Lecture 11: English Reformation - Henry VIII to Edward VI
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Course: Church History II
Last time I left you with the death of Henry the 8th half-way through wife number 6. He died on the 28h of January in 1547. I have stressed that there was no reformation in Henry’s lifetime, at least not anything that we would today recognize as such. That is to say; the doctrine of the church basically did not change. If you are talking about the Henrition reformation, as it is sometimes called, it is better to think in terms of a break with Rome, a rejection of the papacy as an authority in England, rather than in terms of a change in doctrine or anything substantial in the life of the church. Nothing much altered. If you had gone to church on the Sunday after the death of King Henry the 8th, you would not have noticed any reformation at all. The priests would have been wearing the same clothing that they always wore. The form of the service would have been the same as it had always been. It would all have been in Latin as it had always been. You would have been very hard put indeed to find anything that was different from what it had been twenty years earlier, before the break with Rome. That is at grass roots level. Now I say all that because I don’t want you to think Henry wanted a divorce and therefore he became a protestant. This popular way of thinking is wrong.
There is of course another side to the story. By the time Henry died in 1547, Protestantism as we understand it had in fact made a certain amount of progress. And we have to think how and why. There had been even at the very beginning when Henry started his campaign against the church in 1529 – there had been a few Protestants around. I mentioned William Tyndale, Robert Barnes, people who had fled to Wittenberg in order to study under Martin Luther. So you could count them probably on the fingers of one hand but they were there. There were also a few foreigners in England who brought Protestantism in various guises with them.
A few Anabaptists.
There were even Anabaptists. In 1538, twenty-one Anabaptists were arrested and fifteen of them were burnt at the stake. I don’t know what happened to the other six. The fifteen were burnt at the stake. This is sometimes blown up if you read the history of Anabaptism it is as if this were some major event. The remarkable thing about it is that that is all they ever found. Twenty-one is not very many, it’s about that many in this room. I won’t ask for volunteers. Although it is a terrible crime, it’s not a major persecution of a large group of people. The important thing to remember is that all twenty-one of these people were foreigners who had arrived in England as traders or within that kind of community, and that is where they were found. So it is a very restricted group of people.
Books and Literature
Nevertheless, after the break with Rome in 1534, there were a number of knock on effects which helped Protestantism spread. First of all, censorship of religious books stopped. This was a major thing. Even as late as 1532, the convocations of the clergy had approved the banning of something like 85 books. So, once the censorship was removed Protestant literature could flood into the country. Beginning about 1535, it was being printed in England as well. This is a very important point. 1535 was the first year that an English language bible, a complete bible, was produced, and this was produced in England. It wasn’t legal at that time to do this, but it still was done. It was done because people felt that the law against it would not last for long. And indeed, in 1538, an English language bible was officially approved for the first time, the so called Great Bible in 1538. So the spread of the bible in English was a major event. And people began to read the scriptures in their own language. Especially they began to read literature which was allowed into the country because it was against the pope. This was Henry’s main motive. Anything that attacked the pope was okay as far as he was concerned. Which was rather short sighted in a way if you did not want to change your theology. I don’t know whether Henry fully realized it, but Martin Luther’s opposition to the papacy was a little bit more broadly based than the fact that the pope wouldn’t let Luther annul his marriage. It was something a little different. Whether Henry thought it was very serious, but all kinds of protestant literature came flooding into the country suddenly. There was no counter literature from the Catholic side at this point. It came later. But at this point there was nothing, so that the reform which had been put through in the church in 1529, that in future only educated people would be ordained into the church, in fact worked in favor of Protestantism, because, anybody who went to university would come across these protestant books. They would really be only books available, you know, hot off the press. And at the time, the more educated you were, the more likely you were to be protestant in some way or other.
Desire for Reform
Another thing which worked in favor of Protestantism was the fact that everybody agreed that reform was necessary.
Where to Stop
Once you start making changes, it is very difficult to know where to stop. Anybody who has ever redecorated their house knows this. Because you redecorate the kitchen and then you discover that the new color in the kitchen doesn’t quite fit the sitting room so you go and redecorate that and then you have to do the bathroom and then you have to do all the bedrooms and then you’ve got a bit of paint left over so you start doing the basement and so on. It’s very hard to know where to stop, once you have started. And reform is like this. You change one thing, then you change another thing.
