A lithograph showing Martin Luther burning the papal bull of excommunication. Photo: N.Y. : Published u. printed by H. Schile, 36 Division St. c1874.

How the English Reformation silenced a noisy, generous way of life

But we shouldn't all turn back to Rome
April 12, 2017

“That’s my wine,” Eamon Duffy teased, as I mistakenly sipped from his glass. “First you pinch our churches, now you pinch my wine.” This won’t be a conventional review of Duffy’s exciting new collection of essays on the Reformation—or reformations, as he prefers. Not least because after having read a few chapters of this fabulous book, I was so buzzing with questions and ideas that I went up to Cambridge and took him for lunch.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church by nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. What began as a complaint about turning salvation into an income stream for the Catholic church through the selling of indulgences, soon broadened into a wholesale rejection of papal authority. Translating the Latin Bible into the language of ordinary people broke the grip of a priestly class that had set itself up as an intermediary between the congregation and God. Turbocharged by the printing press, Luther’s protest led to the break up of the pan-European church, and the start of more than a century of religious war. On these solidly Catholic islands, an opportunistic Henry VIII borrowed the theology of the revolution, to which he was not personally inclined, in order to sort out his bedroom bother with his wife Catherine of Aragon—and to steal the wealth of the monasteries.

The two sides would, of course, tell the story differently. Since an Anglican priest such as myself and—on the other side—an Irish Roman Catholic historian like Duffy come to the question of the Reformation with a huge amount of historical baggage. I’m a bells and smells “Anglo-Catholic,” but nonetheless with a hostility to the papacy that would have made Ian Paisley blush. In the course of lunch, Duffy suggested that the only reason Anglicans like me are so against the Pope—and he puts his friend the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in this category—is that without such animus we’d have no reason not to become Roman Catholics. Ouch.

Duffy is a dogged defender of all things Catholic, including the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. Indeed, those who don’t like his work say he is a Roman Catholic first and a historian second. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. All of us bring our whole selves to scholarship, including our faith. Instinctively, I think of the Reformation story as a bit like Star Wars—the plucky rebels taking on the might of the Empire. The story of the counter-reformation and the Inquisition is like The Empire Strikes Back. But this is exactly the picture Duffy wants to contest.

"I think of the Reformation story as a bit like Star Wars—the plucky Protestant rebels taking on the might of the Catholic Empire"
One of the contrasts Duffy explores is between Christianity as social solidarity, associated mainly with Catholic social teaching; and Christianity as moral separatism, associated with the Puritans, or the Godly as they liked to style themselves. The differences between these theological perspectives can be neatly illustrated in their respective attitudes to the question of booze.

In 1582, the Puritan cleric George Gifford published a dialogue between the characters Atheos and Zelotes. Asked if their minister “doth... not teach them to know the will of God, and reprove naughtiness among the people?” Atheos replies: “Yes that he doth, for if there be any that do not agree, he will seek for to make them friends: for he will get them to play a game or two of bowls or cards, and to drink together at the alehouse: I think it a godly way to make charity.”

This vision of the ministry is one in which the church and the priest exist at the heart of the local community—the rites and rituals encouraging mutual cooperation. It’s the sort of ministry familiar to vicars in country parishes who pop into the pub for a pint after church and who happily draw the raffle at the village fête. Such a ministry is focused on the whole village, and not just on those who go to church. It’s a kind of religious community activism; an encouragement of good neighbourliness, which blurs the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

But Zelotes is outraged at the moral laxity of Atheos: “I do not mislike true fellowship, which is in the Lord, knit in true godliness, but I mislike this vice, which overfloweth everywhere, that drunkards meet together and sit quaffing, and the minister which should reprove them.”

Zelotes’s Puritanism is about maintaining a strict separation between the pure and impure. The code word used in Puritan circles is “holiness”—a word that remains operational today in, for example, the neo-Puritan resistance to same-sex marriage. According to this view, the “Godly” are not just a small subdivision of the community; they are often a small subdivision of even those who attend church. Only those who adhere strictly to the Bible will be saved.

Duffy’s argument was first presented in his hugely influential Stripping of the Altars (1992), a sympathetic account of Catholic England before Henry VIII—and later in his micro-study on one English village in The Voices of Morebath (2001), which Duffy rates as his best book. It is not overstating the case to say that Duffy’s work shifted the way a great many people understood the English Reformation—myself included. He argued that too many of us have bought uncritically into a schoolboy notion of the pre-Reformation church—that it was a bit like a caricature of Cardinal Wolsey, dripping in ecclesiastical finery, fat with profit, corrupted by ambition and a stranger to the poor.

From this starting point, the Puritan reformers have been sold as fighting against corruption and returning the church to the Lord. Yes, so the cliché runs, they were a bit obsessive—turnip-eating, theatre-hating, fun sponges—but at least they believed what they preached. And through the Reformation, the church was cleansed of moral laxity and medieval superstition. The traditional argument continues: Henry VIII might have had his own reasons for welcoming the reforming spirit, but out in the country the Roman church was so unpopular that all it took was a nudge to collapse. By the time of Elizabeth I, Protestantism had become fused with Englishness. God save good Queen Bess and down with the Pope, the scarlet whore.

Duffy’s life’s work has been to expose this story as Puritan propaganda. There may have been corruption in the monasteries, but that was slowly being addressed with the changes already under way within the Roman church—not least down to critical thinkers such as Erasmus. Out in the English parishes, Christianity was flourishing.

