Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Anticlericalism and the English Reformation

On the First Things blog, Peter Leithart cites some quotations from David Loades' chapter "Anticlericalism in the Church of England before 1558: An 'Eating Canker'?" in the 2001 book Anticlericalism in Britain c. 1500 to 1914, saying that

Anticlerical agitation was more consequence than cause of the English Reformation . . .

Thus, “there was . . . a certain amount of anti-ecclesisticism before the Reformation; a feeling that the Church was too rich, too self-satisfied and incapable of responding to new challenges” (8).

For the most part, anticlericalism arose with the Reformation. Protestant polemicists attacked priests as ignorant and unqualified—which they indeed were, by Protestant standards that required knowledge of the Bible and capacity to teach (9–10). Henry VIII found that anticlerical rhetoric could be used to his advantage. He used it “because it was a convenient weapon, rather than because it evoked a powerful response.” He wanted a male heir, but even before the succession crisis emerged, he expressed his unhappiness at the independence of the clergy: They were “‘scarse his subjects,' and were evading his laws” (13). Monasteries were dissolved not because monks were hated but “because they were no longer seen as performing the vital spiritual function that had once justified their huge resources.” To be sure, he had his eye on monastic wealth, but “his move would never have succeeded if many others had not shared his covetousness, or if the prestige of all the orders had been as high as that of the Carthusians” (13).

These few comments and quotations are out of context, of course, but I wonder about that statement that monasteries were dissolved "because they were no longer seen as performing the vital spiritual function that had once justified their huge resources". By whom were they no longer seen performing these functions? The people of North certainly saw their benefit. Glastonbury, for example, was fulfilling its purposes. In The Tudors, G. J. Meyer pointed out that the monastic movement in England had its ups and downs, it required reform and revival several times in its long history. The monks of Henry VIII's era weren't given the opportunity to change. And I don't remember that there was any great outcry when the Carthusians were so brutally destroyed in spite of their prestige--they had no great wealth to speak of; nor the friars or canons. It came down to covetousness, not concern for monastic effectiveness and spiritual functioning.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect he means that they were no longer seen as performing a function by the very people who were driving the move toward the Reformation position.