The Stirring of Reforms in England

In the years well before the 16th century Protestation Reformation in Germany, things were already afoot in England and Czech lands of the Holy Roman Empire. Among those helping to “stir the pot” was John Wycliffe (1320-1384), most often noted for his early translation of the Latin Vulgate scripture into English. Working with several others, they produced the “Wycliffe Bible” which, although unauthorized, proved quite popular. The church was said to not approve his project of translation.  That and other frustrations drove him to ignore the church because Wycliffe believed that studying the Bible was more important than listening to it read by the clergy.

Early Reformation in EnglandBut it was in the milieu of church-state relationships that Wycliffe first came upon the radar screen. Already a scholar at Oxford and just recently denied the chair of a college – promised by a lay Don, but when the time came a religious Don was in charge and assigned the chair elsewhere since the college in question was for the ordination of priests. This seems to have sparked an already latent issue in the relationship of church and state. In 1372 Wycliffe was part of a commission which the English government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI, and, if possible settle, a number of points in dispute between the king and the pope. The conference came to no very satisfactory conclusion, but it appears to mark the beginning of the alliance between Wycliffe and the anti-clerical party headed by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the king’s son.

Soon after his return from Bruges, Wycliffe began to express his ideas in tracts and longer works. In his first book, concerned with the government of God and the Ten Commandments, he attacked the temporal rule of the clergy: in temporal things the king is above the pope, and the collection of annates (he whole of the first year’s profits of a benefice which were generally given to the papal treasury) and indulgences was simony. And that was just his first tract.

In the content of the place where state-church-money intersect his assertion to the temporal primacy of the king was no more true or fair than assertions to an spiritual primacy over temporal rulers. His was another voice in the investiture controversies and its underlying play of power, money, and control. Yet he had his points. One of his demands was that the Franciscans actually live the vow of poverty – a topic at the time that was ripping factious holes with the Franciscan Order. In 1377 he was summonsed to appear before the Bishop of London to make an account of himself. Accompanied by John of Gaunt (the king’s son) and four mendicant friar (who held destitution was the nature of the vow), Wycliffe appeared and so began a long march toward the formal declaration of heresy.

The heresy charges probably had their root in Wycliffe’s king-pope debate, but his theological positions, also the context of tracts and books, were in fact considered heresy. Included was a belief in “double” predestination – one is born with heaven or hell already decided; he was John Calvin 200 years before Calvin was Calvin. For Wycliffe, the “Church” is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven, those in purgatory, and the “Church militant” on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ. No pope may say that he is the head, for he cannot say that he is elect or even a member of the Church. Later in life Wycliffe wrote against the Catholic teaching of the Real Presence, specifically transubstantiation – this coming from his philosophical training as a nominalist. His own position is not really clear: best guess, something akin to the later Lutheran consubstantiation. It was at this point that Wycliffe lost any support among the Franciscans (who were minor actors on this stage at best).

But by this point, there were plenty of learned and lay people who supported him: the Lollards. The terms Lollard, Lollardi or Loller was the popular derogatory nickname given to those without an academic background, educated if at all only in English, who were reputed to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular, and were certainly considerably energized by the translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century the term lollard had come to mean a heretic in general.

The Lollards had no central belief system and no official doctrine. Likewise, being a decentralized movement, neither had they nor proposed any singular authority. Believing the Catholic Church to be corrupted in many ways, the Lollards looked to Scripture as the basis for their religious ideas. The closest one can come to a “common” belief was (a) the Catholic Church was irredeemably corrupt and (b) “The Twelve Conclusions” of the Lollards. They posted them on the doors of Westminster Hall and St. Paul’s Church in February 1395. This document later grew into “Thirty Seven Articles against Corruptions in the Church.”

The first Conclusion rejects the acquisition of temporal wealth by Church leaders as accumulating wealth leads them away from religious concerns and toward greed. The fourth Conclusion holds forth Wycliffe’s position on the Eucharist. The sixth Conclusion states that officials of the Church should not concern themselves with secular matters when they hold a position of power within the Church because this constitutes a conflict of interest between matters of the spirit and matters of the State. The eighth Conclusion points out the ludicrousness, in the minds of Lollards, of the reverence that is directed toward images in the Church – a return to the iconoclastic disputes of the 8th century. The Lollards believed that expensive church artwork was seen as an excess; they believed effort should be placed on helping the needy and preaching rather than working on expensive decorations.

Believing in a lay priesthood, the Lollards challenged the Church’s authority to invest or deny the divine authority to make a man a priest. Denying any special status to the priesthood, Lollards thought confession to a priest was unnecessary since according to them priests did not have the ability to forgive sins. Lollards challenged the practice of clerical celibacy and believed priests should not hold government positions as such temporal matters would likely interfere with their spiritual mission. Believing that more attention should be given to the message of the scriptures rather than to ceremony and worship, the Lollards denounced things such as exorcism, pilgrimages, and blessings, believing these led to an emphasis on Church ritual rather than the Bible.

Remember this is the late 14th century. The Protestant Reformation is still 130-140 years away.

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