What complaints were made by the reformers about the Church of Rome at the time? There were three marks by which Christ’s church could be known: pure and sound doctrine; the sacraments administered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline. The reformers had no problem with Rome from the point of view of it retaining the essential word, but they took the view that too much of it had become overlain with human traditions of varying sorts. So, baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the essential sacraments, but by what mandate of Christ was it permissible to withhold the cup from the laity? That had not been the practice in the early Church. Neither had the early Church held to the doctrine of transubstantiation, nor had it seen the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. There were other things, such as the veneration of statues and the practice of paying money to get out of Purgatory, which also suggested that serious reform was needed. The problem was that Rome would not heed calls to reform, nor appeals to ancient practice; it insisted that its traditions were of God and not to be changed. The English Reformers saw themselves as faced with a choice – either by yoked to a Rome which in their view had departed from the marks of a true church, or separation – so they chose the latter. All that Henry’s marital difficulties did for them was to put the King on their side. Everyone was well aware that if Charles V had not been the uncle of Queen Catherine, and if his troops had not been occupying Rome, Henry would have had his annulment; not for the first, and certainly not for the last time, the needs of Rome’s realpolitik created problems for it – in this instance ones fatal to its influence on England. The quarrel was with the Pope – something reflected in the legislation of 156 which rejected ‘the foreign pretended power and usurped authority of the Bishop of Rome’.
What the reformers wanted to return to a purer model of the Church. The decision that Henry should be head of the church was simple enough. It was hardly a new idea that the monarch should take on a leading role – there had been several rounds of crises in which monarch and Pope had clashed over jurisdiction within their realms. There was no thought that the split would be permanent – there was the hope that Rome would realise that all the complaints and calls for reform were ones it ought to hear – as Bishop Jewell put it, ‘we would be willing to yield to Rome all the honour Irenaeus gave her if she would return to the doctrine and traditions of the Apostles’
Here, despite being an Anglican, I am not taking any sides, simply reporting on what people said at the time, and it is an interesting paradigm, and one not unknown in the wider history of the Church. In 325 at Nicaea, traditionalists had appealed to precedent to repudiate the use of novel terms such a ‘The Trinity’ or words derived from Greek philosophy such as ‘hypostasis’ – the latter line was one heavily argued by the Alexandrian Church at Chalcedon in 451. Tradition was a two-edged sword. No one ever claimed to introducing novelties, the argument always was, as it was with Arius, that one could find whatever idea it was in the Bible. If Jesus was the ‘first-born’ he could not be God – but then, the Athanasians argued, how did that make sense alongside John 1:1-3? At what point, and by what authority did an idea become one which all Christians should accept? How did one deal with rigid hierarchies and the tendency for mankind to go the wrong way? As Trent would show, some of the things the early reformers had wanted were not unreasonable, except by then, what the reformers wanted was far greater, and mutual hostility had ensured that both sides were burning the bridges – and each other.
If we take anything away from such episodes, it might be a warning to ecclesiastical authority to pray and listen more, and to be more open to the idea that some criticisms of it are legitimate. That might even help those arguing for reform to realise that not everything they want is desirable. But perhaps as that might mean us all acting more like members of the Body of Christ and less like warriors fighting each other, it is the hardest thing of all for us to do?