Hard to reconcile with Rome
Furthermore, the more reforms were made and the longer this all went on, the harder it was going to be to go back to Rome. Lets say what would have happened if Henry the 8th had patched up his quarrel with the Pope? Because people were hoping that this would happen. Particularly the other rulers of Europe, people like Charles the 5th and the King of France and so on, I mean they just imagined that after 5 or 10 years that things would be patched up again. There would be a new pope, and Henry would have a new wife and it would all be legitimate, and things would go back to the way they were before. The trouble was, once you start on a program of reform when you are in schism, if they went back to Rome at a later stage, would the pope cancel all the reforms. Saying, you know, this happened when you were outlawed and so on, so sorry, this doesn’t count, we just have to go back to the way we were before. People did not want that.
Dissolution of Monasteries
The biggest thing that happened and the thing that eventually clinched the reformation in England was the, well at least the break with Rome I should say, was the dissolution of the monasteries. Henry decided that the monasteries had served their purpose and that they needed to be disbanded. Now, this has received a lot of adverse publicity in recent times from people who say things like; when the monasteries were destroyed a lot of wonderful architecture was destroyed, which is true. They then go on to say that monks and nuns were badly treated, which is not true. The younger ones were given a pension and told to get married, the older ones were just pensioned off and given a little cottage in their village until they died. They were actually quite well treated when you think about it, so that is not true. There are people who say that the monastic libraries which had been built up over centuries were destroyed and a lot of learning got lost. That again is not true. Because what happened on the whole was that the books from the monasteries were taken by the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge mainly but also to some extent in London and other places, and formed the basis of the manuscript collections there. So, in fact, very little was lost. I mean some things, undoubtedly were. But actually, things that had been hidden away for centuries now became available to scholars for the first time. So the idea that a lot of learning was thrown out the window is not accurate either.
Monasteries Economic Burden
The monasteries at this time were an economic burden. Over the centuries they had accumulated a great deal of land. But since the Black Death around 1350, the numbers of monks in them had declined. You see, when you have a lot of people around, a burgeoning population, it’s a form of population control to send younger sons into the monastery because then they don’t reproduce. This was fine. It went on for quite a long time. But after the Black Death, all hands were needed on the farm. This was not any longer possible in the same way. So the number of people available to go into the monasteries declined dramatically. And in the early 16th century, most monasteries were seriously under populated. I mean, you had monasteries which could accommodate 200 men, and they had 7 or 10, or something like this. It was a very serious problem. Now this was not universal of course. Someone monasteries did better than others. But on the whole, there was a lot of slack to be made up. What this meant in practice of course was that the monastic lands were not being properly farmed, because there was nobody to do it. There were just not the hands available. So, a lot of land which could have been productive was lying fallow at this time. There was nothing anybody could do about it, because the land belonged to the monasteries, to the church. Now Henry could not solve this problem just like that. Dissolving the monasteries just by itself would not have changed very much.
Henry’s need for support
But he needed to find in the country a solid base of support for himself, people who he could rely on, particularly once he had broken with the pope. Now, you can discount the vast majority of the population. You can discount all women. You can discount all peasants. Once you take that out, you have taken out at least 80% of the population to start off with. The only people that count, as far as Henry is concerned, are the so called ‘political nation’. And the ‘political nation’ are those people who have some say in the running of affairs. These would be the church; the clergy would belong to the political nation, but also the nobility, the aristocracy.
Now, ever since the Norman Conquest, since William the Conqueror, the aristocracy had worked hand-in-hand with the king to rule the country. They regarded themselves as partners of the king in this enterprise. And at different times when it was felt that the king was getting too powerful or whatever, the nobles had gathered together and extracted concessions like Magna Carta for instance in 1215, or the beginning of a parliament later on in the 13th century. These things were concessions which the nobility had extracted from the king in order to give them some say in the government. Now when the king seized control of the church, the nobility on the whole didn’t like this, because this balance of power was going to be seriously disrupted, if the king suddenly had all this money and all these resources and control of the church which was the largest and most effective social organization. No noble would be able to compete. For this reason there were revolts among the nobility in 1535, 1536. There were revolts in the North of England, in the West of England, and in Ireland particularly. So Henry realized that somehow or other he had to find people who would support him almost against the nobility, that the nobility were not reliable.
