May marks the centennial of the legal joining of the towns of Salem and Winston in 1913. Our congregation was just a year old, Sunnyside still a bustling new suburb with Model T Fords chugging around the streets and the trolley car that ran up South Main Street was run by the Fries Manufacturing and Electric Company.
By this time, of course, “Salem” was the old town and “Winston” was the bubbling, exciting, center of business. So there is some justification in people talking about the joining of “Winston” and “Salem,” though I am sort of honor-bound to remind them that it was really the other way around, since Salem came first! Also, being a card-carrying member of the Language Police, I get a dour look whenever anyone discusses our minor league ball team, since the symbol joining the names is a hyphen, not a “dash.” And yes, there is a difference! Ask any English teacher or typesetter!
There will be a special Lovefeast celebrating the unification of the two towns into the city we know today on Mother’s Day, May 12, at 4:00 pm in May Dell the amphitheatre behind the Salem College Fine Arts Center. Special thanks to the Rt. Rev Graham Rights, who served on the planning committee, and David Shaffner and Robin Goslen, Head dieners of Home Moravian Church, for their organization of the serving of the lovefeast.
There are those who have complained to me that Moravians were not more acknowledged, or had more leadership in the planning of this centennial celebration. But just as my reminding folks that “Salem was first!” is kind of futile, this is a sort of complaint is a vain exercise on its own. As long as we “Followers of the Lamb” allow others to tell our story for us, we will be relegated to the past as a quaint footnote. Old Salem guides (unintentionally, I am sure) often leave visitors with the impression that Moravians have all died out, or that we still wear old-fashioned clothes like the Amish. Even our affiliated organizations seem as if they pay us an obligatory historical nod, but behave as if we are irrelevant today. The fact is, the City is not responsible for telling our story to outsiders, Old Salem is not responsible for telling our story to the world, Salem College and Salem Academy are not responsible for bearing the testimony of our faith to the young – WE are! We are responsible for our testimony – testimony that following the Lamb is a significant reality today, that living faithfully is something that we do now, that the community of faith is a living, viable, and significant part of life in the 21st century, not just an interesting historical footnote.
And, by the way – this sentence (and the last two) contained a real DASH. Winston-Salem is joined by a HYPHEN.
- Pastor John
Well, white smoke came out of the Vatican chimney, and the Roman Catholics have a new Pope — and an interesting one at that! Pope Francis I (formerly Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina) was elected on March 13th. He’s the first non-European Pope in centuries, he’s the first Jesuit Pope, and he has struck out on a new path by bringing his interest in simple living and advocacy for the poor into the Vatican. In his first days, he refused to wear the golden cross of his predecessors, preferring a simple iron cross, making his own phone calls, use public transportation instead of the “Popemobile,” and broke with tradition on Maundy Thursday by going to a prison and washing the feet of inmates. He chose the name of “Francis” to hold up the values of Saint Francis, who valued simplicity and service, honoring the poor, and respecting creation. Though there are those who criticize Archbishop Bergoglio for certain stances, we have to recognize how much of a transforming power he might be.
So what does all of this mean for Moravians? Nothing, directly. We abandoned the idea of a Pope over five hundred years ago, and even stepped away from having an earthly spiritual head in 1741 when we formally elected Jesus Christ as Chief Elder of the Moravian Church. But indirectly, it may have a lot to do with us, since many of the new Pope’s values – respect for the poor, the “last and the least,” valuing Creation, simplicity of life – are also Moravian values. And historically, the resignation of Benedict has a connection to our history: the last Pope to resign from office was Gregory XII, just a couple of days prior to the burning of Jan Hus in 1415. He had been elected specifically to serve as an interim Pope while the Western Schism, the fight between the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII and Antipope John XXIII, was resolved. The conflict of the three opposing Popes was resolved at the Council of Constance; the other business of the Council was the trail and execution of Jan Hus, whose followers later organized the Unitas Fratrum or Moravian Church. If you’re interested in this historic event, you can read more about it on my blog at The Last Pope Who Resigned.
We want to echo the values of simple living, respect for animals and creation, and ministry to the poor that the newly elected Pope accentuates with his name choice. So this month, we’ll be screening the classic 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon (about Saint Francis) and later this year we’ll be joining many other churches in holding a pet blessing service near Saint Francis’ feast day in early October. We’ve discussed such a service for many years, so this is the year we’ll put it into practice!
Papal Resignations and
the Beginnings of the Moravian Church
Pope Benedict XVI has resigned! News pundits the world over have been scrambling to answer the question of how long it has been since a Pope resigned – and the answer is just under 600 years, and the last Papal resignation was closely related to the start of the Unitas Fratrum, the Moravian Church.
