Wycliffe, born 1328, was a Yorkshire man from the North of England which always had a different religious tradition than London and the southern counties, a tradition that looked less to Rome for leadership and a stronger sense of both Englishness and of the distinctive “Ecclesia Anglicana” heritage. He was a scholar at Baliol College, Oxford where he studied mathematics, natural philosophy (the physical sciences), English and Roman Law, English history, theology and Philosophy. This was an amazing spectrum of studies and he could well be called a Renaissance man although there was as yet no Renaissance, at least in England. Philosophically, he was a disciple of Ockham and the Nominalists and as such he was what we would call today, a deconstructionist. He rejected “realism” and thus such doctrines as “transubstantion” did not sit easy with him. Indeed, the one source of authority he recognized was The Bible—to which he had great devotion and which he managed to have translated in its entirety to English (from the Latin Vulgate) so as to be accessible to the common people. His study of scripture convinced him that many of the doctrines of the Church—such as papal supremacy—were unsubstantiated by Scripture or even contrary to it. Moreover, he differed from Catholic orthodoxy on several other points. Influenced by the ancient Donatist doctrines, for example, he believed that the efficacy of the sacraments depended on the worthiness of the minister.
Despite his lack of strict religious orthodoxy, he was recognized for his academic brilliance and Archbishop Simon Islip appointed him head of Canterbury Hall—an Oxford foundation which was meant to provide education for twelve priests or candidates for priesthood from the Archdiocese of Canterbury. Islip’s successor, Simon Langham, replaced Wycliffe with a monk, however, and while Wycliffe appealed his case to the papal court the appeal was unsuccessful. This may account in part for Wycliffe’s turning against both monasticism and the papacy.
Like many of the Oxbridge dons, Wycliffe was supported by being given “a living” or “a rectory” which meant he was pastor of a parish which paid a handsome salary—handsome enough both to support him in his academic work and to pay for a “vicar” to actually live in the parish and tend to its pastoral needs. Wycliffe held a number of rectories in his life but probably actually ministered only in the last two-- Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire and Lutterworth in Leistershire. But from these rectories, when he was no longer teaching at Oxford, he issued a series of pamphlets and other materials that attacked corruption in the Church. His Donatism shown through in his affirming that the “real” Church was not the represented by the hierarchy and the visible society of baptized believers, but the association of those believers, known only to God, who were to be saved. This naturally led him to a doctrine of predestination in which God not only knew but determined who would be saved and who was to be lost.
Wycliffe not only undermined traditional Catholic Doctrines, but he directly assailed the papacy. Remember that through most of this time the papacy was located at Avignon, just across the Rhone River from the realms of the King of France but very much under his influence. The popes were mostly French at this time, as were the majority of the cardinals. And the French were the enemies of the English. This was not only the time of the Avignon papacy but of the Hundred Years War between France and England. Wycliffe’s anti-papal polemics found a patriotic ear among the English. Wycliffe assailed the papacy for its wealth and claimed that various practices such as annates were simply simony. Annates were the practice by which a man elevated to an ecclesiastical post—bishop, Archbishop, Abbot, even a canon or somewhat minor official—paid the pope the first year’s revenues of his new position. We will hear much about them in this series. Simony is the crime/sin of buying and selling Church office.
As much as Wycliffe hated the papacy he hated monasticism even more. He was a secular priest and he resented to claims to holiness that the monks made when often they were not only no better than himself and other parish priests, but when in fact they led lives far more indolent. Initially supported by the Mendicant Orders—who themselves were often in mutual hatred with the Monastic Orders—Wycliffe soon turned on them too for their lack of holiness. Read the medieval literature, Chaucer, Boccacio and others, and you will see that monks were seen to be lazy gluttonous characters more given to sleep and drink than to prayer, and friars (the mendicants) were womanizers and cheats. These caricatures did not come out of thin air. Not all monks were lazy and not all friars were lechers, but there was a need—a serious need—for reform in the clergy.
The English Church, like the Church most place sin Europe, had great wealth in the centuries before the Reformation. Bishops and Abbots, by virtue of their office, were great landowners and peers of the Realm. Generations of bequests, donations, endowments, and monastic dowries—all usually made in grants of income-producing land and properties—made abbeys, cathedrals, and even parish churches very wealthy. Great Lords and simple yeoman farmers alike were constrained in giving a tenth of the produce of their fields and orchards to the clergy in tithes. The clergy had other customary charges that brought them revenue—the burial cloths and candles from funerals, wedding and christening fees, stipends for the blessing of fields and vineyards and orchards, and mass offerings. While parish vicars were often underpaid, rectors of churches—often absentee—could usually count on a handsome income and as for canons, bishops, and other prelates, want was not at their doors. Wycliffe—himself the holder of comfortable benefices—proposed the sending out of “poor priests” who would preach the gospel to the poor and evangelize the ordinary English man or woman. It would have been a brave step because the Church was losing its credibility fast among the middling sort of folk.
Wycliffe’s rants were popular for a variety of reasons. The popes were unpopular due to their alliances with England’s enemies; the Church did control great wealth and vast lands in a society where many were, or perceived themselves to be, on the margins of survival; the clergy needed reform; the English bible nourished people spiritually and rendered the ministrations of the clergy somewhat superficial. Wycliffe also had a protector in the King’s uncle John of Gaunt who was extremely influential, especially during King Richard’s minority.
Wycliffe’s ideas were condemned by a synod of English bishops in 1382 but he was not deprived of his living and no action was taken against him in his life time. He suffered a stroke while attending mass on the Feast of the Holy Innocents in 1384 and died three days later. But that is not the end of the story.
We will see that many of his themes—especially the authority of scripture, popular religion and the role of the Bible, and the wealth of the Church, will continue to surface and threaten the hegemony of the hierarchical Church. The failure of the Church to heed the calls to Reform will eventually lead to the struggle of the Reformation. Hus’ doctrinal ideas on the Eucharist, on the nature of the Church as a “spiritual reality,” on the need for ministers to be men of integrity in order to minister effectively, on scripture alone, and on predestination will survive and later even return with a vengeance. We will see what happens when the Church fails to “read the signs of the Times” as John XXIII called it to do when he called a Council in our own times.