Fortunately there was a group of people in the society, fortunately I say from Henry’s point of view, who were left out of the system. These people are what we call today the rising middle class, the traders, people like that in London, the lawyers, people who earned their living in some way other than agriculture, and who were not nobles. London is where most of them lived, obviously. I’ve already said that it was among these people that protestant books and protestant literature found its greatest hearing. These were the people who had the money, they had the time, they had the interest, and they had the access to foreign books through the ships that would come and so on. And so it made sense for these people to be the center of this movement. However, in the traditional society of England, these people did not fit. They were not nobles and they were not peasants. So therefore they had no place. They didn’t belong anywhere. And Henry offered them an opportunity, when he dissolved the monasteries, to get a footing on the social scale, because, he allowed them to buy monastic land. The land which was seized was sold off to these people. And these people had the cash, they had the money to buy, but they didn’t have the land. And in 16th England you were nobody if you were not a land owner. The reason for this is that in a basic agricultural society, land is wealth. It’s the only way you can guarantee that you will be rich for several generations. Having cash in hand, easy come, easy go basically. You could loose your business quite readily, but you couldn’t loose your farm so easily. It was that kind of society, a rural society. So, land was security, land was wealth, land was prestige. And Henry opened the door to land owning to this class of person, creating the people that came to be known as the gentry. There was no gentry class in England before the reformation. But after the dissolution of the monasteries these people appeared all over the place. Landowners who were not nobility is basically what the gentry was and is.
Question: What does gentry mean? How did they get that word?
From the idea of gentle, having a history, having a family tree basically, people who could trace their ancestry, because once they got land, tracing their ancestry became important. So they would get coats of arms and things like that, and run around pretending to be sort of semi-nobility. But they’re not. Not titles. It is the gentry class that you meet in the colonies. People like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, all those people; they are colonial gentry, because they were not nobility. They didn’t have titles. But on the other hand, they were certainly not peasants either. The kind of life they lived and the sort of places they lived in, Mount Vernon, and Monticello, that’s the sort of life that the English gentry lived, and on a modest scale still do. Taxation has kind of made dents in their ranks but they are still around. In England, they are the kind of people who send their children to public school. Like private boarding schools, and they run around and shop in herds and generally sort of bore everyone else to death. So they are there. So this was created by this.
Gentry want Reformation
Now, this was a very clever move on Henry’s part, because these people, in the most literal sense, had a vested interest in keeping the reformation going. Whether they were Protestants themselves or not is another matter. What they didn’t want was a return to Rome which would mean a restoration of the monasteries, which would in turn mean a loss of their land. Whatever else was going to happen, that was not going to happen. So, Henry created in this way, a whole class of people that he could rely on. And, as subsequent events were to show, he was very wise in doing this, because, the main support for the protestant position over the next two or three generations was going to come precisely from these people. As a class, these were the people who were going to give the greatest support.
These also were the people who were interested in education. They were the people who ensured that when the monasteries were dissolved that their books were placed in colleges and schools. Quite a lot of the monastic resources were diverted towards founding schools, colleges, and universities. If you go for example to Oxford, I mean Christchurch Oxford, which is a great college there, was founded out of monastic money, out of dissolved monasteries. Trinity College Cambridge which is very famous is also founded out of dissolved monasteries. And a lot of old schools in England that you come across today were founded in a similar way. And it was this new gentry class which wanted an education for their children, which needed an education for their children, because you have to be educated if you were going to run the family business. They supported all of this. And once you’re into that way of thinking and into that lifestyle, the books available on the whole, tend to be protestant. The intellectual class was moving very much in that direction. So, in this sphere you have a strong tendency towards this way of thinking, a willingness to consider new ideas in particular. And by the time Henry died, there were enough people of this kind, enough younger clergy who had been trained up in the Universities, who had imbibed protestant thinking one way or another, enough trader, gentry type people around to support them, even among the nobility there were people who at this time had been won over in one way or another, and so they provided the nucleus of what was to come once the king died.
