The Elizabethan Age Revisited

As part of my relaxing summer, I read Come Rack! Come Rope!* by Robert Hugh Benson — a riveting tale set in Elizabethan England, where recusant Catholics are pressured to submit to their sovereign in matters of faith. The queen was following in her father’s footsteps, insisting that she — rather than the pope — was the legitimate head of the church, and that adherence to the Church of Rome was thereby an act of treason.

There were a series of punishments for those who refused to obey, beginning with fines for those who would not make their “Easter duty” at the local state-sponsored church. While many chose to pay the fines, their increase over the years added a cumulative burden that led many to cave over time. The prospect of selling off entire properties to raise the required funds caused deep conflicts within families, who would likewise be unable to find meaningful work in the community.

English priests continued to be formed in French seminaries, returning home in disguise and being spirited from house to house to evade capture. The lives of both the priests and the lay faithful who harbored them were forfeit, though there were usually opportunities to repent: the first capture drawing a warning, the second leading to more dire consequences, with the ultimate price being hanged, drawn and quartered if they held fast to their “popish superstition.” The title of the book indicates the enthusiasm with which many embraced torture and death, which often became necessary in witnessing to the One True Faith.

While we are not presently living in such an age, I read the book with the troubling backdrop of our own generation, in which the foundational institution of marriage is in danger of being redefined. State after state is insisting that we change our views on what constitutes a valid marriage in order to leave behind its association with a life-long, fruitful union between a man and a woman. Other countries beyond our borders are doing likewise, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary, with the Judeo-Christian view now considered to be bigoted and hateful.

To this end, a graduate student at a state school in Georgia was recently told that “her Christian beliefs are unethical and incompatible with the prevailing views of the counseling profession.” Thus she cannot share her faith with others, she must add intense remedial reading to her heavy load, write essays on her response to each piece and undergo diversity training. If she cannot bring herself to eschew what her faith teaches her about marriage and intimacy then she cannot be certified in her chosen field.

Similarly, in Spain the government has just imposed a heavy fine on a media group for airing a commercial supportive of traditional family values. For many years now, various Human Rights commissions in Canada have fined those who publicly defend traditional marriage, including priests, journals and even one local council of the Knights of Columbus. Many business owners in the US and Canada who cater to the various aspects of wedding celebrations are extremely apprehensive about their conscientious right to reject services to same-sex couples, fearing dire consequences.

Soon enough, the Elizabethan Age may be fully upon us, with the state standing ready to demand the suppression of the conscience of its citizens. No longer will only pharmacists wonder what they will be required to dispense, but every person may have to “diversify” his creed to accommodate what he finds objectively sinful— or suffer the consequences. It’s hard to relax this summer with such a looming mandate to relax the standards of our faith.


* kindly note that that the e-book is free, for there is no copyright to the text. Thus it and many fine titles may be downloaded without charge from sites such as this.

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