The men and women who lived in Britain five hundred years ago lived in a world which is lost to us. The difference is a matter not only of the material circumstances of their lives, but of their mental worlds and their imaginations.
And so begins Chapter 1 of Alec Ryrie’s The Age of Reformation.
Yep, for this post I’m getting my history geek on to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Having been raised in the Anglican Church, I am all too aware of how crucial the Reformation is to how the Church has developed in Great Britain. So I thought it only right to take my history geekiness and use it to explore an event that impacted my faith before I was even born.
So why start with Alec Ryrie’s quote? Because it is true! Pre-Reformation Britain was a more supernatural world. It was also a more Biblical world. Okay, fewer people read the Bible because it was in Latin. However, thanks to the highly decorated churches and religiously-focused education, where there was any, most people knew more of their Bible than we do today. This coloured their whole world. Every church has a painting depicting Doomsday. The hours of the day were marked by the bells of the local abbey. Religion and faith engaged your sight, smell, and taste. Social services were provided by the Church, particularly monasteries and abbeys.
While Britain, especially England, was happily plodding along with the hottest prince in Christendom (yes, I am talking about Henry VIII), Germany was about to be thrown into turmoil. A monk had turned against the Pope in Rome! No one turned against the Pope… ever! So for Luther, in an academic backwater, to post his 95 theses on a church door was definitely not the accepted norm.
Yet, the 95 theses weren’t rebelling against the Pope or Church. They were pointing out were abuses in the system were happening. Had these abuses being dealt with and stopped, we may have had a world without Protestantism. However, people didn’t like 95 theses and interpreted this as Luther rebelling against the Pope’s authority. The result was a split in the Church that started in Germany and eventually spread across Europe. Eventually, it crossed the English Channel to England.
Politics, Religion, and Marriage
While the new version of Christianity was causing religious rifts on the continent, over in Britain it was about to change the politics of a nation. Most people know that Henry VIII had six wives and that in order to marry wife 2, he divorced wife 1. In order to achieve this divorce, he made himself the head of the Church of England. Only the Church of England didn’t exist!
In order to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England. How did he do this? He used the theology of the Reformation to divorce the church in England from the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, he was encouraged by Anne Boleyn and other pre-reform/evangelical figures at court. However, it was his desires and ambitions that drove the political reformation of England. From the top down, Henry VIII changed the religious-political structure of England so that the monarch held both religious and political power. The King controlled the two most powerful hierarchies in the country.
But politics wasn’t enough to change the nature of an entire country. At least not as quickly as England’s religious nature changed. That was due to the grassroots change happening in places like the University of Cambridge. In fact, the White Horse Inn in Cambridge was so well-known for drinking beer and talking about reformation theology that it became known as ‘Little Germany’. It was these people who kept the Reformation alive in England. Men such as Thomas Bilney, William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley. (Unfortunately not many women have been remembered in Reformation history.)
Though these men were all martyred, they are still names that echo down the years through Protestant Churches with links to England. Tyndale was the name of the group who published one of my Bibles, fitting considering that William Tyndale wrote the first English translation. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are still part of adult Sunday School in parts of the USA, according to my grandparents. These four men, and many others, are the people who made the theology of the Reformation accessible to those at the bottom of society, the illiterate and the poor.
It was the combination of the top-heavy religious-political change and the grassroots preaching that made the English Reformation and eventual Church of England the nation-changing event that it was. Historians will argue over whether it was a short or long reformation. Whichever it was, 500 years ago, it changed the identity of this tiny island nation.
The English Reformation’s Legacy
So what did the Reformation in England leave the generations to come? Most obviously: the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Though the foundations for this were laid by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell (fangirl moment. This guy needs more credit but not enough room in this post), it was Elizabeth I who shaped the C.of.E into what we recognise today. The final Tudor monarch, she faced the challenge of bridging the rift between religious groups created by her father and siblings. Instead of favouring Protestants or Catholics, she favoured moderation.
You can see this still at work in the Anglican Church today. Where liturgy and worship songs can be part of the same service. The Lord’s Prayer can be as much a part of congregational worship as the latest Rend Collective song. It is also the reason that Anglo-Catholics and Low Churches are within the same denomination despite big differences in worship and tradition. When we look back to the Reformation, we can focus on the martyrs and politics. Alternatively, we can look how the English Reformation has resulted in a denomination based on finding a middle road between two extremes.
Nowadays, there isn’t a year that doesn’t have some controversy that could rip the Anglican Church apart. You know the controversies I mean. Despite the tradition of moderation that Anglicanism has come out of, we seem intent on destroying those who do not believe the same as us. What has happened to the middle road?
The Bible’s Role
When it came to creating this middle road originally, what did they do? Have you heard of the Book of Common Prayer? Written in English, it was based completely around scriptural passages. It was also designed to be liturgy, written in a more ceremonial language. A meeting point between ceremonial parts of Catholicism and scriptural basis of Protestantism.
By incorporating the Bible into the Book of Common Prayer, scripture was placed at the heart of Anglicanism’s middle road. Scripture is at the heart of the Reformation’s legacy. It is what prompted Luther’s 95 theses. It is what inspired men like Tyndale and Bilney. The Bible is still at the heart of the Anglican Communion today, every time we recite liturgy in the past.
The question is, do you know what you are reading or reciting? When you say that you will love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, do you know you are quoting Deuteronomy? Just as many Christians in Britain do not know their Reformation history, many do not know the Biblical basis of liturgy.
500 years on from the Reformation, why not change that? I know it is something I want to do. So let’s get those copies of the BCP off the shelf and read them. Compare it to our Bibles. Honour the memories of those who came before and understand just how much they loved Scripture.
Reformation Britain was a scary place to be. But out of everything changing, came a new church. A middle road between the ceremony and emotion of Catholicism and the scriptural teaching of Protestantism. I, for one, am proud to have been able to walk that middle road.
If you would like to hear more about the Reformation and the Bible, you watch Iona Hine’s story on the book of Ruth.
The post The Reformation || 500 Years Since Everything Changed first appeared on CounterCultural. CounterCouture.