'May St Margaret pray for us that we may not fail in the face of opposition but remain firm in our faith and confident as witnesses to God’s truth.'
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 21st July 2019 at 11.00 AM
St Margaret of Antioch, patron of this church, is supposed to have died during the year 304. That much you know, since it is identified on the front of the order of service.
But, what was it that led to the persecution of Margaret, in Pisidian Antioch, in the western part of modern-day Turkey, in that year?
Perhaps before answering that question, we should face the question whether in fact Margaret ever really existed. For in the year 494, Pope Gelasius I declared quite confidently that St Margaret of Antioch never was.
On the other hand, St Margaret of Antioch is one of the women who feature in the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. She does not feature in either of Thomas Cranmer’s prayer books of 1549 or 1552, but neither of those calendars included many non-biblical saints.
Since St Margaret of Antioch appears not only in the 1662 Prayer Book, but also in the Common Worship calendar of the year 2000, we should conclude that perhaps Pope Gelasius I was mistaken and she did exist after all.
The Common Worship calendar dates her death in the 4th century. But the Book of Common Prayer is undoubted that she died as a martyr in the year 304.
So, what led her to martyrdom? What was going on?
We tend to think that the Roman Empire was highly intolerant of Christians and was busy condemning them to death all the time. It wasn’t really like that at all. Some emperors had other things to worry about, and left the Christians to get on with themselves. It was only a few of the emperors who actively persecuted Christians.
We are probably all familiar with the persecutions of the emperor Nero. Nero was emperor in the first century after Christ, from the year AD 54, when he was 16, until the year 68. But the most memorable event of his reign was the great fire of Rome that erupted on the night of 18 July 64 and burnt for a week, destroying three of Rome’s fourteen districts and severely damaging seven more. Rumour of all kinds surrounded the fire. Had Nero planned the fire in order that he could re-build and re-order Rome to his taste and design? Perhaps he had, but it had probably destroyed more than he intended, burning through the closely-built tenements of Rome. Whatever the case, the emperor blamed the Christians for the fire; they were anyway unpopular, an easy enemy, and he began a great persecution. It is certain that St Peter and St Paul were among those Christians thrown to the beasts, crucified or burnt alive.
Jews and Christians were also persecuted during the reign of Domitian from AD 89 to 96, and again during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian in the next years. But the emperor Decius in AD 250 has the reputation for the most virulent persecution. He issued an edict requiring everyone in the empire, except Jews, to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods in the presence of a magistrate and to obtain a signed and witnessed certificate to prove they had obeyed his order. In the nature of the case, there were Christians who decided to comply with the order, though many did not and lost their lives. The persecution lasted no longer than 18 months, but left a major problem for those who had complied and denied their Christian faith. Could they be forgiven and received back into the fold? This was a great test for the Church after long years without serious persecution. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage went into hiding, but he was to suffer martyrdom in Carthage under the next emperor Valerian, with the bishop of Rome Sixtus II and his deacons, including St Lawrence.
By the beginning of the fourth century, the empire was divided between west and east. Galerius ruled in the west and Diocletian in the east. Galerius was concerned to restore the traditional religious rites of Rome, as part of an attempt to recover the strength of the empire. Diocletian followed suit. In the year 303, he and other Roman authorities signed edicts requiring Christians, and indeed all citizens, to comply with the traditional Roman sacrifices to the gods. Failure to do so meant death.
The degree of persecution, the intensity of its application, varied across the empire. Diocletian is thought to have put to death more than 300,000 Christians out of an imperial population of about 18 million. Little was threatened here in Britain or in Gaul, but the persecution was most intense in the eastern empire, including Asia Minor. There was Pisidian Antioch, where St Margaret gave her life for her faith.
It was only a few years later, in the year 313, that the emperor signed an edict in Milan of toleration of Christians. And in 324, when Constantine the Great was emperor of the western and the eastern empire, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Persecution was at an end. Or was it? It has been estimated, with what authority I am not quite clear, that between AD 33 and 1900 there were 14 million Christian martyrs. That is nothing compared with persecution in the 20th century when it is thought there have been as many as 26 million Christian martyrs. So, martyrdom goes on. We saw that with the attempt to eradicate Christians in Iraq and more widely in the Middle East.
What should our reaction be to this suffering witness of Christian martyrs through the centuries or indeed to the witness of this church’s patron St Margaret or of the Abbey’s patron Saint Peter? Can we, should we, be unconcerned, comfortable in the expectation that we are not likely to be threatened with death for our faith in this country? Of course, it would certainly be easier for us to shut our minds to the suffering of other Christians and to feel secure in our own position. But is that how it should be?
On 4th December last year we held a service in the Abbey to celebrate the contribution of Christians in the Middle East. The Prince of Wales gave a reflection. He said, ‘Earlier this year I had the great joy of meeting a Dominican Sister from Nineveh who, in 2014, as Daesh extremists advanced on the town of Qaraqosh, got behind the wheel of a minibus crammed full of her fellow Christians, and drove the long and dangerous road to safety. Like the 100,000 other Christians who were forced from the Nineveh Plains by Daesh that year, they left behind the ruins of their homes and churches, and the shattered remnants of their communities.’ The Prince went on to say that the tide had turned and nearly half of those displaced from Iraq had gone back to rebuild their homes and their communities. He went on, ‘This is the most wonderful testament to the resilience of humanity, and to the extraordinary power of Faith to resist even the most brutal efforts to extinguish it.’
We must both stand with those suffering Christians, supporting them in rebuilding their communities of faith, and also test our own resilience and confidence in professing our Christian faith as we are able, above all in our consistent and exemplary practice of the faith. May St Margaret pray for us that we may not fail in the face of opposition but remain firm in our faith and confident as witnesses to God’s truth.