Fr Michael Seed reflects on Gunpowder Plot

To mark the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, on Sunday, Father Michael Seed, SA, Ecumenical Advisor to the Archbishop of Westminster, took part in a special service at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, HM Tower of London. The service, which was broadcast as the Sunday Worship on BBC Radio 4, London, was led by the Revd Angela Tilby.

During the programme Fr Michael gave the following reflection on the meaning and significance of the Gunpowder Plot four hundred years on.

A few years ago, an Anglican clergyman friend by the name of Titus Oates and I went to visit Parliament. This particular Titus Oates had, unlike his ancestor, never been there before and had always wanted to visit.

The original Titus was a seventeenth century defrocked Anglican clergyman who saw Jesuit plots behind every door. Widely considered to be a disreputable scoundrel, King Charles the Second called him a "lying knave". He worked long and hard to raise anti-Catholic feeling to a fever pitch.

Titus Oates saw the Gunpowder Plot as one of the greatest opportunities to incite riot and anti-Popish hysteria. It was his direct descendant, who at that time had incurable cancer and little time to live, that I took to the Palace of Westminster for tea. To those who met him there, and who knew of his terrifying predecessor, much fear and consternation had been engendered - and it was wonderful to share convivially in that most quintessentially English institution of afternoon tea so close to the spot where the gunpowder plot had happened.

Of the Gunpowder Plotters, what do we say? A gross act of treachery? What brought these 'Papists' to this point? Was it an attempt at liberation from despotic rejection? What drives people to this point of often tragic behaviour? Could it be a lack of all possible inclusion? Were they possibly even fighting for truth? They certainly believed so.

Some two hundred and fifty years after the Gunpowder Plot things were not that different for those people known as Papists. The writer, AN Wilson, in his insightful book 'The Victorians' reflects on the fact that although Catholic emancipation had supposedly been achieved in the 1820s, by the middle of the century, 'no Popery' was as controversial a topic as ever. Indeed, dignitaries such as the former Prime Minister, Lord Russell were still writing to Queen Victoria, denouncing Catholics as the enemy within. Effigies of the Pope and Cardinal Wiseman were burnt alongside Guy Fawkes.

The Queen responded to Lord Russell's attacks with the words: "I must regret the unchristian and intolerant spirit exhibited by many people at public meetings. I cannot bear to hear the violent abuse of the Catholic religion, which is so painful and cruel towards the many good and innocent Roman Catholics."

And what of today, four hundred years on from the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot? Queen Elizabeth the Second implored us in last year's Christmas message to be a nation of inclusion. Today most Roman Catholics would feel themselves to be direct beneficiaries of such a message, with many now being at the heart of the affairs of our nation and with Roman Catholics now forming an equal part of this country's worshipping community.

But the Queen's words are no doubt welcomed by other groups in our contemporary society who feel themselves marginalised. Whilst we may be amongst the more tolerant and inclusive societies in the world these days, there's still much to do. Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality said recently that the United Kingdom is actually becoming more segregated socially, residentially and educationally.

And it's worth remembering that last night, in places an effigy of the Pope will still have been burned, which can hardly have brought joy to the Catholics present at those particular bonfire parties.

But the children's memories are, I hope, simply of great fun. Who had the most spectacular fireworks? Who had the most pennies for the Guy? Do children ever know or care of the tragic history of this day? The spirit of the Beatitudes is innocence and freedom: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

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