Monday, June 20, 2016

England, the EU, and the English Reformation

I don't have any knowledge to speak of the debate about whether the UK should stay in the EU, but I do find this debate interesting: which is more like the English Reformation: staying or going?

In The Guardian, Giles Fraser says the UK leaving the EU is like the English Reformation:

And this should be entirely unsurprising, given that the Reformation was largely a protest about heteronomous power. “The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England” goes the 37th of the 39 articles of religion, still – officially, at least – a summary of the theology of the Church of England, of which the Queen is supreme governor.

The backstory is familiar. In England, Henry VIII opportunistically purloined the pope’s authority under the pretext of localising the power of the church. There was nothing particularly honourable about Henry’s power grab. He just didn’t like being told what to do by some bloke in an Italian city. But freed from Roman authority, the Bible could be translated out of the elitist language of Vatican officialdom and into a vernacular that everyone could understand. And it was from this sense of grassroots empowerment that democracy was revived by the Protestant Levellers.

With every attempt – plots, armadas etc – by the pope to reclaim what he thought of as his, a stubborn commitment to English independence came to be lodged ever more firmly in our intellectual marrow. Nothing equivalent has shaped the intellectual worldview of Catholic countries. . . . 

. . . there are those of us who protest against our laws being crafted by some foreign power, beyond the control of our domestic parliament. Brexit perfectly recycles this defiant spirit of the Reformation.

Fraser sees the English Reformation as a political, not religious act: Henry VIII declaring England an Empire and himself its Caesar-Pope. Since Henry VIII's break from Papal authority and establishment of a new church is so complicated, I can see his point. 

But on this site from the University of Oxford, Diarmaid MacCulloch says the opposite is true: the UK staying in the EU is like the English Reformation:

Oh dear, Giles, how wrong can you be, about both the English Reformation and the wider movement across Europe? After its first explosion in northern Germany in 1517, the European Reformation was a completely international movement, transcending and breaking down local boundaries. The lesser Reformations of England and Scotland – distinct from each other, remember, Giles – were just part of this greater whole.

There was no idea of little Englandism in such Protestant reformers as the main author of England’s Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer, who is absent from Giles’s argument. Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, was aiming for the English Reformation to resemble as closely as possible his favourite movement in Europe, that of a mainland European city called Strasbourg (though German Reformers, and Cranmer, the English Archbishop with a German wife, would have called it Strassburg). . . . 

MacCulloch makes an interesting point about the language of the Reformation, although of course the reformers all wanted the Holy Bible and the order of worship for their various communities to be in the vernacular:

This unity is also seen in the language of the Reformation: Latin, an international language. It is a mistake to think of Latin simply as the language of Roman Catholicism and its liturgy. It was more truly a universal language, a genuinely effective Esperanto, than English is today. You needed to learn it, certainly, but learning Latin was the main point of schools at the time, and once you had it, you truly were a citizen of a single culture. Without Latin, Protestantism simply couldn’t have spread across local boundaries.

How else would such star Protestant refugees in King Edward VI’s England as Strassburg’s Martin Bucer or Poland’s Johannes à Lasco have talked to their English hosts or indeed to each other, if not in Latin? Latin was the secret weapon of Protestant reformers just as much as it was the language of the Pope. Indeed, it helped either side in the great quarrels of the Reformation understand each other properly when they were insulting each other (which they did, a lot).

But I think MacCulloch overstates Protestant unity, which was already breaking apart during Edward VI's reign in matters of doctrine and worship. 

Finally, MacCulloch partially agrees with his friend:

Giles: you might have a slight point in characterising King Henry VIII of England as a Brexiteer. He broke with the Pope in 1533. Through force of personality plus quite a lot of threats and bluster, he bullied his parliament into pretending that his Church’s independence had actually always been there in English history, just hidden from sight by Romish cunning.

But do remember that Henry VIII was emphatically not a Protestant; in fact, he burned some of them for heresy. The Reformation here flourished in spite of him, not because of him. Henry VIII is definitely not my idea of an acceptable leader, either for the Reformation, the Church of England or modern Britain in general.

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