Thomas Ken, Nonjuror

Bishop Edward King Chapel

I think there are two types of people in this life.  Those who read labels, instructions and recipes before opening packets, boxes and proceeding to start assembling, cooking or whatever – and those who don’t.  For those in the middle, like me, it is not so much an antipathy for reading these things as it is failing to make any sense of them.  IKEA are the worst.  ‘IKEA’, as you know, is a subtle Swedish mnemonic for ‘invite your neighbour round, who has a toolkit, and who may actually know what they are doing’.  I do not.  The phrase ‘flat-packed for your convenience’ is to me, a cruel taunt.

Labels on packing are no better.  Have you noticed how pointless some of them are, in our risk-aversion society?  On a bag of pistachios – ‘may contain nuts’: note the ‘may’.  A carton of juice might state ‘warning, potential choking hazard’ – but only if you thought you might have stab at swallowing the thing whole.  Or, on a carton of milk, ‘to consume, open at other end’ is another favourite.  And in nearly every case, long notices are concluded, rather mockingly in my view, with these words ‘always read the label’.  You couldn’t read it unless you had.

As with most things, long before consumerism got into the business of labelling and packaging, religion was there before it.  Not always with great results, either.  It is perhaps OK to think that on Monday, we shall celebrate ‘St. Barnabas the Encourager’ – a nice epithet for any of us.  But consider poor old ‘James the lesser’.  I am not sure about you, but this strikes me as being a little less complimentary.  Lesser in what aspects, exactly?  You can almost hear the sniggering at the back of class at this one.  And which of us would like to be known for being minor rather than major keys?  Labelling might be accurate, but it can also be constricting and constraining: ‘Mark the shorter’; ‘Martyn the younger’, ‘Raymond the Elder’ for example; or even ‘Michael the Northerner’; see what sort of fun you could have with the staff alone.

So what then, are we to make of Thomas Ken, Nonjuror?  And why, exactly, does it make any sense at all to preach on him at this, our Leavers’ Service?  One brief and obvious answer is to simply state that none of us should be judged by or buy into the reductionism that accompanies a label.  Those of you about to be ordained will be inducted into the world of ecclesial and pastoral shorthand: brief, summary ‘labels’ that try to encapsulate persons and situations.  It is, of course, a way of learning quickly – but the simplicity can be deceptive.  It is easy to collude with the headlines that say ‘he’s trouble’; ‘she’s difficult’; ‘he’s fragile’; ‘she’s unreliable’; ‘they’re awkward’; or ‘that family isn’t what it seems’.  To say nothing of ‘catholic’, ‘evangelical’, ‘liberal’ or ‘happy clappy’.

But I guess, if we have taught you anything here, by simply living in community, it is not to be deceived by superficial labels.  There is more to a person or persons than meets the eye.  It takes time to discover people’s gifts and potential – and most especially in otherness, strangeness and the unfamiliar.  Sure, always read the label – but don’t confuse the description with the goods that are actually on offer.

Thomas Ken, might be rather weary of being known and listed as ‘non-juror’.  Born in Berkhampstead, he was ordained in 1662, the year of Charles II’s Restoration.  After serving in a very poor parish in Winchester Diocese, and being Chaplain at Winchester College, he was consecrated as Bishop of Bath and Wells.  So far, so good.  But trouble came with the accession of the Roman Catholic James II to the throne.  James II proposed to rescind the Restoration penal laws, and Thomas, and six fellow bishops, felt in conscience that they could not comply.  They were imprisoned for this on this day, 1688. 

But good news – or so it may have seemed – was not far off.  In the Orange Revolution, James II fled, and the relatively bloodless coup saw William and Mary take the throne.  Thomas was released from prison, and free to return to his Episcopal duties.  Except that he felt a vow was a vow, and an oath was an oath – and that he could not forswear his allegiance to James II, who was still his living and anointed monarch.  Unable to make a new oath to a new king, Thomas was deprived of his See, and retired, spending his final years writing hymns, many of which are still sung to this day.

What do we take from this, you may wonder?  Obviously, one lesson is that conscience matters – sometimes even more than preferment.  Expressed more seriously, we might say that there is a cost in discipleship, and sometimes that cost is considerable in terms of sacrifice. 

