Project Canterbury

A Bishop Among His Flock

By the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Bethlehem, U.S.A.

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1914.

Chapter XVI. Our Church Before and After the Reformation

BY the English Reformation we mean the long struggle of the Bishops, clergy, and laity in England during the sixteenth century to free the Church from certain unscriptural doctrines and practices which had grown up during the Middle Ages.

As Archbishop Bramhall declares, "I make not the least doubt in the world but that the Church of England before the Reformation and the Church of England after the Reformation are as much the same Church as a garden before it is weeded and after it is weeded is the same garden, or as a vine before it be pruned and after it is pruned and freed from luxuriant branches is one and the same vine."

Protests against the interference of the Bishop of Rome in the affairs political and religious of England had been going on for centuries. The power of the Bishop of Rome and his influence in the affairs of the English Church were a gradual growth.

It should be remembered that Christianity was brought into England during the second century, if not earlier, probably by missionaries from Gaul, who planted settlements of the Church here and there. At the opening of the fourth century we have the well-authenticated story of the martyrdom of Saint Alban, a Christian soldier, who was beheaded for the faith of Christ at Verulam, now known as St. Albans, in Hertfordshire. It is a matter of unquestioned history that in the year 314 three British Bishops were present at the Council of Aries, a city of Gaul, now France, and that again in the year 359 the attendance of three British Bishops is noted at the Council of Ariminum, in Umbria, on the Adriatic.

Brief and scanty as are the historical notices of the Church in England up to this time, we know enough to be assured that Christianity was preached there in the fourth century, and that Bishops in direct line from the Apostles administered the Holy Sacraments and upheld the True Faith.

Moreover, the fact of British Bishops being present at the councils above mentioned affords undoubted evidence that the British Church was recognized as a true and living branch of the one Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

Some time after this came the Saxon invasion from Germany, which resulted in the expulsion of the British Christians into the mountainous regions of Wales and the moorlands of Cornwall. The Saxons, coming over from Germany in increasing numbers, took possession of the whole land, which was afterward called by the name of England. The Christians of the ancient British Church, driven from their homes, made little or no attempt to convert their conquerors, and they continued in their heathenism for many years. It was not till 597, when Gregory, the Bishop of Rome, sent out a band of some forty monks, with a priest named Augustine at their head, as missionaries to convert the Saxons. They landed in Kent; and Ethelbert, the King of that part of England, whose wife, Bertha, a daughter of the King of Paris, was already a Christian, gave them permission to settle in the Isle of Thanet. From thence they removed to Canterbury, which now became the headquarters of the Roman missionaries. King Ethelbert himself was baptized, and, as was usually the case, the tribe followed his lead. In this way a considerable part of the southeast of England, then known as the Kingdom of Kent, was converted to Christianity.

And now comes an interesting and significant event. Augustine was anxious that the British Christians, who had taken refuge in Wales and Cornwall, should place themselves under his authority. Two meetings were arranged between them and Augustine, the first at a place named Augustine's Oak, thought to be situated south at the River Severn; the second at Bangor, situated in Wales, At the latter of these meetings seven British Bishops were present. Augustine asked them to join with him in preaching to the Saxons, and to give up certain customs in which they differed from the Roman practice. They refused both requests, and also to accept him as their Archbishop. The division continued until the close of the thirteenth century, when the British Church was finally absorbed in the Province of Canterbury. Thus the older and smaller stream of Christianity flowed into the younger and larger and became a veritable and inseparable part of it.

While we should be grateful to Rome for thus taking the lead in the conversion of England, we must not forget that there are other sources of our British Christianity possessing a more extensive influence. The work of Aidan, from Iona, was very successful. In comparing the efforts of Augustine and Aidan our own Bishop Lightfoot says: "It was in the year 635--just thirty years after the death of Augustine--that Aidan commenced his work. Though nearly forty years had elapsed since Augustine's first landing in England, Christianity was still confined to its first conquest, the southeast corner of the Island, or the Kingdom of Kent. Beyond this border, though ground had been broken here and there, no territory had been permanently acquired for the Gospel. Then commenced those thirty years of earnest, energetic labor, carried on by those Celtic missionaries and their disciples from Lindisfarne, as their original citadel, which ended in the submission of England to the gentle yoke of Christ."