Edward the 6th
Now when he died, he was succeeded by his nine year old son, Edward the 6th. Edward was the son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, but he inherited the throne because he was a boy. Males take precedence over female. And so, although he was the youngest of Henry’s children, he was also the king. But of course at nine years old he couldn’t rule in his own right. He would not attain his majority until he was 18. At that time, civil majority was 21, but for the king it was 18. He died at the age of 16, so he never attained his majority. The result is that Edward the 6th never ruled England. Everything was done in his name. However we possess his diary. He kept a diary, and this has survived. And it shows that he was aware of what was going on, and approved of it. He was 12, 13, 14, but he was highly intelligent, and he knew what was happening, and on several occasions he indicates that he is in favor of it. So probably, if he had grown up he would have pursued the same line as what was happening in his youth. So although he didn’t do it himself, he knew what was going on and presumably was in favor of it so far as he could be.
Cranmer and Regency Council
However, what happened all of a sudden was that the government was taken over by a regency council of which Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was a leading protestant sympathizer, was a major figure. Because now for the first time the archbishop could rule the church more or less in the way that he wished. And within a very short time, Cranmer introduced a whole series of reform measures. And these reform measures mark the beginning of reformation in the doctrinal sense. That is to say, it was not just a political thing, but now a change in doctrine, and an introduction of protestant ideas.
Communion in two kinds
Can anyone tell me what the first thing that he did was? It was a change in the sacraments, but what was it? The doctrine of transubstantiation was abolished, that is true, but in terms of practical difference, what practical difference was introduced? Yes, that is right. The first thing that he did was to make the cup available to people. So you no longer communicated in just one kind, there were two kinds. Now, this is very clever you see, because it wasn’t actually a change in doctrine. There is no doctrine that says you can’t have communion in both kinds. But it was a change in practice, which was highly significant because it was Hus, you will recall, who was burnt at the stake for advocating this. And so, the papacy had committed itself for over 100 years to the doctrine of communion in one kind. Although it didn’t affect transubstantiation one way or the other, whether you had bread and wine, or you just had bread or you just had wine or whatever. But symbolically, it was a symbolic change, but it was a highly significant symbolic change, because it was basically throwing it in the pope’s face. Sort of saying, “We are deliberately going against this.” It was also very clever because the conservative opposition in the church couldn’t really object to this, because it could be pointed out that this was basically a disciplinary measure that communion in both kinds, it wasn’t changing anything fundamental, and therefore they had to allow it. They couldn’t really go against it, as a matter of principle. This was going to be typical of this early stage of the reformation.
Services in English language
The next thing that Cranmer decided to do was translate the service into English. It still was in Latin in 1547. But he began again, gradually, certain elements in the service, the Lord’s Prayer, for example, the Ten Commandments, these things he translated into English first. And so what you had for a couple of years was participation of the people at certain moments in the service, the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, these were said in English by everybody, as a beginning, people just learned to say them. They were taught to say them. But the rest of the service, the priest’s bit, was still in Latin. And it was not until 1549 that a full English language service was produced for the first time.
It must have been very striking to them, because suddenly they understood what was going on, in a way that they wouldn’t have done previously. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody would have liked it. All you have to do is think of the Catholic Church in modern times, as they went through this in the 1960’s early 1970’s, changing from Latin into English. And some people have taken to it like a duck to water, but there is a lot of opposition too. There are Catholics who want the Latin Mass. They prefer it that way. And there were people in England in the 16th century who didn’t want English language services either. Now, you say, how could they not want them? The kind of person who did not want English language services in the 16th century is the kind of person who doesn’t want guitars today. It’s nothing to do with theology. There is a certain resistance to this kind of thing which is cultural as much as anything else.
