Heretics are Novans who have, wittingly or unwittingly, forsaken the Emperor’s light.
Definition of Heresy
The Ecclesiarchy is surprisingly tolerant in its definition of heresy. By longstanding tradition, heresy is defined as only two things:
- Denying that the Emperor is the sole rightful master of mankind, or
- Denying that the Emperor is the ultimate protector of mankind.
This definition excludes many doctrinal misconceptions that may be referred to as “heresy” in ordinary speech but are more properly termed “doctrinal errors.” For instance, a believer may have erroneous beliefs about the nature of daemons or witchcraft, promote unnecessarily strict or lax morals, improperly exegete Scripture, or hold saints not officially recognized by the Church, all without committing heresy. A believer may even have erroneous beliefs about the nature of the Emperor Himself without denying the Emperor’s status as master and protector of mankind without committing heresy – as, for instance, do the red priests.
The most obvious way to commit heresy is to hold a god or gods other than the God-Emperor. However, a believer may commit heresy even accidentally due to the implications of his or her beliefs. Many priests feel that the common peasant belief that the Emperor is the sun falls under this category, as a mere celestial body cannot possibly rule over or protect mankind. Other priests dispute this interpretation, and in any case, this “heresy” is so widespread as be impossible to persecute. Excessive veneration of the saints may rise to the level of deification, a heresy as vile as openly professing other gods. Thus does the Ecclesiarchy reserve the severest sanctions for very few categories of belief, but these few are rigorously scrutinized.
Mere doctrinal errors, by their very nature, require mere correction. As they involve matters of faith or morals, they are often treated very seriously by priests (though the low level of theological education among the clergy often means that priests merely replace one doctrinal error with another). Thunderous sermons and revival meetings, public ostracism, and acts of penance such as flagellation are often deployed to correct doctrinal errors, reflecting the seriousness with which the Ecclesiarchy views them.
As serious as doctrinal errors can be, true heresy is an altogether graver matter. To commit heresy is to deny the Emperor’s place at the head of the Imperium, the spiritual communion of all mankind that underpins all of temporal society. In essence, to commit heresy is to renounce one’s allegiance to society, to literally turn traitor against all mankind. That a person can commit heresy unwittingly only underscores the seriousness with which the Ecclesiarchy – and indeed, most Novans – treat the concept of Imperium. The Imperium is not only the community to which the Emperor provides; it is also His fortress against the very real horrors of the Empyrean. To permit a traitor within that fortress invites spiritual and temporal ruin upon the entire community. Lethal force is the only acceptable response to such a threat.
Conviction and Defense
The Church teaches that a priest should be vigilant against heresy in his parish or district on the one hand, and deliberate in pronouncing this most damning of judgments on the other. According to strict Ecclesiarchical procedure, a priest should convene a court of no less than three clergymen to hear witnesses, examine the suspect, and weigh the evidence before pronouncing the accused guilty or innocent by unanimous vote. The accused is also permitted to testify, and present witnesses in his or her defense. The one exception to this procedure is for those accused of the heresy of witchcraft, who are to be held for examination by the next visiting Black Sisters unless the safety of the community demands otherwise.
In practice, this procedure is often dispensed with in light of the accused’s “obvious” guilt (curiously, the politically powerless are “obviously” guilty of heresy far more often than the powerful). Even when it is used, the trial is often corrupted by priests’ widespread ignorance of proper ecclesiastical court procedure. Once pronounced guilty of heresy, a heretic can appeal to a higher spiritual authority such as a pontifex or even the cardinal himself – though the odds of receiving a fair appeal with a judgment of heresy already pronounced (even if the judgment is invalid due to lack of trial, a technicality with which the accused is unlikely to be familiar) are vanishingly slim.
Persecution and Wars of Faith
In the jargon of the Ecclesiarchy, heresy is to be “persecuted.” If a heresy is not widespread, the heretic or heretics may be persecuted with a simple lynch mob of the faithful, usually whipped into a frenzy by the convicting priest or priests. If a convicted heretic is actually present at his or her trial (or simply cornered by an angry mob led by an accusing priest), he or she is usually persecuted to death on the spot. There is no prescribed method of killing a heretic, though dismemberment is popular. Whatever remains, however, is to be burned. As Novans bury their dead, incineration is the final act of removing a heretic from the community.