At the end of the 14th century, the Roman Catholic world was divided: there were two opposing Pontiffs claiming to each be the one true heir of Saint Peter: Pope Benedict XIII (the Avignon Pope) and Pope Boniface XII (the Roman Pope). This “Western Schism” between Rome and Avignon, driven by power and politics rather than any theological issues, had been going on for over twenty years. When Boniface died in 1404, there was a period of mass confusion that might be called “shuffling the Popes.” Innocent VII was elected, only to die two years later – no one knows whether of natural causes or not. He was succeeded by Gregory XII. Gregory and Benedict initially agreed to meet in Savona, Italy to try and resolve the dispute – but both backed out at the last minute. In a soap opera worse than General Hospital in its weirdest years, the cardinals called a meeting in Pisa where they elected yet another Pope, Alexander V.
So, the year 1410 dawned with not one, not two, but three Popes. Perhaps Alexander would have been better to stay out of it all, for he only lived a few months as Pope – he died “suddenly” on May 3. Rumors that he had been poisoned by his successor, John XXIII, are just rumors without proof; but gosh, during this titanic struggle for power over all of Europe, lots of folks died unexpectedly shortly after being elected! So the election of John XIII settled nothing – there were still three Popes actively claiming to be the one true head of the Church of Rome.
This sordid mess, bubbling and burping and destabilizing European nations, was the culmination of several centuries of power struggles, politics, war, and corruption in the papacy. Into this world came an idealistic young Czech priest, Jan Huss (often called John Hus in English-speaking areas). An academic star at the University of Prague, Jan had become interested in the writings of John Wycliffe in England, who had argued that the Scriptures should be available in the common language, not just in Latin. He began preaching in Czech at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, attracting worshippers for miles around – worshippers who had never before heard the Gospel in a language they could understand. Hus opposed the sale of indulgences, a neat papal gimmick that helped finance the Crusades. Purchasers of indulgences were able to get time knocked off of purgatory for themselves or for a loved one – for a price, of course. Hus also taught that all believers should be able to receive holy communion in both kinds; during the Middle Ages the Church had begun to withhold the wine from commoners, only allowing ordained clergy to receive the wine and the bread. And Hus stepped on some pretty powerful toes by preaching that the clergy should adhere to a moral code – in other words, practice what they preached to others. These controversial stands (so similar to those of Martin Luther a hundred years later) attracted many and generated even more controversy.
The last thing Pope John XXIII needed was more controversy. He declared Hus a heretic and anyone who protected Hus would be excommunicated. He called a Church Council in Constance, Switzerland, which began in 1414, the primary business being to deal with the Schism – but also to deal with the upstart Jan Hus. Hus was invited to the Council to defend his views, and was given safe passage by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. However, when he arrived at Constance, he was arrested and imprisoned.
Hus was tried in classic medieval fashion – he was told he was a heretic and had to recant. When he challenged his accusers to show where in the Scriptures anything he had said was wrong, he was just told again that he had to confess and recant. When he complained that he had never said some of the things he was accused of, he was told again that he had to confess and recant.
At the last trial, on 8 June 1415, thirty-nine sentences were read to him, twenty-six of which had been excerpted from his book on the Church, seven from his treatise against Páleč, and six from that against Stanislav ze Znojma. Hus declared himself willing to submit to the Council if he could be convinced of any errors. This declaration was considered an unconditional surrender, and he was asked to confess:
- that he had erred in the theses which he had hitherto maintained;
- that he renounced them for the future;
- that he recanted them; and
- that he declared the opposite of these sentences.
He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines which he had never taught; he again challenged the Council to show him his error from the Scriptures. He stood firm before the Council and refused to recant, knowing that it would cost him his life. He was thrown back into the dungeon to await execution.
The titanic struggle between popes continued aboveground while Hus was left to rot in the dungeon. The Council decided that all three popes should resign and that a new pope would be appointed. Gregory agreed – and so did John at first. Benedict hemmed and hawed from Avignon. Finally, on July 4, 1415, Gregory resigned as he had agreed, but John fled the council, refusing to resign, apparently hoping that without him it would lose its authority. Instead, the council deposed him and declared him an “antipope.”
They turned their attention back to the unfortunate Hus, and two days later sentenced him to death by burning. He had a “devil’s miter” placed on his head, was declared an unredeemed heretic, and was tied to a stake. Given one last chance to recant and save his life, Hus said: “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.” He was then burned at the stake, and his ashes ground to fine powder and thrown into the Rhine River so that no followers would be able to retrieve a relic of any kind. He died singing a hymn, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Finished with the upstart heretic, the Council then turned its attention back to John XXIII, and tried him for “heresy, simony, schism and immorality,” finding him guilty on all counts. Edward Gibbon wrote, “The more scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was accused only of piracy, rape, sodomy, murder and incest.” The last remaining claimant in Avignon, Benedict XIII, refused to resign and was excommunicated and also declared an “antipope.” Martin V was elected as new pope in 1417.