Whether or not you agree with Thomas Ken’s choice is beside the point.  What cannot be denied, however, is that he chose the gospel over his continuance and furtherance in the church.  And yet, with what one can only assume was monumental charity and grace on his part, he continued to contribute to the same church that had wounded and deprived him.  There is love; costly love that gives, and does not count the cost.  This is why I rather dislike the ‘non-juror’ label.  Thomas Ken shouldn’t be defined by what he wasn’t, but by what he was – a writer of hymns, a pastor, and a man of integrity who put his discipleship and spirituality above his (lost) preferment.  Faithfulness mattered more than ‘success’.  I don’t expect for a moment that many of us will have to make the kind of dramatic choice that Thomas Ken had to make.  But what can we take from his life and example to help us in our formation?  Several things merit mention.

First, don’t be afraid of weakness. Thomas Ken knows well that he holds treasure in clay jars – and he is the clay.  It is this that allows him to move aside, and into a kind of self-imposed retirement.  For he knows this is not the end.  No matter how the rancorous politics that threatens to overwhelm him is resolved, Thomas Ken knows that he is afflicted, but not crushed; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. 

Second, there is a patience in his work and example that exhibits a genuine wisdom.  Here is someone committed to the long game, who has understood that the Christian life is lived more in waiting and hope than in results.  He is alert, and does not cede to despair.  Even in his post-Episcopal phase, he turns his mind to creativity when it could have easily capitulated to bitterness.  All of us, I think, encounter projects and persons in ministry that either fail to turn out to be all that we hoped, or can even become arenas of defeat. 

Third, Thomas Ken is priestly and principled.  There is something prayerfully methodical about this man.  Underpinning his commitment we do not find stubbornness or pig-headedness, but rather integrity and resolve that lead him to take a path that loosens his relationship with power and privilege.  I like this – it is a good pattern to contemplate as we are formed and re-formed for ministry.  He understands his vocation as a release – not something that is to be grasped.  St. John of the Cross knew this all too well:

To reach satisfaction in all,

desire its possession in nothing.

To come to possess all,

desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all,

desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all,

desire the knowledge of nothing. 

(The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book1, Chapter 13, 11)

So, I am not especially keen on this ‘Thomas Ken Nonjuror’ label in the lectionary.  There is more to him than that.  And I suppose that is my point.  Just as there is much more to each and everyone of you that is preparing for ordination than the epithets and nicknames that you’ll get.  To be sure, you’ll be labelled, and sometimes the temptation to label all you encounter is irresistible.  We all know, of course, that labelling and categorisation is needed to begin with, so we can make sense of things, and order and process what we see and what is happening to us.  But look deeper.  Look beyond superficial descriptions and the easy labels that abound in the church.  As one recent writer puts is:

“Martin Luther’s central theological insight was that only when you have given up trying to make it under your own steam can you adopt a proper attitude of reliance upon God. Failure is the beginning of success. It’s a high-risk strategy emotionally. A bit like that game where you fall backwards trusting that someone will catch you”. (Giles Fraser).

That is when we can begin to discover the riches of God’s light and treasure in the earthenware.  We discover the saint in the nonconformist; the spiritual person in the apparently awkward pedantic rebel; or the person of deep principle and integrity who just seemed, superficially, to have become obsessed with rules. 

In other words, look for the Christ in the odd, the alien, the stranger, the awkward and the unexpected.  Find him in the desert places and in apparent failure, not just in apparent success.  And in your diaconal and priestly formation, remember that he often comes to us in the unfamiliar.  And even when the chips are down, stick at it with prayer, hope and love.  Because Christ will use your faithfulness, which will always matter far more than success.  As Paul reminds us, God has said ‘let light shine out darkness’ – and it is this God who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in face of Jesus Christ.  It is the case, I suppose, that nothing less than his face is what we seek to be reflected in our own expression: his compassion, empathy, joy, peace and tenderness. 

So, if we can embody something of this in our lives and ministries, we will, God willing, be difficult to label.  But we will be wonderful to know – not for what we have done or not done, but for what we are.  For being, not doing.  For people will say, perhaps of you and me, that they have maybe caught a glimpse of God.  It is this that we are called; to hold the treasure in jars of clay, as Paul says, ‘so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’. 

Be open then, to what is coming.  See beyond the labels.  Be yourselves – the wonderful self that God has already made you, and is moulding – the pot that God has shaped and is shaping.  It may go well; it may go pear-shaped, sometimes.  No matter.  Whatever happens, be faithful.and rejoice in the work that God is doing in you, and will do through you.  May God give you grace and courage to follow all his saints in faith, in hope and love, wherever that may be.