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Lessons from Old Stones 

A Christmas Week Wish

My school was founded in 1553. The school song explains:

When bluff King Hal had reigned awhile,
The monks were forced to quit our isle.
His son King Edward on the throne,
The Priory Hall became our own.

King Hal was Henry the Eighth, who ruled England from 1509-47. In 1533, he famously broke with the Pope in Rome in retaliation for not being allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry his new lover, Anne Boleyn, later the mother of Queen Elizabeth the First. (Coincidentally, my first office at Plymouth University, where I used to teach, was in the building where Catherine spent her first night in England, after arriving from Spain and before she traveled up to London to meet her future royal husband.)

Following the break from Rome, and his self-installation as head of the new Church of England, Henry attacked the power of the Catholic hierarchy in England by dissolving the monasteries, destroying many wonderful medieval buildings and works of art, and banishing monks and nuns to foreign countries.

At Henry's death, his son Edward acceded to the throne when only nine years old. A sickly youth, he died six years later, but not before issuing the royal proclamation that founded my school in the converted church priory of my hometown, creating an institution, King Edward VI School, that bears his royal name to this day. My brother studied there before me, and my son after me.

The original school buildings nestled into the town walls, next to the towering parish church -- constructed in 1450 from deep red local sandstone -- that dominates the skyline of Totnes, set in the valley of the River Dart in southwest England. Schoolchildren have assembled within that sacred space for more than 20 generations, to celebrate special feast days, holidays and school events. In my day, we would march in procession from the newer school buildings in a faded 18th-century mansion, up the main street, beneath the gatehouse in the walls and into the upper town, where the church sits slightly back from the commercial bustle of the street.

Under its vaulted roof we would read the lessons of the day and sing the chosen hymns, the pews filled with the whole school community -- 300 high school boys from ages 11 to 19, and 20 teachers. This intimate integration of a state-run school with the established religion was unremarkable to us. For most of us it was the only time we ever entered a church, as religion in post-war Europe faded in importance.

Everything was neat and orderly, and especially at Christmas the old stones glowed with the magical romanticism of the season. As we bellowed out the carols, we were only dimly aware from our history books of the violence and murder done in our land in the name of Jesus.

After the death of the teenage King Edward, his sister, Mary Tudor, seized power, summarily executing the king's mother, Jane Seymour, and other nobles loyal to the dead youth. In contrast to the Protestant leanings of her father, King Henry, and half-brother Edward, the new Queen Mary was a staunch Roman Catholic who repealed all Protestant laws, and attacked Protestant clergy in a spate of savage revenge. In one awful scene at Oxford in 1555, bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake for heresy, their chief crime having been publishing new Anglican prayer books for the use of common people in church services. All told, "Bloody Mary," as she became known, incinerated more than 300 Protestants who refused to accept Catholicism in her five-year reign of terror.

Upon her death in 1558, Mary was succeeded by her 25-year-old half-sister Elizabeth, who became one of England's greatest rulers. While avoiding the bloody persecutions of her predecessor, Elizabeth reinstated Protestantism as the state religion, but in doing so stirred up Catholic resentment that festered for centuries -- and still exists in modern-day Northern Ireland. Her pragmatic attitude to religious doctrine as state policy also offended radical Protestants, the "Puritans," who felt that Elizabeth's mandatory version of Protestantism was infected by too many "popish" elements, such as decorated church interiors and organ music. We all know where those disaffected Puritans ended up.

The stone buildings and streets of Totnes, and my extended family's home city of nearby Plymouth, bore witness to these turbulent times, and when I visit these places today, I feel more connected to these historical passions and currents than when I lived there. I'm appalled at the horrors committed in the name of religion, particularly by those who have wanted to create government policy in the image of their personal religious beliefs. At the joyous time of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, let's take a serious vow to oppose any politicians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, who seek to use the power of government to promote their own, exclusive view of God.

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