The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers
New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925
Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.
The Reformation in England
THE REV. FRANK GAVIN, Th.D.
Of the General Theological Seminary, New York City
"THE Reformation in England" is the term usually applied to the events of about seventy years, roughly from 1530 to 1600. Like Shaw's plays, in which the preface is usually at least as significant as the text, (and often more interesting), the prelude to the English Reformation is essential to the understanding of its meaning. Like many another settlement, that known as "The Elizabethan Settlement" left so many matters distinctly unsettled that the evidence of subsequent events is essential to comprehend the period in question. In short, we do well not to circumscribe the Reformation by the limits of one century: it was the fruitage of what preceded, developing into maturity in what followed. The Anglican Reformation was not an act, but a process.
As a process rather than a culminating series of critical happenings, the Reformation belongs essentially to the whole texture of the life-history of Christianity in England. It was an episode and phase of that life, and an integral part of a wider and longer context. It was an important, episode, therefore [22/23] it possesses a peculiar and unique significance. Significance involves meaning and meaning, interpretation, and so the trouble begins!
Few periods in modern history have been so much the subject of dispute and controversy as that of the Reformation. There are those who ascribe to it a finality and irreformability little short of authentic Revelation. There are others who conceive it to be largely, if not wholly, the work of the evil one. There are some others who would like to pass it over and say nothing about it. Once upon a time, as the tale runs, a man found an elephant on his doorstep. One friend counseled him to appropriate it, as it was a nice elephant. Another told him to get rid of it, as it was a vicious brute. One highly wise person advised him to ignore it, and act as if it were not there.
Now it is precisely this unpleasant quality about facts,—their "so"-ness, and "there"-ness, which constitute their divine right to consideration. They cannot really be ignored. We cannot pretend that the Reformation did not occur, when we are in this generation very largely what we are by virtue of the events of that troublous century. There is no province of our thinking or of our political, social, and economic life, or of our religious problems, that has not been influenced, shaped, or formulated by the Reformation. From Fundamentalism and Modernism to the Ultramontane Papacy, from our present-day political and economic and social problems to the League of Nations, the terms of our whole world-outlook were conditioned by that insurgent movement known as the Reformation.
For the Reformation as a whole was a part of a vastly larger and more comprehensive thing than even a [23/24] profound religious and ecclesiastical change. Recent studies have shown us how intimately it was bound up with political, economic, social, and nationalistic factors. From the welter of causes operative in the sixteenth century have come forth the modern states of Europe, the modern industrial civilization in which we live, the present dominant social order, as well as new forms of the old religious corporations and newly formed religious bodies. We may not conceive of the Reformation solely in terms of theology or religion or church matters in general, and be fair to the facts.
For a proper understanding of the seventy years in England, ending with the close of the sixteenth century, we must then keep in mind the following considerations: (1) The Anglican Reformation must not be read in terms of itself, but in the wider context of what preceded and followed it. (2) It may not adequately be understood as a religious or ecclesiastical movement apart from the interplay of other forces,—political, social, economic, nationalistic, and intellectual.
It is obvious that we cannot fairly ascribe to it any ecumenical infallibility or absolute finality, as it was but a phase of a larger life. Whatever it did well, demands our appreciation and admiration. What it did less than well, is in the way of being outgrown and corrected, in the very terms of the extension of the movement itself.
There are two clues to the understanding of medieval Church history, one of which pertains to the external, and the other to the internal, life of the Church. One has to do with organization and structure,—the quarrel between Pope and Emperor, Church and State, the impact of the rival ideals of [24/25] a super-national Church-Empire with the Pope at its head, as against the claims of secular rule, and nascent nationalism progressively more self-conscious. The other has to do with the theological development, where the principle of free consensus was opposed to the dragooned administration of private conviction and free investigation.
In both provinces the Papacy represented an imperialism of organizational dominance as well as of authoritative control of the mind. The issue may be best construed in the event: freed from the clogging and hampering counterweights of opposing tempers and action, the modern Roman Catholic Church has gone on serenely to the proclamation of Papal Infallibility. Along these two lines,—the conflict in ideal and fact waged against an imperialism of mind, body, and soul,—we may best understand what the Anglican Reformation did to the Church in England.
