The Seed of the Church: Charterhouse
In May 2005, an Ecumenical Service was held to commemorate the Dissolution of the Carthusian House of the Salutation of the Mother of God at Smithfield and St John Houghton, its Prior, and Companions on the 470th anniversary of their Martyrdom.
Sutton's Hospital at Charterhouse now stands on the site of the monastery and incorporates some remains of the buildings constructed by Prior Houghton. The present Charterhouse long desired to set up a fitting memorial to honour the courage and fidelity of St John and his fellow monks, to acknowledge Catholic origins gratefully, to come to terms with the cruelties and divisions of the past and to look to the future, as an Anglican foundation, in a spirit of hope and reconciliation, to unity, charity and peace.
The commemoration was the brainchild of Dr Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London. The Commemorative Stone in the former Great Cloister of the House of the Salutation was commissioned by the Medical College of St Bartholomew's Hospital Trust, which now owns the space, formerly in the hands of the Merchant Taylors' School, Charterhouse School and, before them all, the peaceful followers of St Bruno. The College, both Schools, the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry (also housed on the site) and the members of the present day Sutton's Hospital, together with many ecumenical representatives, recalled how, just before the monks were arrested and the House taken by Henry VIII, they had solemnly asked each other's forgiveness and by the celebration of Mass become reconciled to each other, to Christ and to the path that would lead to their persecution and death. Mindful of the study, devotion and spirit of peace and reconciliation in the monks, the Stone established to maintain their honour in the 21st century reads,
May the cause of healing inspire all who study and teach here today.
The ceremony, one of the most significant events so far to have taken place in the United Kingdom to make reparation for the sufferings and divisions of the past so as to build a true foundation for the reconciliation of the future, took the form of a procession to the recognisable areas of the old London Charterhouse.
The congregation visited the still extant court of the Carthusian converse brothers (now the Wash House Court, also known to this day as 'The Monastery'), the site of the cells and gardens of the cloister monks, the one remaining (though rebuilt) side of the cloister, the cloister garth (in which stands the Commemorative Stone) where the Carthusian monks and brothers lie buried, the Chapel of Sutton's Hospital, housed in the old Chapter House (where the monks had resolved not to swear the Oath of Allegiance proclaiming Henry VIII 'Head of the Church'), for Vespers based on the rite of the Carthusian Order but in the style of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the open air site of the monks' choir in their Priory Church, where they had reconciled themselves to each other before taking the road to martyrdom. Where the Altar had once stood, and at which St John Houghton had celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit with his brethren on the eve of their torment for the sake of obedience to Christ, the present day Brothers placed a red rose for each of the martyrs on a representation of the Tyburn Tree, the gibbet on which St John and eight others were hanged prior to their judicial murder by being drawn and quartered. Here a Memorial set up in 1958 also marks the deaths of St John and his Companions for the sake of conscience.
During the ceremony, as the congregation paused at the sites, the Master of Sutton's Hospital, James Thompson, and the Envoy of the Carthusian Order, Dr Keith Day, read extracts from Dom Maurice Chauncey's eye-witness account of the events leading to the suffering of the monks and brothers. After Vespers, Dr Day read a Message from Dom Marcellin Theeuwes, Prior of the Grande Chartreuse, and Dom John Babeau, Prior of St Hugh's Charterhouse at Parkminster in Sussex, which recalled the spirit of trustful resignation, reconciliation and forgiveness, in which St John and his Companions had embraced death for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the same spirit of seeking and offering forgiveness, on behalf of the Carthusian Order, Dr Day offered to the Bishop of London, the Master and the Preacher of Sutton's Hospital (the Revd Michael Stevens) the Kiss of Peace, as well as to Bishop George Stack, who was representing the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Then both bishops made addresses.
Bishop Stack recalled the present day martyrs whose statues feature on the west front of Westminster Abbey, remarking how their example and fortitude in the face of persecution for the cause of Christ make the Carthusian martyrs powerful symbols for the modern age, in which more people have been martyred for Christ than in all the preceding nineteen centuries put together. Above all, therefore, St John Houghton and his Companions are no longer to be seen merely as Catholic martyrs, but part of the great cloud of witnesses who belong to the whole of the Church, to all Christians.
Bishop Chartres invited contemporary Christians to recover what the sons of St Bruno had always recognised and, in the end, gone to their deaths for: that the mystery of God is boundless, and that the attempt to limit or define it reduces and narrows it to the exclusion of love and spirituality, in the name of over-bureaucracy, excessive law, divided territory, and the resulting strife and violence. So he recalled the Church not only to the peace and resignation before the mystery of God that Carthusians know as the only constant in a world of flux, but to the depth of their faith and trust, at a time when the world lacks the anchor it longs to put down into Wisdom.
Both bishops together dedicated the Commemorative Stone in the Cloister Garth and conducted the Act of Commemoration at the site of the High Altar of the Priory Church.
St Thomas More, England's great Lord Chancellor and another martyr for the Unity of the Church, had served at Mass in the Charterhouse and remained closely associated with the community there. From his own cell in the Tower of London, he had observed the Carthusian Priors John Houghton, Robert Lawrence (of Beauvale) and Augustine Webster (of Axholme) go off on the morning of their martyrdoms at Tyburn like young men, full of gladness.
Other great spiritual men in whom lived the spirit of the House of the Salutation of the Mother of God, were John Wesley, a truly great apostle to the ordinary working people of England in the eighteenth century, who had been a boy at the Charterhouse School, and Walter Frere, a founder of the famous Anglican Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, its first Superior and subsequently Bishop of Truro.
Another old Carthusian was Geoffrey Curtis, also a member of the Community of the Resurrection. Fr Curtis was the friend of Paul Couturier, the 'Apostle of the Unity of Christians' also known as the father of Spiritual Ecumenism. Curtis it was who first proposed the Memorial to the Carthusian martyrs, the healing of an ancient wound, and the purification of both Anglican and Catholic memory, in the spirit of Christian reconciliation.
Although in 1535 the Carthusian House of the Salutation of the Mother of God at Smithfield was so violently closed through the passion and death on a Tree of its prior and brethren, just under 400 years later that sacrifice was fruitful in the rebirth in the Church of England of a Community of the Resurrection, founded by a former pupil of the school that had been named after the Carthusian Order.
And, in further signs of divine providence, it can be recalled that the author of moves to promote the renown of St John Houghton and his brothers in the first Charterhouse was also the promoter, friend and biographer of Paul Couturier, founder of the modern Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians. Throughout his working life, the Abbé Couturier was a school teacher in the Institution des Chartreux, another great school built on the foundations of a dissolved Charterhouse, at Lyon.
But, perhaps in the greatest sign of God's desire to heal the Church and reveal its Unity, in the 1990s, almost exactly 460 years since the last Catholic priests were taken from their Charterhouse to their deaths, Sutton's Hospital as its venerable successor counted two new Brothers: Fr Martin Heal and Fr Augustine Hoey, priests of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster.
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