This Saturday past I took the rare opportunity to attend the Annual Mass of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, held at All Saints, Ashmont. (All Saints is, by the way, a delightful Anglo-Catholic parish with a wonderful choir ministry with boys from the neighborhood.) I’ve never had any particular devotion to Charles. I confess that I went — and I probably wasn’t the only one — for the spectacle of it all. Strange as they can be (and SKCM is probably the strangest, from most perspectives), there is something deeply appealing about these old Catholic societies in Anglicanism. It thrills me that they exist at all, and that they continue to exist.
But that is to speak as an antiquarian of curiosities. Certainly we Catholics can stray in that direction and become more interested in preserving odd traditions than in cultivating the life of the Church. My tendency is to ask: Who doesn’t love an occasional solemn choral Mozart Mass with clouds of incense and unique hymns for procession? And the answer is, it turns out: quite a few people indeed. (We might then say that they should love it, but that is another subject.)
Anyway, back to Charles. If we can put aside all the real and interesting questions about Charles and his martyrdom (and these do remain: even his most sincere devotees do not think him perfect!), there are some genuinely compelling aspects of his cult that I found surprising. Take the fourth verse, for example, of one of the processional hymns (“Lord, let the strain arise”), and its shocking argument:
A century before
Great Charles was called to die,
A sinful king laid waste the Church –
Angered our God on high.
The fire of Heaven’s wrath
Waxed hotly more and more;
Until thy Royal blood, O Saint,
Cancelled the sin of yore.
Let that sink in for a minute, if necessary. Yes, it really does say what it seems to say: King Charles’ virtuous witness cancelled out the sinful schism of the English Church.
I find this compelling first because I know that no one will like it. Strict Roman Catholics will find it ridiculous (Charles was an Anglican, after all, and so incapable of true ecclesial virtue); Protestants will find it sickening, both in its historical judgment and in its appalling notion of saintly merit.
Whatever it is, it is anti-puritanical. It is against the simplistic modern legal precisions (both Catholic and Protestant) and their tendency to sever the good and the beautiful from the true. I confess that I love it, and not necessary because it is strictly true, but because it says something true — not that differently, perhaps, from the excessive declaration of the felix culpa that we hear in the Easter Exsultet — in a way that exceeds the normal bounds of language and meaning. Obviously Charles’ blood can’t “cancel” the sin of yore; nor did it, objectively, restore the pre-Reformation Church in any obvious sense; nor is it entirely clear what that would mean. All the same, the idea is that somehow Charles’ blood gave witness to the catholicity of the Church in a way that fittingly reversed another’s witness to its non-catholicity.
All this was driven home for me by Fr. Alexander’s sermon. He spoke on a small line from Dom Gregory Dix which recounts the execution of Charles as the moment “when medieval England came to its final end” (The Shape of the Liturgy, 745). Here, perhaps, is a way of thinking about Charles beyond the limitations of his questionable character: did he, at the end of the day, stand for something commendable? If his witness was, in some way, to the medieval vision of Church and society (to put it anachronistically), his cult today might have a promising role, insofar as it gives us a way, particularly as Anglicans, of purifying ourselves of the dross of modernity’s mercantile individualism and incapacity for thinking of the common good.