|Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin|
Welby with Pope Francis
Pardon the most recent hiatus. I have been down with a temperature, but now am ready to resume my blogging. Though actually, I had written this posting before I became sick and just wasn’t up to posting it until this afternoon.
I was interested to see on the neo-traditionalist blog New Liturgical Movement a posting about and a link to an article calling for a new examination of the English Reformation by historian and barrister, Dominick Selwood that appeared in England’s Daily Telegraph. Though I strong disagree with New Liturgical Movements underlying agenda, and often with their conclusions from historical and liturgical-historical data, they represent thorough scholarship so I while I was interested to see a reference to Selwood and his article on re-thinking the Reformation, I was not surprised. According to Doctor Selwood, the Reformation has always been taught in England with a bias in favor of the Reformers and there is a need to take a critical look at that. I will be anxious to read more of Professor Selwood’s observations as he continues to publish, but as “the winners write the history books” I have no doubt to the basic validity of his premise that the Protestant writers wrote England’s history—not just its Reformation History or its Ecclesiastical History, but its national history.
Selwood sums the establishment historiography as
For centuries, the English have been taught that the late medieval Church was superstitious, corrupt, exploitative, and alien. Above all, we were told that King Henry VIII and the people of England despised its popish flummery and primitive rites. England was fed up to the back teeth with the ignorant mumbo-jumbo magicians of the foreign Church, and up and down the country Tudor people preferred plain-speaking, rational men like Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin. Henry VIII achieved what all sane English and Welsh people had long desired – an excuse to break away from an anachronistic subjugation to the ridiculous medieval strictures of the Church.
This is obviously a gross characterization of the historical data but not without foundation. Remember Lord Grantham saying to the Archbishop of York in Season 3 of Downton Abbey: “ I don’t want thumbscrews or the rack, but there always seems to be something of Johnnt Foreigner about the Catholics”? Yes, yes, I know Downton Abbey is fiction and we don’t mix history and fiction, even historical fiction. But trust me, the writers well captured the traditional English bias against those whose religious allegiance lay outside the realm rather than beneath the crown.
Selwood, for his part, does a mixed task of redressing the misinformation. Very much in the style of Eamon Duffy, Selwood paints a vibrant picture of parish life in the first years of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, he makes the break with Rome appear to be much more immediate than it was. He also fails to distinguish between Henry’s schismatic Church and the Protestant Church of England of Edward VI, Elizabeth, and her successors. We can look at this a bit down the line, but it brings us the problems of writing history. We all have our biases—and our biases are formed—often unconsciously—by our politics, our economic interests, our social position, our ethnic background, and the web of personal experiences and relationships that has brought us to this point of life.
For centuries Catholics were not particularly interest in history, but rather “tradition.” (note the small “t.”) Facts and faith are apples and oranges. An so when the Church encountered “facts” they didn’t like (Think Copernicus, Galileo) they either ignored them (Copernicus) or tried to stamp them out before they could spread (Galileo). However, in the nineteenth century some highly perceptive minds in the Church realized that our not being more pro-active about the History of the Church, was leaving the field to the Protestant thinkers, and even worse, the rising anti-Catholic wing of the intelligentsia. Perhaps it was Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (published between 1776 and 1789) with its consistent theme of how Christianity weakened Rome and left it to fall into oblivion that made the difference. (I know that Gibbon’s book was 18th century and I am talking 19th, but it takes some time for these turgid words to have some impact on a culture. It isn’t like today—one Sunday in the New York Times Book Review and you can buy that little villa in the Keys.) In England people like Lord Acton and Cardinal Gasquet rose to the occasion and used history to present the Catholic side of the story. While they may have been more nuanced than the Protestant colleagues, they were often no less biased.
Fortunately in the last thirty years a variety of first-rate historians—some Catholic, some not) such as Owen Chadwick, Eamon Duffy, Geoffrey Elton, Christoper Haigh, Diarmud MacCullough, A.G. Dickens, and J.J. Scarisbrick have done much to approach the English Reformation from a far more objective perspective. The question is however, when will these studies begin to make an impact on both the people in the pews and on the institutional churches involved. For all the cordiality when the Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Vatican—or the Pope comes to Canterbury—where are the ties between the local Catholic and Episcopalian parishes? Where are the joint prayer services? Where is the cooperation in mission for the needs of the local poor? I remember seeing the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia struggling into his robes in the parking lot of a Catholic Cathedral where he had come for the funeral of the bishops and had not been provided any sort of welcome, much less an invitation to vest and sit with the clergy. No, the time has come to rekindle our interest in ecumenis, study the history, reflect together on the scriptures, and embrace the common mission of proclaiming not our respective Churches, but the one Mission left to us all by Christ.