I. "The separation of the English Church from Rome in the sixteenth century is rather a phase of the nationalist movement of breaking away from the undivided Latin Church, which began in the last century of the Middle Ages, than part of the great continental Church Reformation. The English reformed Church is in the first place national. Just as in the Middle Ages Ecclesia Anglicana embraced all Christians within the ecclesiastical provinces of the realm, so it was the aim of the Tudor State Church to do the same. Anglican and English were still in the history of religion, identical in meaning. They were not long so to remain. The Anglican Church, as it was built up under Elizabeth, was a notable attempt to throw the dome of the National Church over Christians of a very different way of thinking.
 The successive phases of the Reformation in England can be observed on the basis of this broad generalization made by a famous non-Anglican scholar. [* Yngve Brilioth, The Anglican Revival, 1925, p. 1.]
Perhaps the initial stage might be called the realization of nationalism, of which the chief characteristic was the insurgent protest against the constitutionality of the Pope's claim to the obedience of all men, particularly Englishmen, and the attempt to realize in fact something which would correspond to this nebulous and negative ideal.
It is no distortion of the facts to draw attention to the singular phenomena, that the Papal rule in England fell "long before any change was made in the religious system of the country, and sixteen years before any serious change was made in doctrine or worship."
The fact that the Reformation under Henry the Eighth could be put through with such little friction and opposition, with the support of the preponderant number of bishops, and the co-operation of the laity, as evinced by the action of the newly revived Parliament, deserves much careful attention. Subconsciously, two ideals were in conflict: the inherited medieval ideal of the Church empire, and the nascent power of national self-consciousness.
Two great characteristics distinguish the changes made under Henry the Eighth in the Church of England: the repudiation of the Papacy, and the dissolution of religious houses. Both were achieved chiefly by the Royal Power. How far was the "royal headship" an essential mark of non-Roman Anglicanism? A candid study of the facts would suggest that it was [26/27] the only feasible expedient for the organizational life of the non-papal Church. It is not a matter of principal so much as the necessity of expediency. The very title claimed by Henry VIII was disavowed by Elizabeth inside a score of years. There was no such thing as an independent organization, competent to carry on its own activity by itself, in the Church of England immediately previous to the Reformation. In default of any better method of securing autonomy, and practical action apart from Papacy, the English Church functioned with the King as its head. It is from its subsequent history that this construction of the facts becomes clear: better than to see the acorn as itself, is to see it as a potential oak.
For scarcely more than a century later the fact of the King's headship of the Church became involved in the theory of the divine right of kings, to meet its defeat forever in the seventeenth century. Were Henry's claims and actions so securely a matter of principle for Anglicanism, it would seem that three centuries have brought about an essential alteration in the character of Anglican Christianity.
Judging by the historical sequence of events, most of the post-Reformation history of the English Church, from the point of view of the question as to the royal headship, may be construed as progressive process of disestablishment. Scarcely had the question as to the divine right of kings been decided adversely when there came about, gradually but certainly, various subversive attacks upon the association between State and Church. From the end of the seventeenth century, through even the woeful and dismal laxity of the Hanoverians, up to the repeal of the [27/28] Test Acts in 1818, the process went on slowly but surely.
Since then the Emancipation of Roman Catholics, the withdrawal of the matrimonial and testamental jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical courts, the admission of Jews to Parliament, the abolition of Church rates, of university tests, the disestablishment of the Irish Church, then of the Welsh Church, and most recently the founding of the Church Assembly,—all these constitute an articulate commentary definitely stating that whatever relationship might have been maintained under the Tudors, the royal headship of the Church is no essential principle of its constitution.
II. The reign of Edward the Sixth shows us two important facts: the passivity of the Church, deprived of the vigorous royal headship, under the plundering attacks of secular-minded politicians, and the vigorous intrusion, without the expressed wishes of the ecclesiastical corporation, of foreign Protestants into the chairs of English universities.
Nothing so clearly distinguishes the lack of ability of the Church of England, after its separation from the Papacy, successfully to negotiate its own affairs, and to determine its own policies, than the oppression to which it was subjected both temporally and intellectually in the reign of Edward the Sixth. One might describe the temper of Anglicanism, preeminently reactionary from papal domination in organization and thought, as animated by the temperate zeal of humanistic interests and anti-scholastic philosophy.
