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Only One Man: Bishop John Fisher and Christian Marriage


As a child I devoured junior history books, and relived through them the battles of the past. It must have been they which first taught me about the great battle which was the English Reformation.

St. John Fisher
(1460 - 1535)

As I grew older I came across other texts equally authoritative. All seemed to tell a consistent story: how the Reformers had shaken the dust off the musty Latin Bibles and found life-giving words for the common people. How in the terms of my student days they had abandoned the methods of a decayed scholasticism, turned their backs on the power-play of the papacy and quested for the original shining jewel of the Gospel.

It did not occur to me until much late, to actually visit the site of the battle. Strange, that the pieces I began to pick up there did not correspond to the accounts I had been given. In one case at least there had been a deliberate attempt to destroy the evidence: a grave removed, writings collected and burned, a name all but erased. It reminded me of how the soldiers at the tomb of Jesus had been bribed to conceal the Resurrection. This nearly obliterated figure seemed the right paint from which to begin a search for the truth, for he had been one of the most influential Catholics of the period: John Fisher.

Tracing Fisher led me towards the surprising conclusion that at the centre of the ugly drama lay the beautiful subject of marriage a subject on which the gospels speak so clear a word that not even the king's command could make them unsay it. Scripture enters at the critical moment, not because Fisher and his like had buried it, but because, having unearthed the precious words, he clung to them.

John Fisher: authoritative, ascetic and conservative, or so the postage-stamp paragraphs in the encyclopaedias say. Yes, he could be those things, but there was a bigger side to him.

Fisher was already Chancellor of Cambridge University and Bishop of Rochester when he brought out his first book, his Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms. It was an instant success, and like any bestseller dramatic, passionate and hard to put down.

One searches it in vain, however, for evidence of "decayed scholasticism". Apart from the Psalms themselves, there are 40 quotations from the Old Testament, another 60 from the Gospels, and 55 from the New Testament letters. The Fathers get 23 mentions, but scholastic theology scrapes in just once. Although Fischer's subject is repentance, indulgences supposedly rife at this period do not even get a mention.

The book, of course, is in English: anything he, as Fisher observes, would make nonsense of Jesus' remark about searching the Scriptures. "Who can search the Scriptures," asks the bishop, If they do not have them written in some language they can understand?" For him the Bible is "a treasure chest containing all truths necessary for salvation"; and. he himself is like a sprinkler on a parched lawn, showering the word which "makes the soul full of juice".

Against the Orc of sin, Fisher sends the Elf of mercy. "No matter how often and how grievously we sin," he says, "if at any time we will turn to Cod in repentance, meekly asking forgiveness, it will not be denied us." This divine mercy, "so high, so deep, so broad and so long", is the theme of the sermon series.

This quality which Fisher revered so much in God is evident in his own treatment of heretics. In the early days they were not clear thinkers but "men mad with marvellous foolishness" such as John Mores, who announced that "Our Lady is but a sack, and the Son of God wanted the Father to come to middle-earth to take a sack upon his back". It is Fisher's leniency in dealing with such people that marks him out. While in the year 1511 alone, Archbishop William Warham burnt five obdurate heretics, the only thing burning in the neighbouring diocese of Rochester were the candles which Fisher placed in the hands of those repenting, as a sign that they were returning to the true faith.

In Cambridge the test to his character came in the shape of Robert Barnes, "a trim minion friar Augustine, one of a merry scoffing wit, and...a good fellow in company". He appeared before Fisher for preaching that "to every faithful Christian, every day ought to be Christmas Day, Easter Day and Whitsunday". Clerks of court do not record fits of laughter, but perhaps the bishop had one at this point. Or so one suspects from his response: "that he would not condemn it for a hundred pounds, but it was a foolish thing to say in front of the butchers of Cambridge".

Fisher's wit comes out again in his duel with the Swiss theologian John Oecolampadius, whom he describes as "distinguished for his learning, and full of it... to a degree which is sickening". The efforts of Oecolampadius to pervert early Christian writings on the Eucharist provoked from him a 220,000-word blockbuster.

Firmly though Fisher might dislike his opponent, we can see his mind working calmly, methodically. Previous prejudices are examined and discarded. The patriarch John Chrysostom, earlier dismissed as a mere Easterner, is now quoted with approval. The Swiss scholar's call for frequent communion is carefully considered and accepted. Always there is a willingness to let faith be enriched; always a determination that it should not be impoverished.


Fisher's careful thinking also acted as breakwater against the wild waves of Luther's oratory. The bishop's method is to accept the genuine insight but then qualify it. So, as Luther say, Gods sunbeams do indeed first cause the light of faith in us," but "this is a very slender light without the reflection of hope and. the heat of love".

Even more perceptively, Fisher hears the feeling underneath the thinking: Luther's despair over whether he could be saved. A Christian, suggests Luther, needs a degree of certainty about his destiny; and although Fisher will place that certainty in the life of a believing community, he accepts the Reformer's basic point.