If a heretic escapes immediate persecution, or if a heresy is very widespread, a priest may be obliged to persecute through a “war of faith.” A war of faith is a holy obligation pronounced by a priest, calling all the Emperor’s faithful to take up arms in crusade against an imminent spiritual threat. Knights are expected to answer the call, but the obligation falls upon all regardless of station. Those not led to the war by a knight are still expected to band together into a “frateris militia,” a temporary army under the direct control of the Ecclesiarchy. Wars of faith are often haphazard, amateur affairs, but they are dangerous nevertheless. The zeal of a frateris militia can amply supply the need for violence even if few knights respond to the call (a sin that the Church is often powerless to censure since the fall of the monarchy). Frateris militia can also be hard to control. More than one heretic army in Nova’s history began as a frateris militia persecuting an earlier heresy, before the mob spun completely out of control.
Novans become heretics for numerous reasons. Witches are all but born heretics – tapping into the fell power of the Empyrean denies the Emperor’s power to protect, and it is extraordinarily difficult for witches to avoid giving in to their curse. Others become heretics by accident, or even in the pursuit of righteousness, as was the case with the Mutants’ Heresy.
Other heretics choose their heresy, to a greater or lesser degree. Not all Novans find the answers they seek to life’s slings and arrows in the Ecclesiarchy’s creed. These may modify their existing beliefs to suit their own needs, sometimes twisting the Ecclesiarchy’s doctrine so far as to break it. In addition, although the Ecclesiarchy does not admit it even to most high-ranked clergy, a fragmented underground of alternative religions exists on Nova. None can say whence these other religions and their strange gods originated, though some claim to date all the way back to the Age of Gold or before. These are vigorously persecuted whenever they appear, but it is almost impossible to extinguish all memory of an idea. Even if all adherents of another religion are killed, a text may survive describing their beliefs. More often, one or two heretics will escape persecution, keeping alive their beliefs in secrecy and fear. These methods of transmission are highly imperfect, leaving each new generation of discoverers to interpret the old religion in their own ways, but by such methods Nova is never entirely free from knowledge of other gods.
Widespread heresy is not nearly as common on Nova as simple banditry, but it is a sensational affair that tends to stick in the public consciousness. Novans do not have a strong tradition of written histories, so the truth of many heresies is lost to time, even down to when they occurred. However, the core of the stories themselves remains, a cautionary tale to those who hear.
- The Khiber Heresy. Arguably the most famous of Novan heresies is the Khiber Heresy, begun in ages past by a great lord (stories disagree as to his identity, or even his House) who raised a great army to make war on the Ecclesiarchy in the name of a bloody-handed foreign god of war. The heretics smashed armies and castles aside as they drove for The Spire, finally stopped on the slopes of Mount Khiber by a vast host of the faithful drawn from every House on Nova. Salicious legends have it that the Khiber Heresy was not – indeed, cannot be – completely eradicated, rising anew every few generations.
- Laramon’s Heresy. Laramon was a parish preacher from the Vale. Popular with his parishioners, he had a local reputation as a witch-finder. When it was found that he helped accused witches escape the Black Sisters, he was judged guilty of heresy for denying the Emperor’s justice. His parishioners, however, helped him to escape, and waged a guerrilla campaign in the Vale for years before being brought to justice by Confessor Chiris.
- The Plague. The greatest sickness to afflict Nova in memory is called simply “the Plague.” Many stories place this heresy in the Age of Brass, when many terrible and unnatural horrors afflicted Nova. Whether spawned by the Empyrean or a natural disease, the Plague swept through Novan society like a reaper’s scythe, felling high and low alike. Many heresies spawned independently during this time, as desperate Novans turned to sorcery, strange gods, and even orks looking for salvation. Despite vigorous persecution, the heresies of the Plague were only brought under control when the Plague itself finally spent its fury.
- The Mutants’ Heresy. The Mutants’ Heresy originated in an act of devotion. A small group of sanctioned mutants – most stories place the number at no more than five – gathered to seek the aid of St. Sanguinus, the mutant who fought at the Emperor’s side during the Age of Brass. The mutants’ simple piety and acts of altruism attracted others to their group, until their numbers swelled into the thousands. Over time, the Brotherhood of Sanguinus, as they came to call themselves, began to place the saint above the Emperor. The Brotherhood was eventually declared guilty of heresy and ruthlessly exterminated.
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