So, the last Pope to resign voluntarily from office happened just two days before Jan Hus was burned at the stake. His followers would fight back, and the bloody Hussite Wars resulted in the formation of the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren, on March 1, 1457. This was before Martin Luther had even been born, making this movement the first true Reformation.
Some claim that Benedict VIII did not really resign voluntarily (since he was required to by the Council), that the last Pope to truly step down voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294. This may be splitting hairs.
An interesting note is that Antipope John XXIII was later regarded as being so evil that the name “John” was not used again by any pope for several hundred years. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli decided to redeem the name and also bridge the divide with Protestants by selecting the name John XXIII when he was elected in 1958. On his choice of names, he said:
I choose John … a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica [St. John Lateran]. Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have [been Pope], and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.
He went on to call the Second Vatican Council and undertake very significant reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s worthy of note that if the first John XXIII had possessed the large sense of humor that his 20th century version had, things might have been very different. But none of the Popes involved, or the cardinals at the Council, apparently possessed any sense of humor at all.
Once, when visiting the Holy Spirit Hospital in Rome, the mother superior welcomed him with the words, “Most Holy Father, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
“Well, I must say you’re lucky,” responded the huge Pope. “I’m only the Vicar of Jesus Christ!”
When asked by a newcomer to the Holy See how many people worked in the Vatican, the pontiff mischievously replied, “Oh no more than half of them.”
March 1, 1457 is the day recognized as the official date of the organization of the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren – so this month actually marks the 555th anniversary of the Moravian Church. This was sixty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral; and as I have recently had the opportunity to remind the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, it was over seventy-five years before the Church of England separated from Rome. Many historians now refer to the Hussite movement as the “First Reformation,” and recognize that there was in fact a strong and organized reform movementin place before Luther and Henry VIII were even born. The movement had an enormous impact on the life and worship of central Europe, much of which was wiped out in subsequent wars and swept under the carpet when the area later became Roman Catholic
Ours was a church born out of struggle and war that then sought a way to peace. Following the martyrdom of John Hus in 1415, his followers in Moravian and Bohemia rose up against the Roman Catholic armies, and a period known as the Hussite Wars began that ravaged the area. There were initially a number of different Hussite groups with varying and sometimes competing ideas; but as war raged on and these groups competed, eventually a variety of Hussites came together to found the Unitas Fratrum or Unity of Brethren. .
Through five hundred and fifty-five years, the Church has seen a lot of changes. The Unitas Fratrum almost died out (some historians feel it actually did die out) in the 17th century during the time of Comenius and the Thirty Years’ War. It was reorganized by that legendary band of settlers on Zinzendorf’s lands in 1727, and that movement defines many of the traditions and practices that we so love today.
But through all those years and changes there have been some important constants: the centrality of Christ, the compassion and love of God, the incredible grace that is extended to us, and an emphasis on looking back to Apostolic Christianity rather than the institutional pronouncements of Rome. The idea that there are really only a few “essentials” and that other differences should not divide Christians has been an important constant; so too is the idea that it is essential that we live lives that express Christ’s love. Indeed, the early members of the Unity referred to themselves as “Brethren of the Law,” the law of love. It has to be said that we have not always lived up to this great tradition, sometimes getting more caught up in the external non-essentials.
As we look back on the founding of our congregation only a hundred years ago, as we celebrate and recall the faithful Christian lives in living memory that have impacted our faith, we also need to recall that we are part of a much longer history, a rich heritage of faith that proclaims:
In essentials, UNITY
In non-essentials, LIBERTY
In all things, LOVE.
- Pastor John
February marks many things – Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and since this year is a Leap Year, February has 29 days. But it is also this year the beginning of Lent; Ash Wednesday is February 22. So, February also marks the traditional parties before the beginning of Lent – Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnivale in Brazil, Pancake day in many places, Fastnacht Day in Pennsylvania.
The day of Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter (not including Sundays, if you’re counting the day!), is meant to remind us of Noah’s forty days in the Flood, the Hebrews’ forty years in the desert, and especially Jesus forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. Lent is intended to be a special time of prayer, mediation, and spiritual preparation for Easter.
But our busy, smart-phone buzzing world filled with sound and interruption has little space for the kind of meditation that allows Lent to unfold with spiritual benefit. In 1943 during the height of World War II, poet T. S. Eliot caught this dilemma in his poem Ash Wednesday:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
We need to carve out some Sabbath-time in our noisy lives to truly experience Lent in a real way; and a gift we can give others is the reminder that they, too, need that quiet Sabbath-time to hear “the voice.”
Though our world seems disruptive and intrusive, most of the noise that blocks out our spiritual time is voluntary. But Eliot wrote this poem during wartime, a time when he served as an air-raid warden. So it is in the midst of rationing, blackouts, and bombs that he wrote:
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
I pray that this Lent, you will be able to set aside a space of quiet time for mediation, but also for service to others.
- Pastor John