OXFORD, England — Three Protestant leaders were burned at the stake here after a "theological conversation" at the 1,000-year-old University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1555.
The martyrs' deaths are memorialized by a stone cross set in the road on Oxford's Broad Street.
An important Anglican chaplain mentioned that history Thursday during his unique public conversation with a Latter-day Saint apostle at the same church.
"I hope that the outcome today will be a lot better for all of us," joked the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal, chaplain and lecturer at Pembroke College.
It was. The 90-minute conversation ended with Rev. Teal warmly embracing Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Standing between old stone walls on creaking wooden floors in the very room where Oxfam was founded in 1942, the two leaders plainly deepened a budding friendship. They found common ground, explored their ideas about frontier spirituality and discussed points of doctrine about the Trinity, temples, dancing, baptism for the dead, the Fall and priesthood ordination in an intimate back-and-forth before a full room of 50 theology faculty and students, the public and local Latter-day Saints.
"There are lots of things to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day," Rev. Teal said to Elder Holland as day turned to night and the windows fogged. "It's fantastic to have you here."
The beginnings of University Church date back more than 1,000 years. The room for Thursday's meeting once housed the first library at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Methodist founder John Wesley preached here. Legendary Anglican-turned-Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman was the vicar here when Joseph Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830.
Elder Holland delivered a candid explanation of Latter-day Saint theology that had echoes to his visit to the seat of British government on Wednesday.
An online description of the sacred texts available for swearing in new members of the British Parliament lists a "Mormon Bible," a mistaken and anachronistic term for the Book of Mormon that would alternately amuse, frustrate or offend Latter-day Saints.
Elder Holland visited the clerk who oversees the texts on Wednesday and presented her with a new, leatherbound copy of the book for the collection, a step toward clearing up confusion about the faith in the United Kingdom, where it has 186,000 members.
On Thursday, he delivered a rousing defense of the Book of Mormon at Oxford, which has produced a dozen Catholic saints, 19 English cardinals and 20 archbishops of Canterbury.
He said Latter-day Saints differ from 4th- and 5th-century Christianity in their belief in the teaching of Moses that "my works are without end, and … my words … never cease."
"I, for one, would feel to walk on hot lava and chew broken glass," he said, "if I could find a document, any document anywhere, containing any new words of Christ — 50 words, 20 words, one new word from the Son of God — let alone hundreds of pages that record the appearance, teachings, covenants and counsel he gave to a heretofore unknown audience."
He referred to the Fall as fortunate and redemption as universally inclusive, which led to follow-up questions from Rev. Teal about the Fall as an educational step and about baptism for the dead. Rev. Teal noted that the Oxford Movement, propelled by Newman in the very church where they stood Thursday, called for prayers for the dead.
"Everyone is covered," Elder Holland said, "though it remains to be seen whether everyone cares. But if there is a failure to respond, it will not be because God did not try and Christ did not come. That is at the heart of what I have been introducing to you as the restored gospel."
Rev. Teal, clearly interested in the persecutions of early Latter-day Saints, said humans are naturally "frontier creatures" and asked Elder Holland about "frontier spirituality." Elder Holland said his faith's pioneer heritage "had a binding, covenantal impact on us," creating an early heritage of service, care and watching out for each other as the pioneers were driving literally across the United States and eventually its borders.
He described additional differences with creedal Christianity. "Restored Christianity," he said, is about the ancient church in what he called its New Testament purity: "So, if one means Greek-influenced, council-convening, philosophy-flavored Christianity of post-apostolic times, we are not that kind of Christian."
He said God and Christ are separate, distinct beings "as all fathers and sons are" and said divine priesthood authority is "our most distinguishing feature."
Rev. Teal responded by calling the Christian journey one with real tensions but said, "We are both determined to be aware that our history should not collapse into categories in which we label each other as distant."
Elder Holland agreed: "We've let some differences, significant differences, get in the way of a larger, warmer, wonderful conversation."
He praised Rev. Teal, who told the Deseret News that he has watched many of his new friend's talks online, for his preparation, saying he already knew more about Latter-day Saint theology than many of the faith's members.
"I find him a wholesome, faithful and inspiring man," Rev. Teal told the Deseret News, "indeed, 'great' but lacking all pomposity of grandeur — I love his humor and really respond to the 'gift of tears' which he so often receives and unashamedly shares. I … hope that this is the start of a fruitful friendship."
Rev. Teal, who became friends with Elder Holland's son Matthew Holland during the younger Holland's sabbatical at Oxford last year, said he intended Thursday's dialogue to increase collaborative understanding.
"We need each other’s eyes to see ourselves," he said. "There’s something lively going on."
He told the Deseret News he had a specific goal in mind.51 comments on this story
"Might it be possible to listen carefully, attentively and respectfully, to ask questions with integrity and intellectual honesty of one another, without defensiveness or tribalism?" he said in an email. "Well, only friends would know! I do hope that this is foundational in an appreciative understanding of the contribution of the Church of Jesus Christ's theology and community life to a vision of Christianity that is rich and nuanced."
After the conversation and their embrace, Elder Holland sought to extend the dialogue. He extended an official invitation to Rev. Teal to speak at the church's flagship school, Brigham Young University in Provo.