A distinguished writer of the Roman Church, in describing the work of the Roman and Celtic missionaries, does not hesitate to make a similar admission in these words: "Of the eight kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Confederation, that of Kent alone was exclusively won and retained by Roman monks, whose first attempts among the East Saxons and Northumbrians ended in failure. In Wessex and in East Anglia, the Saxons of the West and the Angles of the East were converted by the combined action of Continental missionaries and Celtic monks. As to the two Northumbrian kingdoms, and those of Essex and Mercia, which comprehended in themselves more than two-thirds of the territory occupied by the German conquerors, these four countries owed their final conversion exclusively to the peaceful invasion of the Celtic monks, who not only rivaled the zeal of the Roman monks, but who, the first obstacles once surmounted, showed much more perseverance and gained much more success."

In having thus traced briefly the beginnings of Christianity in England, our object has been twofold: first, to make it evident that long before the arrival of Augustine and his monks from Rome the Gospel had been planted on British soil by others; and, secondly, that in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons the Celtic missionaries from the North played a far more important part than their Roman brethren. At the same time we desire to do full justice to the very important part the Roman Church had in the evangelization of our rude ancestors. After some delay the Bishop of Rome made choice of a Greek monk of the Eastern Church, named Theodore, who was consecrated at Rome in the year 568. Theodore was a Greek, a native of Tarsus, Saint Paul's native city. He was a man of years and experience, a scholar, and withal possessed of a generous spirit and large sympathy. He arrived in England on Sunday, May 27, a.d. 669. Shortly after his arrival he was joined by Hadrian, who had previously been offered the Archbishopric, but had declined the offer. Traversing together the whole land, they soon became acquainted with the people and their needs. Theodore appears to have won his way everywhere by his tact and sympathy. With the support of the clergy, he began to carry out his great plans for the consolidation of the isolated missions of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Theodore's rule as Archbishop of Canterbury was a very eventful crisis in the history of the Church. Hitherto made up of scattered missions, under his direction it was knit into an organic whole; the number of Bishops was more than doubled; the land was divided into dioceses, and the foundations of the parochial system as we have it today were actually laid.

Five hundred years elapsed from the time of Archbishop Theodore to the Norman Conquest. During this time the power of the Bishop of Rome gradually increased, and his influence in the affairs of the English Church grew more and more. William the Conqueror, in order to establish his position more securely, besought the Pope to sanction his expedition, and he entered England with this supposed authority. The Norman Kings who succeeded him followed the same course. The climax to the dangerous precedent of subjection to the Pope was reached in the great conflict about investitures--that is, as to whether the Pope or the King should appoint the Bishops. In the weak reign of King John, Pope Innocent III. deposed the King and bestowed the kingdom on Philip of France, urging him to take possession of England on the ground that it was part of the Pope's empire. The quarrel had been as to the See of Canterbury. John, to save himself, knelt before the Pope's legate, and owned that he held his land from the Pope, and that England both in civil and ecclesiastical matters was subject to the Roman See. But he had already been compelled by the growing indignation of the barons and the people to sign the Magna Charta, which has been called the palladium of English liberty. Among the opening words of this great state document are these: "The Church of England shall be free and her liberty unimpaired." The struggle between the Popes and the sovereigns of England continued with varying results. Deep grievances were felt at the heavy exactions made by the Pope on both clergy and laity alike. The Popes claimed "Peter's Pence," and in addition to this another tax called "Annates," or the first fruits of vacant bishoprics and other benefices. Besides this, the newly made Bishop had to pay in advance the whole of his first year's income to the Roman Court. But more serious than all this was the Pope's interference with the liberties of the English Church by means of what was named "provisions." By this is meant that the Pope provided beforehand a person to fill the next vacancy in any benefice he named. Sometimes this claim was exercised with good effect, but frequently the reverse was the case. By means of provisions the most prominent positions and the best livings in the Church were filled by foreigners, many of whom resided abroad and never even visited their parishes and knew neither the language nor faces of their flocks, all the time drawing the revenues of such benefices. We speak not of other grave abuses, such as indulgences and the corruption of the monasteries and other things so familiar to every student of English history. Again and again loud voices were raised calling for reform of these terrible evils, but all in vain. To say that there was a wide-spread discontent and a growing indignation against the papal domination as an interference and unlawful usurpation is to state the case very mildly. England was fully ripe for a great religious revolution. Popular leaders, among whom Wycliffe was foremost, had been stirring the people against the many abuses of the times. The air was full of inflammable materials which were only awaiting some cause sufficiently exciting to set them afire. At last came the spark that ignited the train so long prepared for the explosion. In Germany the immediate occasion was the sale of indulgences by the Dominican friar Tetzel. In England it was the unrighteous resolve of Henry VIII. to divorce his Queen.

