Two Deaths, and Their Meanings

By Peter Groves

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-31)

On this day, January 30, in the year 1649, a death occurred in London. Of course, no doubt many deaths occurred in London on that day, but this one was of particular interest. A wealthy man of noble birth, a man convinced that he had a God-given right to rule over and command his fellow Christians, was put to death at Whitehall in highly public circumstances. It was a cold day and, given those public circumstances, he wore two shirts to make sure he did not shiver, lest those who observed thought him afraid. He made a speech to the crowd, in which it was made clear that ordinary people should not seek a share in their government, and, after uttering his last words — “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be” — had his head severed from his body. That man is known to us as King Charles I, and his portrait hangs behind me.

Charles is revered by some as king and martyr. Were January 30 not a Sunday, the Church of England’s calendar would urge us to remember him with the words “grant us your grace so to follow his example that we may love and bless our enemies.” Notice the use of the word so in that collect: grant us your grace so to follow his example — not generally to follow his example, but in this way to follow his example, to pray for our enemies. This, the command of the gospel, is something to which we should aspire, and something in Charles we should admire.

It’s often said that Charles I did more for the Church of England by his death than he ever did while alive. He approached death with a remarkable and prayerful calm that characterized his finest hour. The painting of Charles behind me was examined last year by an expert from the Ashmolean and I was surprised to learn that it is probably very old, likely to be 17th century in origin. I was less surprised to learn that it is worth very little simply because it’s so dreadful, but its age is interesting because it probably started life as an ordinary 17th-century family portrait of someone else and then, when the Restoration came and the Cult of Charles went through the roof, was quickly rehashed into a picture of the martyred monarch that could be flogged for a pretty sum.

The same transformation could be said to have occurred to the painting’s subject. The argument goes that Charles is a martyr because he fought to preserve catholic order in the English church. As the pious hymn says, “Royal Charles, who chose to die, rather than the faith deny.” It’s stirring stuff, which conveniently and deliberately forgets that he agreed to impose Presbyterianism in return for the help of a Scottish army to save his throne. Perhaps we should suggest the words “Royal Charles kept himself well, offering the faith to sell.”

It’s also true that the doctrine Charles presupposed relies unequivocally on an understanding of the divine right of monarchs, which excludes government by the people. But none of these things is really the point. The fact that he was vain, insensitive, mendacious, stupid, selfish, duplicitous, capricious, and incompetent shouldn’t prevent his remembrance — after all, if people with faults couldn’t be made holy, we’d all be in huge trouble. Remembrance has made Charles into someone else, and now, to some people in some sense, he is a saint, because it’s what God chose to do with his death and what followed that matters.

The Bible, of course, is suspicious of powerful people. “Seek integrity, seek humility on the day on the day of the anger of the Lord. In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people,” says the prophet Zephaniah. St. Paul is even more explicit — “When you were called,” he writes to the Corinthians, “how many of you were wise, how many were influential, how many were noble?” None of you. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, sets out a picture of those who are on the right track. It’s no accident that the Beatitudes are read for the Feast of All Saints. Jesus defines what it means to be holy: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who show mercy, those who seek peace, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. These are the people who have got it right, who are living in accordance with God’s will, who have ordered their lives in the way that God wishes for us all. They are unlikely to have the trappings and advantages that we can boast. There is no mention of power or wealth, but poverty and persecution are much in evidence. These are not people whom the world thinks happy, but the wisdom of the world was, is, and will be confounded by God.

On this day, January 30, this time in the year 1997, another death occurred in London. Again, no doubt many deaths occurred in London on that day, but this one was of particular interest. The scene was not Whitehall but Whitechapel, and the setting the dark of the Royal London Hospital. A young man, admitted two days earlier after an overdose, left his hospital bed and walked from his ward up several flights of stairs until he found an accessible window on the hospital’s top floor. He opened the window and jumped. Someone saw him fall past a window lower down and an emergency team rushed him from the street below into an operating theatre, but nothing could be done. By his bed was found a note that said, “Don’t try to stop me. There is a place for me, but it is not here.” Under those words, he had drawn a cross. That man’s name was Andrew Groves, and he was my brother.

Andrew was an alcoholic and a depressive, whose suicide came — in the end — as a relief. Despite its sudden horror, it was a death preferable to the lingering pain of cirrhosis of the liver, which by then was the only realistic alternative.

Remembrance can be transformative, but it can also be deceptive. It would be easy for me to make a martyr of my brother, to venerate him as a victim of mental illness and addiction, and to turn him into someone and something other than he was. But though easy, it would also be dishonest, and disrespectful to those who today suffer the daily agonies that he endured, a far greater number of people than most of us realize, blighted by one of the most destructive diseases of modern life.

Instead of this form of false remembrance, I do better to hold on to the person I knew and loved and still love, not some rehashed portrait or computer-enhanced reproduction. It is real people who matter, because it is real people who are created and loved in the image of God. And so on this the day of resurrection, while the world reinvents a man of pomp and power, I hope that Charles Stuart will forgive me for praying for the soul of someone else, someone who, like Charles, came to the end of his life entirely deluded as to the will of God and the right thing to do, but still met his death blindly hoping to meet his maker.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

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