To this reign which saw the issue of the first English Prayer Book in 1549, and the second in 1552, apparently imposed without deference to the wishes of [28/29] Convocation, belong these negative elements, which demonstrate the weakness of the Church to hold her own against secular aggression, and successfully to give battle against the intrusion of foreign Protestants into her teaching office.
The reaction under Queen Mary showed clearly enough that the temper of the English population was not Protestant but Catholic. Even when the poor queen, driven on by a dismal bigotry and hideous sense of duty, put her hand to persecution, it is significant that those who fell victims to torture and death came for the most part from a few centers in the south, where a curious alliance between economic and social interests had operated to open the way to Continental Protestantism.
Again, from the standpoint of English Church history, the reign of Mary Tudor was highly significant for its negative effects. It served, as a whole, sharply and incisively to engrave into the consciousness of English men a suspicious horror of methods used in the defense of the interest of the Papacy, which was to be confirmed with increasing vigor with the progress of the years to come.
The second great effect was forcibly to throw ecclesiastical malcontents into the hospitable hands of foreign Protestantism. When innumerable people were vaguely satisfied, and many others could have been made keenly zealous for non-papal Catholicism, the royal persecutions forced them into a double exile, and into identifying Catholicism with the Papacy. Spiritually they were taken at a tremendous disadvantage, for to the exiled Englishman, in his bitter reaction against the Marian regime, there was presented with all its attractive logic the formidable [29/30] and cohesive system of Protestant theology and doctrine. Small wonder is it that the problems of Elizabeth's reign were prepared over-seas, and the primary cause was the bigoted queen, Mary Tudor.
III. For subsequent Anglicanism, Elizabeth's reign presents important and significant data. The queen came to the throne with a strong bias in favor of her father's policies. She had no sympathy with continental Protestantism, but at the same time disavowed Henry the Eighth's claim to be "supreme head" of the English Church. The process of disassociation began in her reign, the outlines of which have been sketched above. In this golden age of English literature, the heroic age of English enterprise, the era which showed the culmination of that national self-consciousness which built modern England, the English Church began to think herself clear in her theology and discipline, as against Roman Catholicism on the one hand and continental Protestantism on the other. As the entail of medieval civilization made it difficult to sunder religion from race, Church from State, both continental Protestantism and Roman Catholicism appear in Elizabeth's reign as potent political factors.
Puritanism and English-speaking Presbyterianism by the middle of the sixteenth century had developed a certain ethos of their own. Due probably to the accident of the historic exigency in Scotland, John Knox's reform developed a new and unique byproduct: the vindication of the claims of democracy as an essential ingredient in the policy of Scottish Presbyterianism.
It seems highly likely that this was due primarily to the practical question of the method used [30/31] in dividing up the ecclesiastical spoils of Scotland. Whatever be the cause, it is certainly true that militant Puritanism, both within and without the Established Church of England, had a political programme which was inextricably bound up with its thorough-going theology.
Likewise militant Roman Catholicism manifesting itself in the excommunication of the queen in 1570, and the call to her subjects to renounce her allegiance, showed itself as a political rival to the precarious stability of the queen's government. What these two religious systems showed in the realm of things secular and political was symbolic of their policy in things ecclesiastical and religious. As over against the English Church, each had a clear-cut system of polity, theology, doctrine, discipline, and worship. As over against the English Church, with so many acquiescent adherents, there was vociferous attack, ardent propaganda, and convinced if narrow polemic.
In the vortex of innumerable currents, (all of them factors in the general situation,—social changes, economic development, intellectual and cultural rejuvenation, political and national rebirth),—the surprising thing is that the English Church should have begun the process of theological development at all. With the English instinct of reluctance to think things through, it is not to be wondered at that it was only now that Anglican Christianity began, in the face of attack, abuse, and vilification, to construct some sort of definite position for itself against the powerful cogency of the Protestant and Roman Catholic systems.
Three qualities distinguish the Elizabethan school, which have also marked subsequent Anglican theology: [31/32] the appeal to the undivided Church, the frank effort constantly to re-examine fundamental positions independently of the Latin tradition of the West, and a true zeal, largely animated by humanism, to seek and present the truth. More astonishing even than the effort to make its way in the welter of opposing currents, is the poise and balance of the theological thought and administrative discipline of this troublous period.
