Survival of the Catholic Idea in Anglicanism

by Dr. James Patrick

Lecture I: Fire in the Ashes

IN THESE FOUR TALKS we are trying to identify the Catholic elements that the Decree on Ecumenicism discovered in Anglicanism, and to do that historically, beginning with the period 1530 to 1603. There are pitfalls. I suppose we are not interested in the persistence of Catholic culture, but in the something that would be the Church of England as defined by its formularies.

It is not beside the point to raise the question of the condition of the Church in England on the eve of the Henrician Revolution. In his Stripping of the Altars Eamon Duffy has painted a picture of Catholic England that suggests a culture grounded in the faith, besieged by the usual human weaknesses, but so much a part of the fabric of the land that it is hard to believe its destruction could have been accomplished so quickly.

But there were shadows. Lollardy, an early representative of an emergent mutation of classical Christianity based on Scripture alone, interpreted by individuals who often saw themselves as divinely elected, first mentioned in the 1380s, had never disappeared. Philip Hughes points out that the idea of the papacy as the universal teacher was not as well established as one might believe when looking backward through the telescope of Church history. When Henry began his campaign for the domination of the Church it was just a century since Martin V, representing a reunifed papacy, had returned to Rome and ninety years since the Council of Florence has declared the Pope above any general council, thereby putting a damper on Conciliarism. Simony, the sale of church offices for profit, was an ill-concealed tradition. The hierarchy were very often officers of state or were at least deeply enmeshed in the management of lands and appointments. When Hughes says that Wolsey was a great churchman in the very worst sense of the word, he meant that the Cardinal was expert at the management of a set of political relationships for the good of his purse and that of his benefactors. Wolsey never visited either of the English bishoprics which he held.

These problems had not vanished. Marsiglio of Padua had produced a book, the Defensor Pacis, which provided the rationale for royal domination of the church—a copy of which Thomas Cromwell obligingly brought to the attention of Henry. And it is always important as well to remember the place kingship held on popular imagination and practical politics. The prince was God’s and Scripture and Tradition counseled obedience. In an age of nascent Absolutism conformity with the royal will meant advancement and prosperity while the displeasure of the prince often meant impoverishment and not infrequently death.

To discover ideas or elements that might be called Catholic which survived the reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth is no easy task in another sense, for there was a double use of the word catholic. Insofar as it referred to the church of which the Pope was head, it was a term of opprobrium; ‘Romanist’ was a favorite synonym. On the other hand there was the beginning of a centuries’ long attempt to claim that the Church of England was Catholic, or part of the Catholic Church. This means that discipline must be exercised in seeking only those elements that truly did belong to the national church, understanding that these may be imperfectly developed and episodically defended.

The search for Catholic elements is not difficult in the reign of Henry, for the Henrician Church was to some degree the creation of a convinced but bad Catholic, who when he was not pursuing political ends required by the alliance with Lutherans probably believed what he believed in 1539, when an act of parliament required belief in transubstantiation and sacramental confession.

Just how difficult it was to get the Catholic elements out of the Church of England is evidenced by the caution imposed upon the reformers by a largely unwilling population, always ready to rise in revolt against what the shires increasingly saw as a new religion, as had the north country in 1536 and 1537. Thus the First Prayer Book of Edward VI showed a distanced respect for the old religion, which its successor moved closer to the Calvinism that was approved in court. But this caution does not speak to the underlying determination of the Edwardian and Elizabethan regimes. At the heart of the polemic was always the Mass. The authorities would support a rite that for those willing to suspend disbelief might seem something like the old liturgy. Thus there would be a series of planned ambiguities, begun in the reign of Edward, perfected in the reign of Elizabeth, that reduced the Mass to something it could not be. Thus the Prayer Books of 1549, and 1559, each less clear than its predecessor. Finally there was the so-called Black Rubric of 1552, which would be included in the 1553 book. Faith in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass persisted, so a rubric was added that reminded the faithful that the toleration of kneeling was not to be taken as admitting the “real and essential” presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But the real point of transubstantiation of course was to establish the real and essential presence.

