But we shouldn't all turn back to Romeby Giles Fraser / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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.