With the Elizabethan period Anglicanism reaches its period of self-conscious growth. Certain strains of foreign Protestantism soon become acclimated in the English tradition, and as a whole, the reign of Elizabeth served but to intensify and confirm the growing anti-papalism of the English temper. The circumstances of this brilliant epoch also worked into the consciousness of English Churchmen a rather narrowing loyalty, in which patriotism connoted adherence to the Established Church, and the Church itself tended rather to be regarded as a branch of the State having to do with public religion.
It would seem unnecessary in passing, to mention the consecration of Archbishop Parker, and all the vast literature which has grown up about it. That fact is chiefly of interest to us in modern times by virtue of the papal repudiation in 1896 of the validity of our Orders, and the growing tendency on the part of Eastern Orthodoxy to recognize them. A number of Russian scholars recognized the validity of our Orders, then the Churches of Constantinople, Jerusalem, and the autocephalous Church of Cyprus have followed suit, and latterly an Old Catholic Church of Utrecht has done the same. Anglicans may be pardoned for their temerity in feeling convinced of their [32/33] own Orders and Sacraments even in the face of the Venerable Pontiff of Rome.
IV. For the rest of the period which is called the Reformation, our best view may be had from the eminence of the present, from which we can obtain a better perspective of more recent events. The Stuart period is chiefly distinguished by the rising up of a staunch generation of Churchmen, willing to die for the faith and conviction that the Anglican Church represents the true Church of Christ. The tradition of its Catholicity and the endeavor to preserve it free from the taint of foreign Protestantism, even if the policy of Stuart Churchmen may have been involved with the corollary (proved invalid in the event) of the divine right of kings, made possible the rejuvenescence of that conviction with greater and more fervent zeal in our own times—the culmination of inchoate and developing conviction, the true fruitage of the Anglican Reformation.
We can only really judge the Reformation fairly by the subsequent history of our Church, the achievements of the distinguished men of the last three centuries, and the promise for the future.
The Church in the Colonies, and our own beloved Communion here in America, testify to an Anglicanism in which there is little of the Establishment. Who would be so rash as to question our claim to membership in the tradition of the Reformed Church of England? As to the verdict upon the past we can best look at the present with its weaknesses and strengths—and see ahead to the future. All Churchmen of whatever school use a common liturgy, profess a common belief, are governed by a common polity, and act together in a common organization. [33/34] Schools of thought there have always been in the Church when it is at its best, for the repression of the divergent points of view and the suppression of diversity of opinion by autocratic force is not a part of our tradition as members of the Catholic Church. Our "glorious comprehensiveness" may be stated more positively, as against Roman Catholicism, with its machine-like seductiveness of organic efficiency, and Protestantism, with its attractive appeal to individualism, in the statement that Anglican Christianity is the arc of a wider circle than either papal Catholicism or Protestantism.
What we really are is best seen by our potential capacity: the Catholic Movement is one such symbol and symptom of the essential characteristics of Anglican Christianity. For the Catholic who rejoices in his name, must spell it both with a capital and a small "c". As a logical development of the Reformation and an inevitable consequence of the co-operation of men with God's grace in our beloved Communion, the revival of the past century is the surest token of the true essence of the Reformation in England, and the most definitive statement of its aims so long unstated and undefined.
We speak more truly when we regard the Reformation as a process and not an act. The consummation of the process in terms of the present has been the work of nearly the whole of the past century. What Anglican Christianity is today is perhaps the most significant commentary on that period from which it came forth, independent of the Papacy, to develop with the years its own ethos and its peculiar contributions to the life of Catholic Christianity.
The Anglican Church, one in continuity with the [34/35] great Church of the ages, achieved an independence (not without losses of some value) to the end of claiming the rightful heritage of adult freedom in the Body of Christ. From an imperialism of structural organization or spiritual control it disassociated itself; it claims the right, nay asserts the obligation, of the free quest for truth and the candid re-examination of old positions, secure in the conviction of the Spirit's guidance vouchsafed to the Church of Christ, loyal to the traditional heritage of the Undivided Church, and keenly conscious of the shortcomings and failures which it constantly seeks to reform. The authority of the Undivided Church is its authority, in deference to what it proclaims as the freedom of a larger allegiance than that of the sixteenth century. To bring about this realization was the work of that progressive, yet conservative movement, known as the Anglican Reformation.