Henry’s motives are perhaps not too difficult to grasp. When the Catholic Church had ceased being an ally and become, in his judgment an enemy, he was determined to destroy it insofar as it hindered his will. When Edward VI came to the throne in 1546, Calvinism has been added to the list of available Protestantisms, and the influence of Calvin is evident in that six-years’ reign. Then the accession of Mary intervened, and in principle Catholicism was restored, although the restoration was fragile and incomplete. The real founding of Anglicanism as such took place in 1559, when on the death of Mary, Elizabeth, under the Henrician act of succession, inherited England.

From the first day of her reign Elizabeth was determined England should not be Catholic. If Elizabeth did not hate Catholicism, she at least viewed it with contempt. Nobody in Europe really thought she was legitimate, although her accession to power made that irrelevant. In the reign of her sister she had been humiliated, and while she had promised Mary not to change the faith of the realm, nobody, including Mary Tudor, could have believed it. Cecil had presented her with a document titled “A Device for the Alteration of Religion.” It was a very clever plan. Preaching was to be made an instrument of state policy. The noblemen who had served in Mary’s reign, were to be investigated until some illegality could be alleged. In the shires, tradition was to be broken by displacing the office holders in favor of men “meaner in substance and younger in years. The old nobility could meanwhile buy their freedom by payments of fines. Elizabeth showed her hand on Christmas Day, when she sent word to the Bishop of Carlisle that he was not to elevate the host after the consecration, and when he did so she departed. When Elizabeth was crowned, the mass was sung by a married priest who omitted the elevation and the sermon was preached by a Protestant.

Mary had in fact not succeeded in bringing England back. She had failed in the face of the interests represented both by the great landowners, who had happily taken the spoils of the monasteries, and of a broad swath of the English people. Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, was probably not far off when he wrote early in Mary’s reign, that nobody under thirty-five was much interested in the restoration of the old religion. The rising generation had found its freedom, and if they were born in 1525 they might have done so in good conscience, having come of age amidst the Edwardian confusion and reaching Chapuys’s thirty-five just as Elizabeth put the entire apparatus of the state behind the new religion. The apostolic, the Roman faith is by its very nature intrusive, exerting concrete moral claims and requiring specific beliefs. When the new religion did not require such things, a new air of freedom prevailed, much like that evident under the modernist interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. But in England the new freedom would not be effectively opposed, as it was opposed, gently, firmly by the teaching authority of the Church from 1966 to the present, in a contest still not concluded. Elizabeth was but the first to effectively woo her people from the authority of God, only to make them subservient to the state. The means was the creation of a national church that maintained a liturgy in some respects vaguely catholic because of its inherent beauty and formality. This was a new Church, Protestant, but with footnotes, and it is to the footnotes that we might look for the Catholic elements in this morass of heresy, fire as it were in the ashes.

First, there was the persistence of the idea of tradition, a doctrine partly forced in the Elizabethan church by its conflict with the Puritans, partly chosen by apologists. In a very weak form, this shows up in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which claim that the Church has the power to decide matters of ceremony. But as it worked out, the Puritans could not be defeated with a sola scriptura apology. The great apostle of this position was the erudite and able Richard Hooker, whose Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity gave Elizabeth’s church a defense against the reiterated Puritan claim that since surplices were not mentioned in scripture, they should not be permitted in church. This was not Tradition in the pre-1530 sense, but it at least meant the recognition of the limitations of sola scriptura.

Amidst what became, especially after the Council of Trent concluded in 1564, the standard polemic against transubstantiation, and as result of the policy of studied ambiguity, a reluctance to make receptionism, the belief that Christ is present only to faith, the official doctrine of the Church of England, which, given the Puritan suasion, the authorities might reasonably have done. This resulted in a flood of qualifications in which the theologians of the regime would try to explain that the Eucharist was an effectual sign—no minimalist doctrine that–, or that it might be a pledge of God’s favor. The Eucharistic elements were somehow an objective reality because the wicked damaged themselves by receiving it. Yet the manner of receiving it was by faith. There is not much in the Elizabethan reign to encourage anyone to believe that the Eucharist represented or made present the person of Jesus Christ. One common misunderstanding construed the Roman doctrine as a kind of Eutychianism, defective because the substance of bread was subsumed into the reality of Christ’s divine nature, whereas orthodoxy understood that just as Christ’s human nature remained, so did the substance of bread remain. This was but one of the Anglican apologetic criticisms that involved a misunderstanding of substance and of the intention of the Church. The Roman doctrine does not explain transubstantiation as an analogy to the Incarnation but teaches a unique sacramental mystery, not analogous even to the sacrament of baptism, in which the elements do not simply convey a presence or power, but through which the substance of bread and wine become the substance, not the idea, not the representative, of the living Christ, body and soul, humanity and divinity. But among the forest of qualifications there was enough ambiguity to give room to the seventeenth century to make claims that would have shocked the Elizabethan Puritans.

