Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Unintended English Reformation

The Longbows and Rosary Beads blog traces the changes in religious practice in England through the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, not ignoring the Interregnum and Protectorate. Then the post addresses the last Stuart and the Hanoverians:

During the subsequent reigns of Queen Anne and the four Hanoverian King Georges, religious life in Britain took a downward spiral. Everyone was sick of religious infighting, and just threw up their hands with almost all the experiments except a luke-warm state-run Anglicanism that was more a matter of social status than religious belief. Certainly, there were some devout Anglicans who took their religion seriously, including King George III, but they seemed to be the exception instead of the rule. Indeed, the spiritual vacuum was opening ever wider, creating an apathetic society that gradually became more dependent on nationalism for its identity.

A good example of this is when the British captured Quebec, they took down a Catholic French statue of St. John the Baptist and erected on of British General James Wolfe. Meanwhile, Westminster Abbey, once the site of saints and kings, had since become a resting of predominately “secular saints.” While I have nothing against Gen. Wolfe or the present residents of the Abbey, the embrace of purely secular culture was nothing more than a blatant disconnect. One might “drink like a Londoner” and “swear like a Briton” and it was considered normality, but religion became more-or-less a thing viewed as hypocrisy by the masses.

In the British military, a moving microcosm of British society, religion sunk to an all-time low. Much of this was because upper-crust Anglican chaplains tended to be out-of-touch with the men, and were there only to provide some sense of outward structure. But few were willing to put their lives on the line for their men, and viewed it as merely another job for a salary as opposed to a mission for the salvation of souls. Of course, there were exceptions here as well, among Anglicans and other Protestant ministers of the gospel. But again, the problem remained, because the clergymen were seen as merely another wing of the secular authorities. Indeed, history shows that for a church to truly make a difference, it has to be independent of the state for its own safety.

Read the rest there. As the author notes, Henry VIII may not have intended that any religious changes in worship or devotion would take place, but they started during his reign once he identified the Church in England with the Empire of England with himself as the Caesar-Pope. G.W. Bernard, in his 2007 book from Yale University Press, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, argues for more intentional change in Henry's actions, particularly the Dissolution of the Monasteries:

Henry VIII’s reformation remains among the most crucial yet misunderstood events in English history. In this substantial new account G. W. Bernard presents the king as neither confused nor a pawn in the hands of manipulative factions. Henry, a monarch who ruled as well as reigned, is revealed instead as the determining mover of religious policy throughout this momentous period.

In Henry’s campaign to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which led him to break with Rome, his strategy, as Bernard shows, was more consistent and more radical than historians have allowed. Henry refused to introduce Lutheranism, but rather harnessed the rhetoric of the continental reformation in support of his royal supremacy. Convinced that the church needed urgent reform, in particular the purging of superstition and idolatry, Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries and the dismantling of the shrines were much more than a venal attempt to raise money. The king sought a middle way between Rome and Zurich, between Catholicism and its associated superstitions on one hand and the subversive radicalism of the reformers on the other. With a ruthlessness that verged on tyranny, Henry VIII determined the pace of change in the most important twenty years of England’s religious development.

So that would date the "via media" vision or theory of the Church of England, not to Elizabeth I's reign, but to Henry VIII's reign. He was determining what to keep and what to lose of late medieval Catholicism in England: the monasteries and the shrines were to go, but the Mass and the sacrificial priesthood were to stay, thus making Catholicism in his own image. I have not read that book by G.W. Bernard, but I have read his 2012 book, pictured to the right, in which Bernard contends that any clerical corruption in the monasteries or at the shrines was already known within in the Church, and was the object of reform and renewal. What Henry did with the suppression of the monasteries and destruction of the shrines was correct the problem by eradicating it completely, or at least what he and Cromwell and some others identified at its source. But that meant that England lost its "religious" life (no monks, nuns, or friars fulfilling their particular and essential roles and charisms) and part of the source of its vitality: the devotion to the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, pilgrimage, and prayer. While Henry took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the Church, he did not realize that he was vitiating its vitality. His "via media"--just as Blessed John Henry Newman recognized in the mid-nineteenth century--was a razor's edge too fine to balance on. 

1 comment:

  1. This was an excellent post. I read this while I wac actually out and about in England on a self-made "stones and bones" (churches and Saints) tour.

    Somewhat reIated, but yet not related, is that while I was there, I couldn't help but chuckle to myself in that one of the main tennets of the so called reformation was the revulsion of the money making machine that Relics and Pilgrimages had become. However, most of the Cathedrals and Abbey ruins I went to charged an entrance fee to get in (and of course you exit through the gift shop).

    Delicious irony; no?