But another problem was that the English language at that time was not developed enough to have a very clear theological vocabulary. And this is one of the most interesting things about translation. Because, people like Cranmer really didn’t know what to do. How do you translate words from Latin into English? They were criticized, for example, the Latin word for Easter is pascha, like Greek pascha, like Hebrew pesach. They went through all this and put Easter instead. But it could very easily be pointed out, as it was, that, first of all, this is not the biblical word, but Easter was a pagan goddess. She was the goddess of the dawn, the goddess of the East, the rising sun, and so it was really elevating a pagan festival over the biblical word. Imagine calling it Easter instead of pascha. This was not highly regarded. You could see people objecting to it for a theological reason. Now, that is one notorious example. But there are a lot of other examples. For instance, they made a great fuss over the invention of the word foreskin, because apparently this was an invented word. This word was apparently invented in the 16th century, and people laughed at it. They thought it sounded funny. Words do sound funny if you are not used to them. An English person learning Germany has to have a sense of humor, because you come across words like hand-shoe for glove. Why not? If you use it, either you are not understood, or if you are people think it sounds funny. But why should it be funny? It’s only funny because you are not used to it. To a German this is perfectly normal. The Germans do this more than we do. They make up words out of elements in the language. Until you get used to it, it sounds a little odd. And this was what was happening in 16th century English. These words were unheard of. But like hand-shoe, it wasn’t that you couldn’t make anything of them; you could kind of sit down and figure out what was going on. And you couldn’t say it wasn’t English. But, it’s not the way we talk. This was felt by a lot of people at the time.
There was considerable opposition as well as acceptance. It was a mixed bag. Because some people would say, Oh great, now we know what is going on. Other people would feel very disconcerted. And obviously, the people who were most disconcerted were the ones who were educated, because the educated people didn’t need translation. All lectures in the University took place in Latin. All theology was studied in Latin. That was true until the early years of the 19th century. So anybody who made it to the university, and who made it through the university, really didn’t need translation.
Things you can’t translate
And the other problem as you know, if you try to go from one language to the other, is that there are certain things you can only say in one language. You can’t say them in the same way in another language however hard you try. You might convey the idea, but you don’t actually say the same thing. And you have theological words like … and nobody knows how to say it. What terminology are you going to use. You can kind of explain it somehow. But it doesn’t convey the same meaning. If you don’t need it, if you know the Latin already, it’s just a nuisance to try to translate. You might as well just believe it in Latin. You get the same problem today if you go to Africa. You listen to a reasonably developed African language like Swahili, but depending on where you are and in what sort of context you are dealing, you can listen to this and it’s full of English words, because they just don’t know what word to use. Particularly, you go somewhere like the railway station and you see it’s in two languages, in Swahili and in English. The Swahili looks familiar. You realize that all they’ve done is written the English word phonetically. They’ve written it the way if you were spelling it according to sound. They have to do that. Where are they going to get the word from? This was happening in English in the 16th century. So this business of translating was a much more controversial thing. We take it for granted now, but that is because we have absorbed all these things, after several centuries, and it’s not something that strikes us as odd.
What happened was the Great Bible was basically Tyndale slightly altered. Because Tyndale was an outlaw they couldn’t say it was Tyndale. They had to pretend it was original. Tyndale fed into the authorized version of 1611, the King James Bible; something like 90% of the 1611 Bible is actually Tyndale.
If you look at this kind of vocabulary, you find that the vocabulary was established by that tradition eventually. Lots of things, like using the word congregation, instead of church or ecclesia, they wanted to keep ecclesia because they couldn’t think of a better word. There is another Latin word penitencia - There are two ways you can do it. You can translate penance, or you can translate repentance. The difference is a theological one between Catholic and Protestant. If you translate penance, you are talking about an outward act. You know, you don’t eat fish for the next six weeks, because you are doing penance. Repentance of course is a heart felt change, a genuine sorrow of heart. The Latin word, penitencia, you have to decide when you are reading through, how you are to translate this. Sometimes you prefer one, sometimes you prefer the other, depending on the context. When I translate I use penitence, because with penitence you know what the underlying word is, and you can use it in either sphere if you wish. If you translate repentance, you might be making the person more protestant than they were. On the other hand, if you translate penance, you might be making them more Catholic than they were. Another famous word we have difficulty with is the Latin word eustitsia, are you going to translate it justice, or are you going to translate it righteousness, both of which are possible. It just depends. Justice has a more public external feel. Righteousness is more a quality of the inner person. But this distinction does not exist in Latin. So, what happens in the English bible, and where you get confusion, is you get lots of talk about righteousness, but then you get the just shall live by faith. Why don’t they say the righteous shall live by faith? Justification, you can’t translate as righteous-ification. There is no such word. In these cases, the Greek has the same problem. The Greek word for righteousness is dikaiosune. The problem in English is they are two different words which are not interchangeable. If you say for example, the verdict of the jury was unjust, that’s alright. But you can’t say the verdict of the jury was unrighteous. We just don’t say that. And if you say, Job was a righteous man, and Job was a just man, you are saying something different. It is conceivable that you could be just without being righteous. You could imagine a judge in a court judging fairly, but keeping a mistress. A word like dikaiosune sometimes carries one meaning, sometimes the other, and sometimes both. When it’s clearly one or the other, it’s not a problem. It’s when it is ambiguous or could be either, that translation becomes impossible. This happens a lot, and it happens in the New Testament as well, in Romans, it is not always easy to know how to translate because you have to choose one or the other of these options. It may not be that easy to do. In a sense, our vocabulary is more analytical. We have more words. The English language has about twice as many words as any other European language, actual vocabulary items, which is a pain in the neck because of precisely this problem. We have so many words which appear to be synonymous but aren’t. Like liberty and freedom.