The controversy occasionally reveals Fisher as a hard hitter a delight to the junior history books, of course, which would hurl these two eternally against each other, like the mud-stained figures at fisticuffs in Dante's fifth circle of hell. Not quite so, for on other occasions we still find them in the same camp. Even the belief which Fisher was fatally tricked into admitting that the kind "was not, and could not be, by the law of God, supreme head of the Church of England" hardly marked a dividing line between them. Luther would have said exactly the same thing.

As to Fisher's criticism of the Church, he was as radical as any radical Reformer could be; and particularly when it came to the papacy, which Alexander VI (and son) had come close to turning into a family business. "Some may say," said Fisher and doubtless he included himself among them "that nowhere else is the life of Christians more contrary to Christ than in Rome", where the leaders of the Church "neither fast nor pray, but give themselves up to luxury and lust".

Nor did he spare the English clergy: in New Testament days "there were no chalices of gold, but... many golden priests. Now there are many chalices of gold, and almost no golden priests." And like preview of the reforming Leon Joseph Suenens, he places the same value on lay people as on ordained: "Let noone say, I am not in holy ordersThe least Christian person is heir to the kingdom of heaven, brother to Jesus Christ, and bought with his precious blood."

There was much of the spirit in the wind of reform blowing in from the Continent, and under it Fisher could bend, but not break: he was too willing to listen, too aware of his Church's sins. So why did he, and his Church eventually shatter? Because this man who, like Jesus, was merciful, humorous and open-minded was again like Jesus on one point completely unyielding. Thomas More put his finger on it in the words he spoke at his trial: "It is not so much because of the Supremacy that you seek my blood, as because I would not condescend to the marriage."

Fisher, of course, never married himself, but he had a strong strand of faithfulness. Presented with possibilities of promotion, he made the telling remark that he was "unwilling to divorce his poor old wife Rochester for any rich widow in England". Henry VIII's desire to leave his first wife Catherine therefore touched something deep. "The matter was so serious," wrote Fisher, "...that I devoted more attention to examining the truth of it...than to anything else in my life."

The conviction he reached about this particular marriage implied a wider conviction about marriage, as we learn when Cardinal Wolsey, echoing Pilate's pathetic question, asked him: "How do you know the truth?" "I know that God is truth itself," answered Fisher, "and never speaks anything but the truth, which is: 'What Cod has joined together, let not man separate.'"

Having come to this simple acceptance of Scripture, Fisher was simply immoveable: unconvinced by the plausible arguments of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, untempted by the clever schemes of the papal agent Staphileus and the papal legate Campeggio, unfazed by the torrent of political correctness from the Universities of Orleans, Paris, Angers, Bourges, Bologna, Padua and Toulouse. It was a lonely place to be, and Henry VIII spoke with some truth when he told Fisher: "You are only one man." One man holding a vision which was either his own (unspeakable arrogance) or God's (awesome responsibility).

Occasionally the anguish emerges. "The fort is betrayed," Fisher tells his fellow bishops, "even by those who should have defended it." Mostly, however, he preserves his inner peace by refusing to judge: "Not that I condemn any other men's conscience. Their conscience may save them, and mine must save me."

This, then, was the crucial moment when all but one of the English bishops accepted Henry VIII's "reformation", and it is surely worth clarifying what that one was laying down his life for. In part, certainly, it had to be for the unity of the Church, and for the Roman primacy which was its visible sign. Yet was this uppermost in Fisher's own mind? He quite consciously compares himself with John the Baptist, who "regarded it as impossible for him to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage".

And so the evidence from that old battle site begins to make a little more sense. Was it worth my while visiting? I think so. It shows me that Catholic and Reformed Christians are, and always have been, much closer than we have been led to believe. And Fisher himself leaves us something very positive: not condemning anyone's conscience, but having a conviction about the goodness of the love between a man and a woman. His stand reminds us that marriage is at the heart of the Church, because it is the symbol of the love between Christ and his Church. You cannot beak one without breaking the other.

That seems important to hear. For marriage is an area in which all the churches today are under intense pressure to be "merciful" not in Fisher's way, but merciful in the false sense of saying that something will bring happiness when it will not, merciful in the sense of opening a door which leads away from the abundant life which Jesus promised.

Fisher shows where one of the most crucial battles is being fought. And if we won't fight it, we may as well forget it. Because passion is at the heart of salvation.



Eldred Willey. "Only One Man: Bishop John Fisher and Christian Marriage." Second Spring Vol.5 (2004): 60-63.

The article is reprinted with permission of the author and Second Spring the magazine of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture.

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The Author

Eldred Willey worked as a writer for The Tablet and Redemptorist Publications. He is now an area co-ordinator for Christian Aid, and lives in Norwich with his wife and daughter.

Copyright © 2004 Second Spring
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