08 February 2013

Church History (full-time) 8.3, The Anglican Reformation

Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Friday 8 February 2013, 11 a.m.:

The Anglican Reformation.


As we have seen this morning, throughout the Middle Ages there were many movements to reform the Church, including the growth of the monastic orders, the reforms introduced by reforming popes in Rome, such as Gregory the Great, and the contrasting pressures from John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Erasmus and others.

Then, as we looked at the ideas of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, I hoped we realised how wrong it would be to see the Reformations of the 16th century as one, single, focussed movement. Alongside the movements inspired by Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, there were other Reformations too, including the Anglican, and Anabaptist Reformations ... and the Tridentine Reformation.

The need for reform

Successive popes at various stages made brave efforts to reform the Western Church. This is why Innocent III called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

Some of the popular movements for reform and their leaders found a place within the Church – notable Francis of Assisi and his friars. But others did not – such as John Wycliffe and the Lollards.

Despite the cruelty of the Crusades, and the relentless pursuit of dissent in the shape of the Albigensians and the Waldensians, the spirituality of Julian, and of Thomas à Kempis, the theology of Aquinas and the poverty of Dominic and Francis point to a Christianity that continued to develop new riches and thinking.

Although the integrity of the Western Church was weakened by the Crusades and its claims further weakened by the Avignon captivity of the Papacy (1309-1377), Western Christianity was alive intellectually and spiritually.

The questioning faith of Peter Abelard in France in the 12th century, the Waldensians in Italy and further afield in the 13th century, and of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England in the 14th century were nurtured in a Church that would soon find itself ripe for the challenges of the Reformations and the Counter-Reformation.

Duns Scotus and the early Cambridge Franciscans commemorated on a plaque in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... the Irish Franciscans were integrated into the intellectual life of European Christianity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So why were some reformers acceptable, and others not? Despite the efforts of Francis of Assisi and others to call the Church to reform, by the 15th century the Western Church had become totally identified with the interests of the State and power, and the very notion of Christendom made the powers of Church and State inseparable. Those who challenged the status quo faced being marginalised or condemned as heretics.

The 15th century Church could live with a visionary like Julian of Norwich, so long as she lived (symbolically) outside the walls of the Church, but not with a visionary like Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft and heresy in 1431.

Among the common people, a popular religion had developed with the veneration of saints (particularly the Virgin Mary), relics, shrines and pilgrimages. But the vast majority of people were excluded from taking part in the central sacramental life of the Church – when they were present at the Mass, they were present as spectators, excluded by and large from the Communion or the Eucharist – and from any role in administering Church affairs.

No longer was the Bible available in the common language, and many received their religious education only through the street plays, the carvings, paintings and stained glass windows in churches, or the popular cycles of folk religion. While the early primitive Church could benefit from Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible into the common Latin of daily commerce, the Vulgate, the Church in later centuries was unable to accept the demands for translation.

John Wycliffe in a window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford … initiated a new translation of the Bible into English (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Wycliffe (ca 1329-1384) initiated a new translation of the Vulgate into English, but was soon deserted by his friends in high places, and his followers, the Lollards, were suppressed. However, the demands to have the Bible translated continued apace in England and on the Continent, and the move to return to the original texts and meanings would become an essential part of the scholarship of the Renaissance.

At the Council of Constance in 1415, Wycliffe was condemned for heresy and an order was made that his body be disinterred from holy ground; Hus too was condemned as a heretic, and without an opportunity to defend his ideas he was burned at the stake. On the other hand, Thomas à Kempis (ca1380-1471) was able to remain within the Church, and influenced many through his preaching, counselling and books, particularly The Imitation of Christ, which opened the hearts and minds of many to receive the teachings of the Reformers.

Certainly, by the beginning of the 16th century there was a widespread understanding, even in Rome, that the Church was need of reform, structurally, liturgically and in the monastic houses.

The quality of leadership provided throughout the Church by the Popes, at diocesan level by the bishops and at parochial level by the clergy was a long-standing source of complaint. The office of the papacy was in disarray in disrepute as two and sometimes even three rival claimants were proclaimed as Pope, the main claimant living not in Rome but in Avignon in France, and other pretenders to the papacy living in Florence and elsewhere. With the deposition of rival popes in 1409, 1415 and 1417, the Councils of Pisa and Constance established an important principle: a council could deprive a pope of his claims to supremacy.

The wealth of the Church was being used for private and personal gain and profit, and the liturgy of the Church was no longer accessible to the vast majority of Church members.

And so, the spread of the Reformation was facilitated by the preconditions for change across northern Europe.

Liturgical reform

During the early centuries of the Church, the central emphases of the Eucharist were on doing what Christ had done, and a fellowship meal. The congregation, together with their president, had together prepared a meal of Thanksgiving; the people brought forward the gifts of bread and wine, and received them again in the sacrament.