This business or translation is not a simple matter, and it caused a lot more problems than you might imagine.
If somebody asked how you say “The Word of God” in Greek, you would say logos. But logos is used in John’s gospel more than anywhere else. Normally, the Hebrew word underlying that, devar, is not normally translated as logos. It is normally translated as rhema in the New Testament. Frankly I think an awful lot of nonsense has been built on differences which are not really there. People have invented these things. You can do this by being overly analytical about vocabulary. We are very sensitive to this, because we live in a highly analytical developed culture. So we have specific words for all kinds of things. Most other languages use one word to cover 20 different concepts that we have. A very good example I read in a little book designed to teach English to Frenchmen. They were talking about verbs. They had 37 English verbs that could only be translated into French as one word. So, the basic meaning is shine. He came up with shine, shimmer, glimmer … all of which could be used in specific contexts but for which there was no French word other than this. He managed to produce 37 English variants. He started with; French people think English verbs are easy because they have no endings. He said that’s true but there are other difficulties. Shine and glow for example, although there is one French word for both, they are not synonymous in English. You can’t use them interchangeably. Spanish has a rich vocabulary for chivalry. This was highly developed in medieval Spain.
Another thing in English is you have phrasal verbs. You have a simple verb like take. Everyone knows what take is. Then you have ‘take in’. And ‘take in’ can mean all kinds of things. In and out are opposites. But ‘take in’ and ‘take out’ are not. You can’t say that I took in the cat, but then I got fed up with her so I took her out. It would have a completely different meaning. Now, how do you explain that to somebody?
We’ve got a long way from our subject, but you get the idea that this is a complicated business.
Acceptable and Slang
The other thing is deciding what is acceptable, and what slang is another problem. This is a problem in translating the bible. It is all very well to translate the bible into English, but if you do it in a way which is accurate, but doesn’t sound good, you are having a problem. My favorite example, the apostle Paul said, “My bowels are constrained for you.” How are you going to translate that? This is the way it sounds. You just can’t do that. But then the problem is, what do you do? You have to translate some other way, like “I am very concerned about you’” which sounds really hypocritical. Of course you are. It looses the psychosomatic dimension, which is the key problem here. Paul is saying that his whole being is involved in concern for the welfare for these people. Because we have separated in our minds the physical from the mental, we can’t do this. Or if we do, the kind of English which does this today is the kind of English that you hear among truckers or people like that. It’s that uneducated lower level of society. The four letter word brigade. This just doesn’t go over in church. Now you could argue that the kind of people who go to church shouldn’t be there, because Christ came to save the sinners and not the righteous. It’s only the righteous who go to church; therefore we should kick them out. This is a matter of taste and feeling.
The people who first heard this all in English, I suspect a number of them just laughed, because it would have sounded to them odd, perhaps irreverent, slightly disrespectful. Like when you try to modernize hymns. So what you produce is some sort of doggerel. Anybody with any sensitivity to a language just sort of wants to vomit. You think this is just awful. I sing the words I learned. I sing them loudly and I don’t care. In England it is a big problem because they have modernized a lot of things. I get thoroughly fed up because I didn’t learn it that way. I know what it means; nobody is educating me by putting you instead of thee. I’m not holier than you. I resent it. But I’m the kind of person who would have probably objected to the changes in 1549.
