Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Marking the Reformation:
500 years on – an Irish Anglican perspective

Canon Patrick Comerford contributes the third article in our series marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

As other Christian communities mark this year as the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the commemorations raise a number of questions for Anglicans:

●When did the Reformation begin?

●When did the Reformation end?

●To what degree did the Lutheran Reformation influence the Anglican Reformation?

● To what extent are Anglicans open to Lutheranism today?

Anglicanism has no one single founding figure, so that there is no single Reforming authority for Anglicans, in the way that Martin Luther has a defining role for Lutherans, or John Calvin for Calvinists and Presbyterians.

Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer are seen as the founding martyrs of Anglicanism; Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker are the key figures in drafting the foundational documents of Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles; and the Elizabethan and Jacobean theologians Richard Hooker, John Jewel and Lancelot Andrewes, and the Caroline Divines, including Bishop Jeremy Taylor, presented Anglican theology in its first articulate and systematic ways in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But Anglicans are neither Lutherans nor Calvinists, despite continuing efforts by some theologians to place us in either camp; nor, for that matter, are we Cranmerites, still less Hookerites.

The Anglican theological position has always been explained in terms of the middle way or via media. Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity is regarded as the classic depiction of this Anglican via media, based on scripture, reason and tradition, although he does not use the actual term via media in his works, which stand alongside John Jewel’s Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae.

Thomas Cranmer's memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When did the Anglican Reformation begin?

If we accept that the Church is always reforming itself and in need of reform, then we must accept the great reforms of pre-Reformation days too. One of the early reformers is Pope Gregory the Great, one of the Doctors of the Church, who reformed the liturgy and sent Saint Augustine on his mission to England. It is no accident that his image appears in many Anglican churches and cathedral, including a statue on the south porch of Lichfield Cathedral and a window in the nave in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

From the mid-14th century, the Lollards were demanding Reform under the leadership of John Wycliffe who was dismissed from in Oxford in 1381. Wycliffe was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, as an early champion of women’s voices in the Church. Although she lived and wrote a century before Luther and Calvin, she is seen as an early forerunner of the Anglican Reformation.

A plaque at King’s College, Cambridge, marking the site of the White House Tavern or ‘Little Germany’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Did the Lutheran Reformation influence the Anglican Reformation?

William Tyndale, who worked on an early translation of the Bible, was executed before the Anglican Reformation began. His prominence in Protestant folklore sometimes eclipses the influence of Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus remained a Roman Catholic priest, but through his work on the Greek New Testament in Cambridge while he was Professor of Divinity, he made the Bible accessible to the Anglican Reformers and he helped to stimulate an interest in Luther’s work.

Cambridge became the nursery of the English Reformation, and the White Horse Inn, on a site that is now part of King’s College, became the meeting place of critical scholars, including Thomas Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, William Tyndale, John Bale (later Bishop of Ossory) and Hugh Latimer.

The Anglican Reformation found another springboard in the thinking of Henry VIII, not because of his demands for a divorce but in his theological intellect, first expressed in a critique of Luther that earned him Papal recognition as ‘Defender of the Faith.’ Indeed, the royal request for a divorce was strongly criticised by Luther, and Cranmer found favour with the king by offering an alternative course of action.

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

When did the Reformation end?

Of course, the Church must always be in a state of being reformed, and the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda is an accepted part of Anglican theology. But this principle, which has been attributed not to the Reformers but to Saint Augustine, is used only for the first time by Karl Barth in 1947, and then adapted by Hans Küng in the 1960s.

For Anglicans, the classical Reformation did not end with the deaths of the martyrs in Oxford in 1555 during the reign of Mary I. By the time the 39 Articles received their final form in 1571., the Puritans were a critical wing on the margins of Anglicanism, so that Calvinism had become a force opposing the via media that would define Anglicanism from the 1570s on.

Elizabeth I often defended her Church’s catholicity to foreigners and emphasised what it held in common with the rest of the western Catholic Church. When she was invited to send bishops to the Council of Trent, she said ‘we only differ from other Catholics in things of small importance.’

A canon of 1571 demands that clergy in their preaching ‘see that they never teach ought in a sermon, to be religiously held and believed by the people, except what is agreeable to the Old and New Testaments, and what the Catholic Fathers and ancient bishops have collected from the same doctrine.’

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, declared in the early 17th century: ‘I will never refuse to embrace any opinion in divinity necessary to salvation which the whole Catholic Church with a unanime [i.e. unanimous] consent have constantly taught and believed ...’

The Cromwellian era (1649-60) threatened but failed to mark the triumph of Puritanism and the end of the Anglican Reformation, if not Anglicanism itself.

Perhaps the classical Anglican Reformation ends not with the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, but in the reign of Charles II, with the Act of Uniformity and Great Ejection of Puritans in 1662. This gives a Catholic hue to Anglicanism, and so Anglicanism was defined not by Luther, Calvin or Cranmer, but the Caroline settlement, the Caroline Divines and the rejection of Puritanism. In Ireland, the Caroline Divines included Bishop Jeremy Taylor and Archbishop Bramhall of Armagh.

The Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer rejects any suggested revisions that were seen as ‘secretly striking at some established doctrine, or laudable practice … of the whole Catholic Church of Christ.’

Little changed with the William revolution (1688-91), and, indeed, the reign of Queen Anne marked a period of consolidation for the achievements of the Caroline Divines, and the Caroline Divine and Nonjurors, such as William Law, shaped the early sacramental life and spirituality of John Wesley.

The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of Saint Giles’ near Baliol College, Oxford … Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake near this spot on 16 October 1555 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

To what extent are Anglicans open to Lutheranism today?

Today, the Anglican covenants with Methodists, including the new discovery of a family kinship in Ireland, runs parallel with similar engagements with Lutheran Churches in Northern Europe and North America.

For example, the Porvoo Communion embraces the six main Anglican churches in Europe (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Scotland, Spain and Portugal) and those Lutheran churches in northern Europe that have maintained the historic episcopate, but it does not yet include Lutheran churches without the historic episcopate, such as those in Germany and France.

For Anglican identity and ecclesiology, Catholic order remains more important that the historic role of Luther or the importance of the events 500 years ago in 1517.

The Rev Canon Professor Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in Co Limerick and Co Kerry. He is a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin, and a former journalist with The Irish Times. He co-chaired the international conference ‘Martin Luther and Catholic Theology, remembering the Reformation,’ in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 2015.


This feature was first published in June 2017 in the Methodist Newsletter, Vol 45, No 487 (Senior Editor, Lynda Neilands; Editor, Peter Mercer), pp 24-25.

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