Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Late Medieval English Church

Subtitle: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome, by G.W. Bernard.

Before I make my comments on this important study, here's a brief review from David Hamid, the Anglican bishop for the EU community:

G W Bernard, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome, Yale (Hardcover; Kindle edition also available)

In his biography of Richard III, Paul Murray Kendall describes the late medieval English church as ‘rather like a fat whale stranded in a lagoon abounding in its food – not uncomfortable enough and too well fed, too inert, to try to move in any direction at all. Though pricked by the Lollards and stung by hostile criticism from the laity into holding tight to its privileges, the church was not sufficiently challenged to attempt or even imagine reform.’ This negative view of the late medieval English church is one that was widely accepted until recent times. It has been seen to be a key explanation for the English Reformation: that it occurred and took a Protestant direction because of popular discontent with the corruption and complacency of the Catholic Church of England in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This account of the causes of the Reformation has been challenged in recent years by a number of historians, notably by Professor Eamon Duffy in his book The Stripping of the Altars. It is challenged again by G W Bernard, the Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, in this new book. In his view the English church of the late Middle Ages was a church marked by vibrant faith and great energy. He explores the structure of the church, the nature of royal control over it, the role of the bishops and other clergy, the intense devotion and deep-rooted practices of the laity, the existence of anti-clerical sentiment, and the prevalence of heresy. He argues that the Reformation was not inevitable, nor was it caused by the fact the church was corrupt, superstitious or outdated. The late medieval church had its vulnerabilities, but paradoxically these were often a sign of its great vitality. This is a book that needs to be read by anyone who is interested in the history of the English Church and the background to the English Reformation. The question it raises, like the work of Eamon Duffy before it, is why, if the pre-Reformation church was so vibrant, did the English Reformation take place?

And here are the author's own comments about his interpretation of Henry VIII and the English Reformation, from his page on the University of Southampton website:

My study is in two parts. The first is a consideration of the condition of the church on the eve of the Reformation. In common with many scholars in the last two decades, I came to question the tenaciously held orthodoxy view of the late medieval church as riddled with abuses and thus an easy and inevitable and justified target of reformers. My own developing interest in parish church architecture - especially the rebuilding of churches in the perpendicular style - reinforced my conviction that there was an extraordinary vitality in the life of a late medieval church very much cherished by an overwhelming majority of laypeople. And yet such an approach seemed somehow insufficient, a deficiency crystallised for me by Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars (1992), doubtless against the writer's intentions. The central problem is that it makes the subsequent reformation inexplicable: how could so vital and so popular a church be overturned?

The answer, it has increasingly seemed to me, is that the late medieval church was characterised not just by vitality but by vulnerability, and that perception has guided my researches on such themes as the bishops, the clergy, confraternities and chantries. My published paper on pilgrimage shows how I am exploring this counterpoint between vitality and vulnerability. More broadly the vitality of practices such as pilgrimage must be measured against the level of theological knowledge of those who took part in them. How much did lay religious activity reflect mere social conformity, how far deep conviction and genuine understanding? How mechanical and superstitious was late medieval lay piety, and how far did that leave the church highly vulnerable to criticism from an Erasmian or protestant approach? One of my principal claims is that the church was in many respects a 'monarchical church', a theme I have explored for the century after the break with Rome in a paper in History. By that I mean that the interests and ambitions of monarchs tended to be predominant, and also that monarchs saw themselves, and were seen by their subjects, as the guardians of the spiritual well-being of the church within the realm. In many ways such close association with the monarchy was a source of strength for the church, but in other respects - for example the involvement of leading churchmen in secular government - it left the church ill prepared to resist the hostility of Henry VIII.

You can see both from the Anglican bishop's review and Bernard's own remarks that Eamon Duffy's work seems to haunt this book--and indeed Peter Marshall makes that point in his review of this book in the Literary Review:

The Late Medieval English Church does not quite bill itself as an extended commentary on Eamon Duffy's work, but that is the clear subtext. The book is notable for its focused attention to areas of late medieval religious life that Duffy chose not to consider in detail: the role played by bishops, the state of the religious orders, the significance of Lollardy. . . . But Bernard's superbly researched and coherently argued study is far from being either a hatchet job on Duffy or an atavistic reversion to Protestant instincts about pre-Reformation Catholicism. We could reasonably characterise (sic; Literary Review is published in Edinburgh!) its overall thesis as 'yes, but . . . '.

Sometimes that "yes, but . . ." thesis bothers me as Bernard goes back and forth with questions about how we in the 21st century should judge how well the laity, nuns, monks, priests and bishops lived up to the ideals and standards of the Catholic Church in the late medieval era. Bernard tells us what contemporary critics of the Church in England tell us now about how some abuses were regarded, and then points out how seldom the abuses occurred--a priest behaving badly stood out and created such alarm and outcry because relatively few priests behaved badly, considering the population of the time. Yes, some of the bishops were not present in their dioceses, but they were serving the King, they made arrangements for vicars to cover their duties, and when they did go home, they regretted their absences and repaired any damage as soon as possible. Yes, some of the monks and nuns left their cloister, but they were landlords too and needed to oversee their tenants, distribute charity, or in the case of an Abbot, attend Parliament in the House of Lords. These abuses don't answer Bishop Hamid's question at all--they don't automatically mean that the English people would reject the Catholic Church once Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and Cromwell and Cranmer started introducing reforms to the liturgy and closing the monasteries, convents, and friaries.

Bernard discusses the "monarchical" nature of the Catholic hierarchy, serving the Tudor monarch and basically obeying his demands on church matters--although the bishops sometimes balked. But as Peter Marshall notes in that Literary Review article, French and Spanish rulers had as much control and there was no state led Reformation in either country. Bernard is fair and effective in his analysis of the vitality and vulnerability of the Catholic Church in England before the Henry VIII's Break from Rome/the English Reformation, but he doesn't solve the mystery yet of how the English people accepted religious change at the hands of its monarch with compliance, even though that compliance was not easy, immediate, or complete. Although Bernard fills in gaps that Duffy might have left (he did not claim to be comprehensive in The Stripping of the Altars), we still have a historical mystery, it seems.

I think the real solution is in human nature, not historical causes and effects.It's just easier to go along with the legitimate secular authority that has the means here and now to force you to do what it says to do: drop the pinch of incense in Rome; whitewash the Last Judgement in London; buy the HHS mandated insurance in Wichita. Father George Rutler wrote an article called "Post-Comfortable Christianity and the Election of 2012"--I'm not citing it for political/election year reasons--and he points out "The surrender will not come by a sudden loss of faith in Transubstantiation or doubts about Papal Infallibility. It will happen smoothly and quietly, as the raptures of the Netherworld always hum victims into somnolence, by the cost factor of buying out of government health insurance." And he continues,

As the bishops, by the acknowledgement of many of their own number, failed to articulate the cogency of doctrines on contraception and other moral issues, so will they now, despite the best intentions, not be able to stem the radical attrition among native Catholics whose eyes are on mammon, and among recent immigrants whose privileges are guaranteed only if they vote for opponents of the Church. The general election of 2012 may rally the fraction of conscientious Catholics among the sixty million or so sympathetic Catholics. If their influence is not decisive, and the present course of federal legislation accelerates, encouraged by a self-destructive appetite for welfare statism on the part of ecclesiastical bureaucrats, the majority of Catholics with tenuous commitments to the Faith will evaporate, as did the lapsed baptized in North Africa during the oppression of the emperor Diocletian.

Most of us (in the sixteenth or the twenty-first century) are just too dependent on our comforts and like to get along. Martyrs are the exceptions that test that rule and shock us because they will risk their lives.

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