So that was in 1549 that all that happened. But Cranmer when he did this was very careful not to upset sensitivities any more than was absolutely necessary. So that the actions, the theater, because worship is theatrical, you see protestants don’t know about this, but true worship has a theatrical dimension to it. As long as you do it the right way, nobody minds. It’s when you don’t do it the right way.
I have told you my cremation story haven’t I? When I was first ordained, you had to do cremations, and in those days there was no service for cremation. You had to adapt the burial service. There is this line in the burial service which says, “We commit this body to the ground.” You can’t do that if you are cremating. I asked what do we do. The deacon said that he always said, “I commit this body to the purifying fire.” It sounded to me like purgatory. That’s my theological mind. I forgot all about it. It was only when I got to the … and I was about to pressing the button, I said “We commit this body to the everlasting fire. Nobody noticed. As long as you do it with the right sort of flourish.
Another time we had a baptism and I had completely forgotten to put water in the font. So the parents of the baby come up. We take the lid off the font; there is no water in it. I rushed out, filled the thing with water, processed down as if this were a ceremony of some kind and poured it into it. Afterwards they said to me that they had never seen that done before. And I said, you know there are a lot of changes these days. That is part of being a minister, you see. You have to be able to do that. You have to be an actor.
Cranmer realized all of this of course. So, he changed a minimum of the outward show, so that people wouldn’t be disturbed by it. A lot of it was sotto voce, especially the consecration. It wouldn’t be heard by anybody. As long as it looked okay to the observer, that was all right.
The first wedding I ever took, we had this problem too. It was an Italian who had jumped ship in the harbor in London, at London docks. He had learned his English there, so you could imagine what kind of English he spoke. It was really authentic. He didn’t have any problems with the psychosomatic. It was atrocious. We were planning the wedding ceremony. He was memorizing his lines and they were barely comprehensible. So I said, either you say your vows in Italian or you keep your mouth shut and just say amen at the end. He was very offended. He insisted on doing it in English. We got to the ceremony, and I said, “to have and to hold”. And he said “to Have and to hold”. “for better for worse”, “for better for worse” when it came to “In sickness and health”, he shouted out what he thought I had said, which was “in sex and in sand in hell”. But you just carry on, what else can you do? Afterwards his father-in-law said you might not know much English, but you sure know what you are letting yourself in for.
As long as it looks okay, the ring was on the right finger and all that kind of business, nobody really noticed. Even though you could argue that this is the least important part. The ceremonial gets you through a lot of things like that. Because people see what is going on and they make their own assumptions. And they’re not really listening anyhow.
Cranmer understood this much, and this is how he sneaked the reformation in. By changing the words, changing the doctrine, he introduced justification by faith, took out transubstantiation and so on. But as long as the priest did the bows at the right time, did the turns at the right time, did the ablutions at the right time, so it generally looked as if he knew what he was doing, the average person didn’t notice. Cranmer relied on the preaching, you see he thought the preaching would educate people into the meaning of what was going on.
This later becomes an issue with Puritanism. Because Puritanism want to go to the next stage, and say that now you have got the new doctrine, you should conform your gestures and behaviors to the doctrine. And this Cranmer objected, because he said well, all your going to do is put people out. He was very clever in this way. He knew that move the flowers and you will cause a panic that you wouldn’t cause by preaching heresy. So, he was very cautious about that.
Preaching in English was done in the 13th century if not earlier, depending on the language of the people, simply because it would have no meaning otherwise. Preaching you are trying to communicate with people. The only thing that would stop it would be among the aristocracy who spoke French where the preaching would be in French, or in the universities where it would be in Latin. But otherwise in the parishes it was in English. Because I don’t suppose the average priest would be capable, see he could read a Latin service written by somebody else, but to preach in a language he didn’t know would have been impossible. There would have been exceptions. I suppose you could have found Latin services in different places. But basically, English would have been the common language for that.
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