By the late Middle Ages, however, these emphases had shifted so the average mediaeval parishioner was removed from the centre of the action, and had become an onlooker or spectator, watching and witnessing the performance of a mysterious rite, a role emphasised in the architecture of mediaeval churches and cathedrals, and their emphasis on sacred space and on what is above.

The emphasis had shifted to from a meal at which God was thanked for the whole of the salvific story, centred on the life of Christ, to merely remembering, commemorating and almost, as it were, re-enacting his sacrifice on the Cross.

Most people in Church no longer understood the miming actions or the words recited by the priests at the Eucharist, which had become known as the Mass – from the words of dismissal at the end: Ita missa est (‘Go, it is sent,’ or ‘Go, the dismissal is made’), to which the response was: Deo Gratias (‘Thanks be to God’).

This ought to have been a weekly celebration and fellowship meal, but by the late Middle Ages, most people communicated once a year or, perhaps even, once in a lifetime. The emphasis had shifted to the priest ‘saying Mass’ and on the laity ‘hearing Mass.’ Only the celebrating priests had the texts for the prayers, readings and liturgy, so the people were reduced not only to the role of spectators, but also to praying their own private prayers rather than praying collectively.

Even the priests found all this too difficult to cope with. So many books were needed, and so many variations had to be taken account of, a priest needed a manual or handbook to pick his way through them skilfully. One such book was known as The Pie and is referred to in the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

“Moreover the nombre and hardnes of the rules called the pie, and the manifolde chaunginges of the service, was the cause, yt to turne the boke onlye, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more busines to fynd out what should be read, then to read it when it was faunde out.”

In addition, matters were made more intricate and more complicated because from the 12th and 13th centuries onwards – despite the unifying influence of Rome – there were five principle ‘uses’ or variations of the Western liturgy in these islands. The most widespread of these was the Sarum Use, named after Salisbury Cathedral. The other four were: the Use of Hereford, the Use of Bangor (Wales), the Use of York and the Use of Lincoln.

As the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer notes, there was ‘great diversity in saying and singing.’

And so two of the great impulses for the Anglican Reformation were: a yearning to return to the simplicity in worship of former days; and to overcome the barriers created by diversity so that the people of these islands could truly have a Common Prayer.

The dawn of the Reformations:

The moon dial at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where Erasmus lived while he taught Greek in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The intellectual milieu that preceded the Reformations was created to a degree by the great Christian humanists, intellectuals such as Erasmus, who moved easily between England Continental Europe. The emphasis of the humanists on returning to the foundations of Christianity came as the exodus of scholars from Byzantium following the collapse of Constantinople in 1453 brought fresh knowledge of patristic sources and Greek philosophy through Venice and into the rest of Europe. With the invention of printing, books were more accessible – including the Bible, the great philosophical works, and the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church.

The age of discovery coincided with the Renaissance, which gave the Church great artists, including Michelangelo and Titian, and the wisdom and erudition of scholars such as Erasmus (1467-1536) and Rabelais (1494-1553).

This was also a time when national languages were taking identifiable shape: Chaucer’s English developed into the English used by Tyndale, and later by Shakespeare, the compilers of The Book of Common Prayer and the translators of the King James Version (Authorised Version) of the Bible; Dante is seen as the creator of modern Italian; Martin Luther’s Bible would play a similar role in standardising German.

Martin Luther … posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517

A year after Erasmus published his Greek New Testament, the Reformation began on 31 October 1517, when the Professor of Biblical Studies at Wittenberg University nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. Decay and decline left the Church too weak to accept or to meet the demands for reform.

The reformers had to be dealt with brutally – as the Dominican friar Savonarola had been burned at the stake in Florence – or marginalised and cut off by excommunication.

But the demands for reform were coming from within the Church, and those leading the demands were among the most able and loyal members of the church: the Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483-1546), the French ecclesiastical lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564); a French Dominican friar Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who tried to mediate between Calvin and Luther; and their English contemporary, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), a quiet and reluctant scholar from Cambridge who was summoned to become Archbishop of Canterbury as late as 1532, and who would shape the English language through The Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms and his collects.

When it came, the Reformation ought to have been a breath of fresh air through the whole Church; instead, it threatened to bring down the whole edifice.

Martin Luther’s reforms initially attracted widespread popular sympathy, but ultimately his success and the continuation of his ideas were guaranteed because of the support of secular princes and city magistrates.

The Reformation in England:

Henry VIII … initially opposed the reforms championed by Luther

In England, and in English-speaking Ireland, the Church was, by-and-large, in a fairly good condition at the end of the early Middle Ages: ant-clerical attitudes were contained among lawyers and theologians; Christian humanists were generally supportive of the Church; parish life was flourishing and vibrant; and the most cogent critique of Luther came from the king. For his tract, Assertio Septem Sacramentum (A Defence of the Seven Sacraments), written in 1520, Henry VIII was honoured by Pope Leo X with the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, on 11 October 1521.

