|The medieval English Church at |
Dartmouth in Southern England
One of the characteristics of the Churches that sprang out of the series of sixteenth-century Reformations that we call “Protestant” is the amount of control the laity exercise in Church matters. Indeed for the most part in the Churches of the Reformation the distinction between laity and clergy is all but obliterated. The roots of this declericalization was not doctrinal but rather a reaction to the abuses of clerical power in the late medieval Church. Doctrines such as “The Priesthood of All Believers” which stamp most Protestant Tradition arose because of the strong anti-clerical mood in European society. In other words, the doctrines were primarily a reaction to the exaggerated clericalism of the medieval Church. And—by the way—we Catholics must remember that those doctrines are not heretical but at most an exaggeration of the authentic Apostolic Tradition which we call “The Baptismal Priesthood” or the “Priesthood of the Faithful” which is rooted in the New Testament and in the Fathers and is celebrated in the official Liturgy of the Catholic Churchy, most notably but not exclusively in the rites of the Sacrament of Baptism.
In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries there was a serious rise of anti-clericalism in Europe and in retrospect we can see how it made the Catholic Church vulnerable to the Reformers as well as paved the way for the Churches of the Reformation where the authority of the clergy was almost invariably replaced by strong lay control. Calvin’s Geneva is one such example. While John Calvin was the preacher and theologian for the Reformed Church in Geneva, actual power was exercised not by Calvin but by the town council which had determined that the Catholicism would be replaced by the Reformed Religion. The Council often went against Calvin in its decisions about Church polity. The laity, not the clergy, would chart the path for the Church. This was true in most Reformed and Evangelical Churches—the clergy could persuade and encourage in their preaching, but decisions of Church polity were ultimately in the hands of the laity. In England from the time of Elizabeth I onwards, Parliament would make decisions regarding Church polity. Even the Queen had to concede certain points of theology and practice to the anti-clerical parties (The Puritan faction) in Parliament in regard to the approval of the Book of Common Prayer that was issued in her reign. The bishops had a voice, but they did not have final word and into the twentieth century you had a predominately lay body, Parliament, not all of whom by any means were Anglican, making decisions about worship and other matters internal to the Church of England.
We have gotten somewhat ahead of ourselves here. Let’s get back to the period of history immediately before the various Protestant Reformations. We had spoken some time back about John Wycliffe (see entries for April 27th and 28th 2011). Wycliffe’s followers in England were very distrustful of the clergy. Wycliffe, though himself a priest and holder of several fairly lucrative benefices, had preached against clerical wealth and privilege. It was at this same time the Geoffrey Chaucer in England and Giovanni Bocaccio in Italy had drawn scathing portraits of the clergy in their varied literary works. Friars were seen to be greedy and womanizers; monks, fat and lazy sodomites. The secular clergy were seen as nickel and diming people with fees for every imaginable service they rendered. How truthful were these caricatures? Well, there were good monks and friars and priests, but the caricatures would not have worked in the various poems and narratives if there had not been some truth to them. It was a time marked by some strong reform movements in the religious orders, but also by religious who refused to embrace the necessary reforms. In other words, like today, you had good priests and not-so-good priests.
Celibacy then, as today, is a tricky issue to speak of. Popular mythology often points the medieval clergy as satyrs, totally ignoring the demands of celibacy. The fact of the matter is that the secular clergy were pretty much ignoring celibacy, but they were not necessarily promiscuous. Church law from the eleventh century onwards had forbidden the clergy to marry. This was mostly a matter of preventing Church property from passing out of Church ownership to the heirs of the priest. Children, by law, had rights of inheritance only if they were legitimate. Prohibiting the clergy to marry rendered the children illegitimate and prevented them from suing for a share in their father’s estate. Church properties were preserved for the Church. The celibacy legislation worked fairly well in despoiling children and widows of their claims but despite the law of the Church, many priests continued to marry and have children. The marriages were not usually solemnized—i.e. “blessed” in Church—but neither were many medieval marriages, especially among the more common folk. What we call “common-law” marriages were taken much more for granted in the Middle Ages, especially among the peasantry and the working classes. Weddings were mostly for the nobility and, after the twelfth century, the bourgeoisie. Many priests lived in a stable relationship with one woman, having children by her and raising their children together. This would have been especially common in both rural areas and on the fringes of European society—Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, where priesthood was often a part-time occupation combined with farming and where the collaborative work of family life was almost a requisite for survival. This is not to gloss over clerical sexuality. Clerical concubinage (a prelate, priest, or major cleric having a mistress), as differentiated from such common-law relationships, was by no means unknown in the cities and towns and among the hierarchy. The stability of these relationships varied from the same sort of common-law marriages of rural clergy to the successive monogamy of a series of mistresses. And, of course, there were those among the clergy and hierarchy, as there are in every place and time and profession—promiscuous swine to take whatever opportunity presents itself for sexual gratification. Popes were rarely in a position to clean up this mess as more than a few were sexually active themselves.
