29 November 2019

Dear Dr Laura … ‘healthy
antidote to Scriptural
literalism of any sort’

Dr Laura Schlessinger … selective quotation from Leviticus

Patrick Comerford

There have been some very public debates within the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland about the dismissal of an organist, the election of a new bishop, and the treatment of a ruling elder who married his partner of many years.

The arguments are not just about sexuality, and not even about the authority of Scripture, but about the authority of one, specific interpretation or reading of Scripture.

As I was looking back on my Facebook memories the other day, I came across a posting that reminded me of the ludicrous degrees to which we can stretch or narrow our understandings of what Scripture says and how our responses are based not on what Scripture says but on how we choose to interpret and contextualise Scripture.

I was going to rephrase this posting, and rewrite it as an open letter to some of the people involved in this debate. But instead, I have decided it is worth repeating the original posting in full:

Dr Laura Schlessinger is an American talk show host and author who converted to Judaism some years ago. On her radio show, the Dr Laura Program, she said some years ago that as an observant Orthodox Jew she considers homosexuality an abomination according to Leviticus 18: 22, and that it cannot be condoned under any circumstance. She has since turned away from Orthodox Judaism.

She has been embroiled in controversies over comments that were interpreted as racist and about allegations about pornography, and has been accused of hypocritical judgmentalism given her own past lifestyle, including at least one long-term affair with a married man she later married. She is neither a medical doctor nor accredited in a discipline traditionally associated with expertise in moral, societal, or spiritual matters, such as pastoral theology, psychology or sociology.

The following response, laced with irony, sarcasm and humour, is an open letter to Dr Laura that was posted in many variations on the Internet:

Dear Dr Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18: 22 clearly states it to be an abomination ... End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.

1, Leviticus 25: 44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21: 7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Leviticus 15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord – Leviticus 1: 9. The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35: 2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Leviticus 11: 10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Leviticus 21: 20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20? Or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19: 27. How should they die?

9, I know from Leviticus 11: 6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19: 19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Leviticus 24: 10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20: 14).

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,


(It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian)

There are numerous versions of this letter, including ones that ascribe it to a US resident known only as ‘Jim,’ to ‘J Kent Ashcroft,’ ‘K James Atkinson,’ ‘Carole M. Cusack, Lecturer, School of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney,’ ‘Steve Turner,’ and to ‘James M. Kauffman, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education, University of Virginia.’

The Jesuit commentator, James Martin, says this letter has been widely circulated on the web since it first appeared in 2000. He says that, despite difficulties in ascertaining its origin,‘ it is a healthy antidote to Scriptural literalism of any sort.’

Lady Margaret Beaufort,
a patron of colleges and theology
and one-time resident of Woking

A portrait of Lady Margaret Beaufort from the Master’s Lodge in Saint John’s College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

I spent two working days in Woking this week, taking part in the annual residential meeting of the the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). Despite my plans, I never managed to get to see the ruins of Woking Palace, the residence of many royal favourites until it fell into ruins in the mid-17th century. But perhaps its most interesting resident, and the one with any theological interest, was Lady Margaret Beaufort who acquired it with the third of her four husbands, Sir Henry Stafford, by royal grant in 1466.

Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441/1443-1509) was the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII. Although she was never a queen or a princess, the historical novelist Philippa Gregory has labelled her the ‘Red Queen.’ She rose to prominence through astute marriages and careful manoeuvring through courts and politics during the War of the Roses, and could be described as the matriarch of the House of Tudor.

But she also founded many educational and religious institutions. She established the Lady Margaret’s Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in 1502. That year, she also endowed a lectureship in divinity at the University of Oxford, first held by John Roper. It became the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity, held with a canonship at Christ Church, Oxford.

She was also responsible for establishing two Cambridge colleges. In 1505 she refounded and enlarged God’s House as Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a royal charter from the king, and has been honoured ever since as the Foundress of the College. Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was founded by her estate in 1511, either at her direct behest or at the suggestion of her chaplain, John Fisher. Land that she owned around Great Bradley in Suffolk was bequeathed to Saint John’s.

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, the first Oxford college to admit women, was founded in 1878 and is named after her. There is a statue of her in the college chapel.

The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (MBIT) in Cambridge is a Roman Catholic offering transformative experiences for its students. It is based at Lady Margaret Beaufort Convent, Grange Road, Cambridge. Its primary mission is to educate and theologically empower women in the Church. It also provides a space for theological reflection and spiritual formation. It is a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation (CTF).

She founded a school in Wimborne that later to became Queen Elizabeth’s School, Wimborne Minster. Margaret Beaufort Middle School in Riseley, Bedfordshire, near her birthplace, is also named after her.

Lady Margaret Beaufort’s coat of arms on the gatehouse at Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Lady Margaret was born at Bletsoe Castle, Bedfordshire, on 31 May in either 1441 or 1443. She was the daughter and sole heiress of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (1404-1444), a legitimised grandson of John of Gaunt – 1st Duke of Lancaster and third surviving son of King Edward III – and his mistress Katherine Swynford.