The unity of Church and State was maintained in England when Henry VIII became entangled in a dispute with Rome after failing to receive papal sanction for his planned divorce. Part of the process of generating support for Henry’s campaign involved creating public anger against the excesses of clerical power and the wealth of the monastic orders.

The excommunicated Henry remained a Catholic in doctrine and in practice until death in 1537, and it was only during the reign of his son Edward VI (1537-1553) that the Reformation was effectively introduced.

The English reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Bishop Nicholas Ridley (ca1500-1555) and Bishop Hugh Latimer (ca1485-1555), fused Lutheranism and Calvinism in a State Church that retained Catholic order and much of Catholic liturgy.

Introducing the Reformation to Ireland

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... the Prior and canons of the Augustinian community became the dean and chapter at the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ireland was largely untouched by the intellectual and cultural upheavals introduced during the Renaissance. Only the Pale kept apace with developments in England, and so the Church in Ireland was effectively divided into two zones of the ecclesia inter Anglicos and the ecclesia inter Hibernicos. In the former, diocesan and parish life was now functioning in a very similar way to its counterpart in England, with very little expressed anti-clericalism or anti-papalism. In the Gaelic Church, Church life was very different, with a largely hereditary clergy presiding over large rural parishes and deaneries.

As in England, the Tudor Reformation was an act of state in Ireland, implemented by parliamentary legislation, so that Ireland experienced the Reformation by extension, and was part of the process of centralising English government control in Dublin in the aftermath of the fall of the Kildare Geraldines in the 1530s.

The Reformation was accepted by most of the bishops in 1536, when papal supremacy was replaced by the supremacy of the State. However, the bishops made no changes in doctrine, liturgical change was minimal and many of the first reforming bishops are counted in the diocesan lists of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

The names of the early Reformers in Ireland show they were drawn from the mainstream of Irish life – names such as Browne, Butler, Cullen, Devereux, Nugent, Purcell or Walsh – and the episcopal succession continued uninterrupted.

Many of the monasteries were suppressed, but their communities continued living among the people. The Prior and canons of the Augustinian community in Christ Church Cathedral became the dean and chapter, for example, and by and large parish life continued as before.

During the reign of Edward VI (1537-1553), a reformed liturgy was introduced from England and The Book of Common Prayer, first used in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Easter Day 1551, was the first book printed in Ireland.

The first Book of Common Prayer (1549) was authorised for use in Ireland, but the second Book of Common Prayer (1552) was never legislated for in Ireland. John Bale insisted on using the second book when he was consecrated Bishop of Ossory in 1552, but his reception in Kilkenny was so hostile that he was forced to leave his diocese on the death of Edward VI in March 1553.

Under Queen Mary (1553-1558), some Reforming bishops were deposed and married clergy punished, but the Reformation returned under Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), and was accepted by all but two of the bishops.

In 1560, the Irish Parliament again repudiated the authority of the Pope and passed the Act of Uniformity, making Anglicanism the state religion in Ireland.


Why did the Reformation fail to take hold in Ireland in the same way as it did in England?

A concluding profile: Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer … his legacy includes The Book of Common Prayer, the Collects and the 39 Articles

In Year II, in the module EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, we shall more closely at the unfolding of the Anglican Reformation and the development of The Book of Common prayer, the Articles of Religion or the 39 Articles, and other aspects of the Anglican Reformation.

But I would like to conclude this morning’s explorations in Church Histry with a brief introduction to the key figure in the Anglican Reformation.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), who began his career as a theologian at Jesus College, Cambridge, was perhaps the key figure in the Anglican Reformation in England as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

He helped build the case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, with Thomas Cromwell he supported the principle of Royal Supremacy, and as Archbishop of Canterbury he was responsible for establishing the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the reformed Church of England.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Cranmer did not introduce many radical changes, but succeeded in publishing the first officially authorised vernacular service, the Exhortation and Litany.

During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer was able to promote major reforms. He as the main author and editor of the first two editions of The Book of Common Prayer, and in consultation with refugee Continental reformers, he developed new doctrinal standards in areas such as the Eucharist and clerical celibacy, promulgated through The Book of Common Prayer, The Homilies, and other publications.

The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of St Giles’ near Baliol College in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cranmer was tried for treason and heresy during the reign of Mary I. He was jailed over two years and made several recantations, apparently being reconciled to the old order.

However, on the day of his execution in Oxford, 21 March 1556, he dramatically withdrew his recantations. As the flames drew around him, he placed his right hand into the heart of the fire and his dying words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit ... I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

His legacy lives on through The Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles.

Next: Week 6 (22 February):

9.1: Trent and Jesuits: Catholic expansion;
9.2: Missions and colonies: Protestant expansion
9.3: Revolution and enlightenment: old certainties challenged

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 8 February 2013 was part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course, Year I.

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