All this is simply a way of making clear that there was not much to admire in the clerical state. There were fine priests of course; priests beloved and admired by their congregants for their devotion and pastoral service. Then too there were priests admired and loved by their parishioners who had common-law wives and children and whose parishioners did not see anything wrong with that. There were priests who were celibate and who were loved and admired by their parishioners. And there were priests who were celibate but whose parishioners disdained them, even hated them, because while celibate they still begrudged their congregants good pastoral care.
It was common practice for priests to hold lucrative posts called benefices. The benefice might be the pastorate of a wealthy church that paid a hefty salary. The benefice might be a position at the Cathedral. The benefice might be the chaplaincy at a hospital or a school. When the salary was sufficiently high, or the priest held several high-income benefices at the same time, he might pay out of his salary a “vicar” to do the actual work. Priests might often live in a degree of luxury, a high degree of luxury, and do little or no work. None of this helped clerical reputation and by the early sixteenth century clergy were often held in contempt.
The Church in the Middle Ages had become incredibly wealthy. Over the centuries immense amounts of land had been left in wills and bequests to monasteries, parish churches, cathedral chapters, schools, and other religious institutions. Unlike family lands which were always being both added to and divided by dowries and divisions among heirs, (and bequests to churches), the Church did not pay dowries nor did it leave lands by bequest to others. Thus the Church and its various institutions only increased in wealth and property. It was always the receiver, never the giver. Of course, it did pay salaries, and not only to clergy but to vast numbers of servants and workers required to maintain the various institutions. It also spent huge sums hiring stonemasons, carpenters, glaziers, smiths and others in the vast construction projects of the Middle Ages. It made heavy purchases in everything from beer, wine, food, and clothing for its clergy and employees to silks, gold and silver and jewels, organs, incense and other requirements for services. In other words, the Church was a vital part of the economy. In addition to its lands and the revenues its properties generated in rents and leases, the Church depended on the non-voluntary contributions called tithes of everyone from small tenant-farmers to powerful merchants. It was required by Church law and enforced by the civil officials called reeves that the Church got ten percent of your income. As the Church grew richer—in some places owning up to a third of the land in a kingdom—and more opulent in its display of wealth, many—especially in the merchant class—began to resent that they had to pay these tithes when the Church seemed to be so wealthy. With the rise of the urban business classes, people began wanting to reinvest their spare capital in order to make more money yet. They were not happy in seeing their hard earned money going to an institution that seemed to have so much already.
Another reason for the lack of respect of the clergy is that in the early and central Middle Ages, that is from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, the priest was most often among the best educated, or even in some places, the only educated person, in the town or village. Even where the priest was no more educated than the peasants he served, his guardianship of the Sacred and his control of the Rites was seen as giving him a quasi-magical power. But from the twelfth century on, with the economic revolution in Europe that created a strong and vibrant middle class, the educational level in European society rose fast. Laity began to read and study—and develop areas of expertise such as law and economics. Educationally the clergy began to meet their peers among their congregants. Even in the rural areas reason began to replace superstition and magic. No longer did the word of the priest have authority simply because he was a priest. His words were weighed for their value as they corresponded to the knowledge and insight of his listeners. An individual priest might be respected for his intelligence and wisdom but by no means was such respect automatic; much less would respect be given simply because a person was a priest. In fact, people did not hesitate to question the opinion of a priest and counter with their own insights from their experience and from common sense. It was a new age and not all the clergy recognized that their control over the faithful had eroded.