The part of Henry VIII. in the work of the Reformation was purely political and selfish. After his quarrel with the Pope, Henry did all he could to free the realm and the Church of England from the Pope's influence and control, against which they had been protesting for centuries. In all other respects that King was a Roman Catholic and held the doctrines of that Church to the day of his death. The absurd claim that Henry VIII. had anything whatever to do with founding the historical Church of England has long since been abandoned by all intelligent people. No respectable historian would to-day try to defend such a baseless anachronism. It is as ridiculous as it would be to say that the Emperor Constantine was the founder of Christianity because he gave it royal recognition.

The Church of England was the same Church after the Reformation as it was before, only it was freed from certain false doctrines and usages that had been fastened on it during the preceding centuries.

After the Reformation the same Churches were used, and the same clergy, with few exceptions, ministered in them. It is sometimes supposed that the Church of England separated from the Church of Rome. As a matter of historic fact, such is not the case. On the contrary, the Church of Rome separated from the Church of England which had been planted in the British Isles, as we have seen, during the second century, if not earlier. Up to 1570--twelve years after the accession of Queen Elizabeth--the clergy and people of England, both reformers and papists, worshipped together in the same churches. In that year, On their refusal to acknowledge the papal supremacy, the Pope issued a bull of excommunication against them, commanding his adherents to separate from the Church of England and establish separate places of worship. It is very significant that out of ninety-four hundred beneficed clergy in England at that time less than two hundred obeyed the bull of the Pope and gave up their livings. All the rest remained steadfast to the Church of England and the cause of the Reformation. These figures certainly show that the Reformation was a general movement of the whole realm and that the Church of England, of which our Church in this country is a part, was a reformed national Church, and not a split from the Church of Rome. The communion between the two churches was thus finally broken off by a mandate of Pope Pius V. in 1570, commanding all the clergy and people of England who accepted the claims of the papacy to withdraw and set up separate places of worship. This mandate, moreover, was issued by the Pope, not because of any false doctrine held by the Church of England or any uncertainty as to the validity of her orders, but because the Bishops and clergy and Parliament of England refused to acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as the head of the English Church.

In other words, as the learned Bishop Bull has so happily expressed it: "The Church of England has not changed one thing of what she held before the Reformation any way pertaining either to the being or well-being of a Church. She still retains the same common rule of faith. She still teaches the necessity of a holy life, and presses good works as much as before. She still observes all the fundamental ordinances and institutions of Christianity. She baptizes; she feeds with the Holy Eucharist; she confirms. She retains the same Apostolical government of Bishops, priests, and deacons."

Project Canterbury