One of the delights of living in rural West Dorset are the various little gems we have discovered on our travels. The Church of St Nicholas and St Magnus at Moreton, and its amazing etched glass ‘Forgiveness Window’, is one such gem. It has been suggested that ‘Forgiveness is the chief characteristic of the Christian!’ I wonder if you would agree with this? Perhaps, more to the point, do those of us who profess to be Christians actually practise forgiveness? I have often heard it said, ‘Well, I will forgive … but I won’t forget!’ But if we don’t ‘forget’ have we really ‘forgiven’? After all the Bible tells us that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far has [God] removed our transgressions from us’ (Psalm 103:12) and ‘[God] will again have compassion on us; [he] will tread our sins underfoot and bury all our iniquities in the deepest sea’ (Micah 7:19). So when God forgives, it would seem, he also forgets!
St Nicholas’ Church, Moreton, was a normal little church with the usual amount of local history attached to it until a direct hit from a German bomber in 1940 – believed to have been intended for a nearby military base – destroyed much of it. Originally the church had conventional stained glass windows, but when the church was rebuilt (it took 10 years to rebuild it) the windows were replaced with small panes of green glass like an old fashioned bathroom. The locals hated the windows and an architect suggested that Laurence Whistler (brother of the artist Rex Whistler) renowned for his recreation of lost glass engraving techniques, might be consulted. Gradually over the next 30 years the church or donors commissioned Whistler to replace all the windows with designs of increasing complexity, engraved from both sides of the glass creating a spectacular three-dimensional effect that changes in every light. The result today is the creation of a spectacular church interior that is well worth a visit. Not only are the windows themselves world famous, and a sight to see in their own right, but the transformation of the inside into a place of light and space is magical.
In February 1987, when Laurence Whistler had completed 12 full sized windows, he wrote a letter to the then Rector offering to create and donate a ‘thirteenth window’ to the church – an engraved window depicting Judas Iscariot. In his letter he made the point that many mediaeval churches often had uncouth and unholy figures sculptured on the outside, as if in contrast with holy scenes on the inside. He went on to refer to the thirteenth window near the south-east corner which was glazed but walled up. Adding that Judas was (in his opinion) ‘the thirteenth disciple’, Whistler went on to say that he would like to engrave on that window, to be seen only from the outside, ‘a shadowy figure, not clearly defined but sketchy, of Judas hanging with the thirty pieces of silver falling from his hand and turning into flowers on the ground.’ That would be the point – a hint that possibly even Judas might, at the moment of death, have sought and found God’s forgiveness?
The reaction of the Rector and the Parish Church Council at the time, however, was far from encouraging. Whistler’s treatment of Judas was seen as so startling that it divided the Parish Council and the village, with some regarding the window as unacceptably ugly, and others genuinely shocked. The PCC was split, the Rector opposed it, and the Diocesan Chancellor (who could have granted the necessary permission) appeared indifferent. The original objection, from 44 parishioners, backed by their vicar and eventually the local bishop, was because they didn’t want Judas darkening the doors (or windows) of St Nicholas, since the theme of the other dozen designs was ‘light’. Judas represented darkness. He was the devil’s henchman, the human face of evil. More particularly, they didn’t like Whistler’s image, as it suggested that there might be hope for Judas after all. Back then, many people also regarded suicide as an ‘unforgivable sin’. Even though Whistler, dubbed the window the ‘forgiveness window’, and showed the silver coins turning into flowers before they touched the soil, church authorities at the time deemed the subject of suicide unfitting. The Roman Catholic Church refused to bury suicides. The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles argued that the gospel descriptions of Judas ‘could hardly be true if the traitor had been forgiven’! Sadly, these views were shared by Anglo-Catholics and many others within the Anglican Church and other Protestant Churches at that time.
Undaunted Whistler put his idea into effect and by September 1993 had engraved the panel which he subsequently called ‘The Forgiveness Window’. Whistler renewed his offer of the gift and meanwhile put it on view in an exhibition in Salisbury. After considering the offer once again, the PCC was still divided and, when it looked as though the issue would go to a church court, Whistler shelved the whole project rather than cause further unhappiness. He loaned the window to the county museum in Dorchester but insisted that if the church ever changed its mind it should go to Moreton.