After Duffy passed his driving test in the 1990s, he told me, he began driving out of Cambridge and around the country. He found a church in Morebath, Devon, whose pre-Reformation life bore little resemblance to the popular caricature. This was a church in which ordinary rituals and sacramental practices were still central to communal solidarity. In 1529, a female parishioner left her wedding ring to the church; it was melted down and made into a shoe for the statue of St Sidwell, a local saint. This is the sort of thing Puritan revolutionaries would later dismiss as fanciful nonsense. But when a thief broke into the church to steal its silver, including the shoe, the outraged locals clubbed together to replace the stolen goods. Rich with symbolic value, these objects had a special place in the life of the community; they were a focus for how people thought of themselves and their place in the world.

Sometime in the 1540s, the Reformation hit Morebath. Simon Haynes, the Puritan Dean of Exeter, rode into town and tore the iconography down. For Haynes, popular religion was suspect, statues encouraged idol worship, parish parties had to be stopped. Duffy’s dislike of Haynes and his ilk is infectious. He talks of their reforming zeal a bit like a lefty might talk of modern-day Tory cuts to social services—that the Reformation agenda was ideologically-driven austerity that crippled the poor. While it is true they had become self-absorbed and unpopular, the monasteries had traditionally been the most significant public service provider for the poor of medieval England, specialising in education and healthcare. Henry VIII destroying the monasteries was like the Tories attacking the NHS. From the Reformation onwards the shift began from Christianity as social solidarity to Christianity as moral separatism.
"Duffy talks of the Puritan zeal a bit like a lefty might talk of Tory cuts to social services—as ideologically-driven austerity"
I’m with Duffy on this. It wasn’t until the Oxford movement in the 19th century that the vital rites and practices of the Catholic church returned to the Church of England. My own south London parish in what is now Elephant and Castle, founded in 1212, gets a brief mention in his new book. In 1657, the Puritan minister Richard Baxter wrote to the curate, the Rev Thomas Wadsworth, with advice on dealing with a congregation of variable moral purity. To cut off the ungodly makes ministers “the cruelest enemies of souls of the poor people… for as soon as ever we have rejected them, and cast them under public shame, they hate us to the heart,” Baxter warned. He was wise enough to appreciate that such rigidity was not an easy sell. Indeed, as Duffy says, Puritanism was largely a middle-class phenomenon. And parishes like the Elephant and Castle, poor and variegated in personal holiness, were never going to be persuaded by bullying. When the Church of England saw a revival of the Catholic spirit during the 19th century, many urban parishes were delighted to return to the Catholic fold—only without the Pope. “We are English Catholics, how happy we shall be,/When all are English Catholics, and an end to Popery,” they sang.

It was Henry VIII who had been given the title of Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X in 1521. It’s why the letters FD are still stamped after the Queen’s name on our coins. The great English Catholic Thomas More thought Henry’s break with Rome was a betrayal of everything he had once stood for, driven by the need to rally support for his divorce.

I read this section of the book on the day the judges of the Supreme Court ruled on the need for parliament to vote on Brexit. The historical parallels with More were unmistakable—a lawyer fighting an ultimately unsuccessful rearguard action against a 16th-century Brexit. Substitute the Bishop of Rome for the Treaty of Rome and it appears that we have been fighting over Brexit for centuries. Perhaps ever since the Norman invasion of 1066. Indeed, the call to throw off “the Norman yoke” was one of the political myths that fuelled the English Reformation.

The reputation of More has undergone a shift in recent years. The heroic portrayal in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960) has been overwritten by Hilary Mantel’s far less flattering portrait in her novel Wolf Hall. More is indeed a complex figure. He began his intellectual career sympathetic to the reforming spirit of European humanism—this was the author of Utopia, after all. Yet More ended up torturing and burning heretics. A great friend of Erasmus, he was alert to the abuses of institutional Christianity, especially within monasteries. Indeed, many in more authoritarian Roman circles would think of Erasmus’s arguments as themselves encouragements to the Lutheran revolution.

But as the European Reformation progressed, and as the wars of religion began to take their toll, More came to associate Luther with social breakdown and rebellion against God. As a result, his persecution of heresy was merciless. Duffy just about comes down on the side of decency, not quite attempting to justify More the torturer. It’s rather a plea for contextual understanding. But what is plain is that Erasmus—not having the same political responsibilities—stayed true to his humanist principles. More abandoned them.

One of the most fascinating essays here is on George Fox, founder of the Quakers in the 1650s. Duffy shows that the Reformation was a continual revolution, a bit like Trotskyism, always finding new forms of popery and priestcraft against which to set itself. Fox’s theological wanderings were a century later than much of the action considered by Duffy, and set in the febrile atmosphere of the English Civil War. Fox gained a strong sense of the moral emptiness of conventional Christianity on witnessing some friends getting drunk at Atherstone fair in Warwickshire. For Fox, the outward practice of religion was dead without the inner light of truth. Duffy doesn’t exactly say this, but for him this is the ultimate destination of the Protestant revolution—a religion of inwardness, devoid of external pegs or props. Sitting in an empty room, amid the ruins of smashed statues, in silence, doing nothing.

The Roman model—an ordered and practical Christianity, built on the liturgical rhythms of the church and centred on the Mass—likes to think of itself as inclusive, noisy, generous and non-judgmental. Duffy is too polite to say so openly, but he sees the Protestant model as less about this boisterous God-infused praxis, and more concerned with the sanctity of its own experience.

Here I’m squarely on Duffy’s side. But—and it’s a big but for me—I just don’t like being ordered around by some old bloke in a far off European city. Power needs to be closer to home; more accountable; less glamorous. That is probably the reason I voted for Brexit. And it’s why I’m an Anglo-Catholic.

Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of Englandby Eamon Duffy (Bloomsbury, £30)