well as the living. The water was taken into households and sprinkled to put the evil spirits to flight. Eamon Duffy writes of the 'emphasis on the location, and maintenance of blessing, healing and peace within the community'. The congregation was not an atomised association of individuals who chanced to be in one place but an organic living whole.

Fr Welsh, as even the protestant chronicler acknowledges, 'verie patientlie toke his dethe, he hadd benne a good member in his commonwelthe had not the weedes overgrowne the good corne and his foule vices overcomed his vertewes'.

His 'foule vices', of course, were his brave resistance to the tyranny which was bent on depriving the people of England of their Faith, and, in doing so, of their whole social cohesion. Neither worship nor parish life ever recovered from that most unspiritual Pentecost.

1 comment:

rev'd up said...

Excellent history lesson. Thanks.