So what are we to make of Judas Iscariot? According to the New Testament, Judas was one of the Twelve original disciples of Jesus Christ. The son of Simon Iscariot, he is known for the kiss and betrayal of Jesus to the Sanhedrin for 30 silver coins (Matthew 26:14-16;47-50). His name is often invoked to accuse someone of betrayal. Though there are varied accounts of his death, the traditional version sees him as having hanged himself following the betrayal (Matthew 27:1-10). His place among the Twelve Apostles was later filled by Matthias (Acts 1:12-26). Despite his notorious role in the Gospel narratives, Judas remains a controversial figure in Christian history. Judas’ betrayal, for instance, is seen as setting in motion the events that led to Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, which, according to traditional Christian theology, brought salvation to humanity. Gnostic texts (rejected by the mainstream Church as heretical) praise Judas for his role in triggering humanity’s salvation, and view Judas as the best of the apostles (The Gospel of Judas). In contrast to this, traditional Christian theology questions the genuineness of Judas Iscariot’s commitment from the beginning (his highest title for Jesus was ‘Rabbi’, never ‘Lord’), and sees him as a ‘son of perdition’ (John 17:12), demonised (John 13:27), and someone who (following his suicide) ‘went to his own place’ (Acts 1:25) wherever that may be, presumably Hell? On the other hand we ought not to doubt the sincerity of Judas Iscariot’s call to follow Jesus. Clearly Jesus, at the beginning, viewed Judas as a potential follower and disciple. To suggest that Jesus deliberately called Judas in order that he might eventually betray Jesus (in order to fulfil Old Testament prophecy) does despite to the character of Jesus himself. Our Lord’s foreknowledge concerning Judas does not imply fore-ordination that Judas must inexorably become a traitor. Surely Jesus’ repeated appeals to Judas, summed up in the offering of the ‘choice morsel’ to Judas at the Last Supper (John 13:26) demonstrating a final gesture of Jesus’ undying love for Judas, are evidence that ‘God desires everyone to be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). Is it possible – given that ‘when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders’ (Matthew 27:3) – might, at the moment of death, have sought and found God’s forgiveness?
It is, of course, our approach and attitude to forgiveness that Laurence Whistler sought to challenge through this engraved window featuring Judas Iscariot’s last moments. In his original offer to the church, Whistler, who died in 2000, said, ‘To my mind, a church is one place where the conflict of good and evil, life and death should be felt at its sharpest.’ In what he called the ‘Forgiveness Window’, Whistler offered a direct challenge – even without the title – to the traditional fate of Judas.
Taking as its inspiration the moment of his lonely suicide, described in Matthew’s gospel, Whistler’s window has the traitor dressed in ‘everyman’s clothing’ as he hangs at the end of a rope. His back is turned, with a shaft of light from heaven illuminating both his face in side-profile and the ill-gotten coins as they fall to the ground. Flowers spring up to mark the spot where they land. For Whistler, this is Judas redeemed. However terrible his sin of betrayal, it can still be forgiven.
The ‘Forgiveness Window’ faces us with some key questions we need to answer. So, before you write me off (along with Laurence Whistler) as a ‘heretic’, consider some of these questions:
Is suicide a sin? Is it not true that some people attempt or even commit suicide, not because they are ‘sinful’ but because they are ill, or mentally disturbed, or desperately lonely, or feel they have nowhere or no one to turn to? Do they shy away from the church in their final hours because they believe that they would receive no understanding, or sympathy, or help?
Is it not equally true that – like Whistler’s ‘Forgiveness Window’ which is, in effect, outside the church (since it can only be viewed externally not internally) – we Christians have become too obsessed with ourselves? Have we become ‘a holy huddle’? Are we too caught up with ‘spiritual navel gazing’ rather than reaching out to the lost and broken and hurting? Has our understanding of the church as being the ‘gathered church’ (‘belief’ before ‘belonging’), rather than the ‘gathering church’ (‘belonging’ leading to ‘believing’) actually been counter-productive in terms of growing the Kingdom of God? Has our quest for maintaining ‘the purity of the church’ – how many sermons have you heard about the necessity of avoiding ‘sin in the camp’ (Joshua 7-9) – actually proved to be a barrier to numerical and spiritual growth rather than ‘usher in Revival’?
Are we very good at loudly promoting a countercultural message of forgiveness in a generally unforgiving world – some (as suggested earlier) even claim forgiveness as the distinguishing Christian virtue – but curiously, then find it so hard to practise, as Christians and churches, what we preach? Remember, Jesus himself taught us that ‘if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’ (Matthew 6:14,15). And … was not ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34) amongst Jesus’ final words from the Cross?
Do we really believe that ‘God desires everyone to be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4)? If so, we should never ever ‘give up’ on anyone. We should keep on praying, and keep on witnessing and testifying to others in the conviction that ‘the Gospel is still the power of God for the salvation of all who believe’ (Romans 1:16), and that ‘With God, there is always a way out, always a way back, always a way up!’
Laurence Whistler was an optimist, but that must have been sorely tested in his later years, for he did not live to see the offending window finally installed (he died in 2000). In 2013, however, the peace-making efforts of a new, female vicar, the Revd Jacqueline Birdseye, finally resolved the dispute. The ‘Forgiveness Window’ was finally installed – exactly where Whistler envisaged it being placed – 13 years after Whistler’s death and almost 30 years after the artist first offered it to the parish. The decision of the Parish Church Council was unanimous and the church has subsequently had nothing but positive comments made by visitors since the installation. This is unsurprising because to simply stand in the graveyard, contemplating this remarkable engraved window, is a tremendously powerful and moving experience. Perhaps like me (and probably Laurence Whistler) they too agree that ‘Forgiveness is indeed the chief characteristic of the Christian!’
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.
There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take Him at his word;
and our lives be filled with gladness
from the presence of the Lord.
~ Frederick W Faber (1814-63)