Margaret was married four times. She was first married to John de la Pole in 1444, when she was perhaps a year old but certainly no more than three. But she never recognised this marriage, it was dissolved and King Henry VI granted her wardship to his own half-brothers, Jasper and Edmund Tudor. In her will 1472, she refers to Edmund Tudor as her first husband. Under canon law, Margaret was not bound by the marriage contract as she was entered into the marriage before reaching the age of 12.

Even before the annulment of her first marriage, Henry VI chose Margaret as a bride for his half-brother, Edmund Tudor. Edmund was the eldest son Owen Tudor and the king’s mother, Catherine of Valois.

Margaret was 12 when she married the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor on 1 November 1455. The Wars of the Roses had just broken out and Edmund, a Lancastrian, was taken prisoner by Yorkist forces within a year. He died of the plague in captivity at Carmarthen on 3 November 1456, leaving a 13-year-old widow who was seven months pregnant with their child.

Margaret was taken into the care of her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor, at Pembroke Castle, and there she gave birth on 28 January 1457 to her only child, Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII. The birth was particularly difficult, because of her age and her size, and she never gave birth to another child.

From the age of two, Henry lived with his father’s family in Wales, and from 14 he lived in exile in France.

On 3 January 1458, still a teenager, the widowed Margaret married her third husband, Sir Henry Stafford (1425-1471), son of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham. They were second cousins, and they moved into Woking Palace which she restored.

Stafford died in 1471 of wounds at the Battle of Barnet, fighting for the Yorkists. At 28, Margaret was a widow once again.

The gatehouse at Saint John’s College is similar in many ways to its counterpart at Christ’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Her fourth marriage was with Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable and King of Mann in 1472. At first, this was a marriage of convenience, and Margaret may have never seen herself as a member of the Stanley family. But this marriage allowed her to return to the court of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and she was chosen by Queen Elizabeth as the godmother to one of her daughters.

With Edward IV’s death and the seizure of the throne by Richard III, Margaret was soon back at court, working with the new queen, Anne Neville. But Richard III then stripped her of all her titles and estates, stopping short of a full attainder by transferring her property to her husband.

Meanwhile, Margaret was secretly plotting with the dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and was probably involved in Buckingham’s rebellion. It was presumed that Queen Elizabeth’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, had been murdered, it was agreed that Margaret’s son, Henry, would be betrothed to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Elizabeth and Edward IV. This created a marriage alliance with potential to attract support from both Yorkists and Lancastrians.

Margaret’s husband Thomas Stanley had fought for Richard III in the Buckingham rebellion. But he did not respond to the call to fight at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and remained aloof from the battle, even though his eldest son, George Stanley, was held hostage by Richard III.

After Bosworth, Stanley placed the crown on the head of his stepson, Henry VII, who later made him Earl of Derby. Margaret was then styled Countess of Richmond and Derby and assumed the title of the King’s Mother.

Lady Margaret Beaufort’s statue on the gatehouse at Christ’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Later in her marriage, Margaret preferred living alone, and she took a vow of chastity in 1499 in the presence of Richard FitzJames, Bishop of London. She moved away from her husband and lived alone at Collyweston, Northamptonshire, near Stamford. She renewed those vows in 1504.

Margaret translated and published one of the most widely read devotional texts of all time, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. She was a sponsor of the printer Caxton and was, therefore, a major supporter of the new media of her day.

She died in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey on 29 June 1509. This was the day after her grandson’s 18th birthday, and just over two months after the death of her son. John Fisher preached the sermon at her funeral. She is buried in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Her tomb is now located between the later graves of William III and Mary II and the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots.

Erasmus wrote the Latin inscription on her tomb: ‘Margaret, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, grandmother of Henry VIII, who donated funds for three monks of this abbey, a grammar school in Wimborne, a preacher in the whole of England, two lecturers in Scripture, one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge, where she also founded two colleges, one dedicated to Christ, and the other to St John, the Evangelist.’

Lady Margaret Beuafort’s coat of arms at the gatehouse at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Chapel of Christ’s College was consecrated on or around 1 June 1510 by the then Bishop of Ely, James Stanley, a stepson of Lady Margaret Beaufort. A pious woman, it is said that even before the chapel was consecrated she heard Mass from a gallery now represented by a window in the south wall of the chapel, although the chapel was not formally consecrated until a year after her death.

Her portraits hang in the Great Halls and other college rooms at both Christ’s College and Saint John’s College, Cambridge. Both colleges use her heraldic arms and motto as their own. The Lady Margaret Society and the Beaufort Club at Christ’s, and the Lady Margaret Boat Club at Saint John’s are named after her.

According to Cambridge myth, the name Lady Margaret was adopted after the Saint John’s Boat Club was banned from using that name. However, the club was probably named after its boat, as was custom in the formative years of college rowing. The alumni race as Lady Somerset Boat Club.

Her son was Henry VII of England. His first parliament recognised her right to hold property independently from her husband, as if she were unmarried. Henry VIII often visited Woking Palace and throughout his reign it underwent regular maintenance as well as some alterations. But i never got to see its ruins this week.

Lady Margaret Boat Club in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)