Finally there was the fatal raising of the question of history, which committed Anglicanism to the fact that history matters and to the fact that their own was especially insecure. Beginning with John Jewell’s Apology for the Church of England, there was an attempt to construct a historiography that would serve the situation of the English church. In Lancelot Andrewes’ account Irenaeus and Cyprian were part of the historical witness but Athanasius and John of Damascus, being worshipers of images, were not.

How did Catholicism survive in the faithful who occupied the pews? It has been noted that the Catholic Faith was very hard to stamp out. What its condition was can be debated. Eamon Duffy paints a generally encouraging picture of the of the local parish, rich in devotions and in care for the parish church. On the other hand, when the crisis came, the clergy as a whole did not prove any more resistant than did the laity. Staying alive is a powerful motive, and unless you were a landed noble, and willing to pay, papistry often meant death. Here there is a considerable historiographical problem in distinguishing between Catholic elements in the Church of England, overt resistance usually described as recusancy, and the persistence of Catholic elements within the culture. In the Elizabethan reign there were Catholics who went to Church at least occasionally, church papists so-called, and members of the Church of England who harbored Catholic sympathies. The history of these good people has only begun to be written by scholars such as Alexandra Walsham. We do not know whether they should be considered recusants or Catholics in a formal sense, but we do know that they sometimes made the lives of the clergy miserable by ostentatiously praying the rosary or reading a devotional book during the protestant service. Lancashire was particularly troublesome for the authorities. Elizabeth was never able to close down the shrine at Holywell no matter how vehemently she threatened the Lord Lieutenant and the Sheriff.

Changing the religion of the people of England took time. Princes can legislate and threaten, but for some considerable part of mankind there will be deeper considerations than the statute law of parliament. Although it is not easy to find formally Catholic elements, the Catholic faith lived on in the lives of many Englishmen, some within the Church of England, some recusants full blown some Church papists. And there were various degrees of dissent.

Walsham, paraphrasing George Gifford’s Dialogue between a Papist and a Protestant (1582), described those Englishmen among whom the old religion persisted in custom and sensibility:

[They were] a large multitude whose ‘Catholicism’ was less a set of defined dogmas capable of being summarized in a Catechism, than an intuitive method of thinking and living, a deeply ingrained mentality. Such individuals betrayed their adherence to the Romish Anti-Christ not so much in a positive, voiced endorsement of its untenable theology, as in their reactionary resistance to the saving message of the Gospel and its advocates. Vague nostalgia for a golden age, a medieval ‘mery world when there was lesse preaching, and when all things were so cheape, that they might have xx eggs for a penny’ was [in Gifford’s opinion] but a degenerate strain of popery festering on within Protestant society.

Gifford had described, among many less known, William Shakespeare, a man of profound catholic sensibilities, also, it is true, a convinced English nationalist who, as King John evinces, had no use for papal meddling in English affairs, less for Spanish adventurism, but who was yet a poet whose imagination, at least when history was at stake, staunchly refused to move out of the fifteenth century, not merely from nostalgia but because he found there something to admire from which plays could be made. Shakespeare was not alone.

One task would be to show how the sentiments of recusants, Church papists, and men of catholic sensibilities influenced the Stuart invention of an anti-Calvinist Anglicanism that would provide a benchmark for the future in the lives of men like Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne. Demonstrating the sources of this influence in any technical sense is probably impossible, but something in the generally dismal landscape of sixteenth century Anglicanism made possible the church of Charles I and William Laud.

(Originally posted on the Walsingham Society website)

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