Trinity 21 | 16th October 2016 | Evensong
In Commemoration of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
by the Rector, Revd. Alan Carr, St. Giles-in-the-Field
Nantes is a city in North Western France.
The Edict of Nantes is a law passed by Henry IV in 1598 which granted Calvinist Protestants, (known as Huguenots), substantial civil rights and freedom to worship. On hearing news of the passing of the Edict, Pope Clement VIII declared, ‘This crucifies me.’
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes took place on the 18th October 1685 so that its annual anniversary occurs this week. The Bishop, who is apparently, descended from Huguenot stock, is planting at tree at Spitalfields, a renowned centre of Huguenot life. The revocation led to a wave of Protestant persecution. All ministers were given two weeks to leave the country and some were tortured. It is reckoned that some 400,000 fled France, some to Switzerland, some to the Dutch Republic, South Africa and the new French colonies of North America, taking with them their crafts and industry. Of these about 50,000 made their way to England, which was then about 5% of the capital’s population. I read that one in six of us has Huguenot ancestry.
Of those who came to England, some came to what is now Soho and the West End, which is where the story of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes becomes part of the story of St Giles-in-the-Fields. A Reformed Protestant Church still stands nearby in Soho Square and its minister, Stephane, came here to preach once, his first time in English, if you remember. A Huguenot congregation took possession of the building at 24 West Street, near Cambridge Circus in 1700 and worshipped there until 1743, when John Wesley first took up a lease for 7 years, so just ten years after the building of this church.
‘I began officiating at the chapel in West Street, ‘ he wrote, ‘near Seven Dials of which, by a strange chain of providences, we have a lease for seven years. I preached on the gospel of the day [presumably from the pulpit behind me] . . . and afterwards administered the Lord’s Supper to some hundreds of communicants.’ A certain John Downes, I read, ‘a man of science and unaffected piety,’ collapsed in the pulpit one Sunday while preaching on the text, ‘Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest;’ ‘During a hymn . . . his voice failing, he fell on his knees, as meaning to pray, but he could not be heard. The preachers ran and lifted him up, for he could not rise. They carried him to bed, and he fell asleep in Jesus.’ This same Huguenot, come Methodist chapel became, in time, ours and a good thing too, because without its income today we would be hard-pressed to carry on. We owe the Huguenots a debt of gratitude. If they had not first worshipped there, perhaps the Wesleys would not have come and if they had not come perhaps it would not have fallen into our hands. A ‘strange chain of providences’ indeed.
I digress. Some reckon the exodus of Huguenots from France to London to be among, or perhaps to be, the first group of refugees to come to the city in such large numbers. As such this annual remembrance of the Revocation of the Edict comes to us at a strange and fevered time of confusion with regard to the refugee and stranger. The gospel question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ has been replaced this summer by the question, ‘Who is the stranger?’; many who thought they were neighbours are now finding themselves to be strangers all over again.
There’s a church at Camden Town I pass on the bus sometimes where outside, on a board, it says, ‘Where strangers become a family or friends’ or something like that, which is touching and captures the tone of liberal (Christian) ethics that is slowly becoming old-fashioned and dated. Perhaps the people of West Street in the 1700’s told them to ‘shove off’ and ‘go back to where you came from’ just as we hear people are saying again today. Who knows. But their story speaks of a long tradition of tolerance and hospitality which this city has known and which we could be fools to abandon now.
The Jewish scriptures can curse and exclude like the best of them, but at times, particularly when expounding the terms of the covenant and in the mouths of the prophets, they have much to teach us about receiving and making room for the stranger, as in the passage from Deuteronomy. This strain is picked up in the unusual and moving text from Hebrews which explores the faith of the patriarchs and their search for a land and home. ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.’
I have no wish or expertise to put politics into anyone’s mouth, but I do have an obligation to lay the ethical tradition of the New Testament before you. A church born in persecution must never become a persecutor and a church that has known exclusion must never become an excluder. It does not seem at all complicated to me. With this anniversary of the persecution and fleeing of French Huguenots in our minds, surely we can, at the very least, find it in our collective hearts to let the Calais children in. Surely.