WHEN I was at school, I was taught that the English Reformation came about because of the corruption of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. My mother, who was convent-educated, used to counter this by telling me firmly that the cause of the English Reformation was Henry VIII’s immoral desire to divorce his wife.
For years, the two competing narratives existed unresolved in my mind. I became C of E and largely accepted the Protestant story, while being secretly attracted to Roman Catholicism. Nothing odd there: quite a few Anglicans do the same.
Eamon Duffy’s book The Stripping of the Altars, published in 1992, challenged to the widely accepted Protestant viewpoint of the English Reformation. He argued that the medieval Catholic Church in England, far from being corrupt, was vigorous and popular. The Reformed doctrine that the Church of England gradually adopted after the death of Henry VIII was forced on the English people by a narrow band of zealots who were determined to destroy the traditional religion. The book shifted the consensus and, though points have been challenged, the central thesis has not been overturned.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement earlier this year giving thanks for the doctrinal clarity of the Reformation. It also laments the lasting damage to the Church and the centuries of conflict between Protestants and RCs. What the statement could not truly acknowledge was the sheer injustice of it all.
Immense turmoil and distress accompanied the English Reformation. In the 25 years between the passing of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and its reinstatement in 1559, a climate of terror, violence, and persecution reached into every corner of the land. Parish worship was changed beyond recognition, then reversed, and then reversed again. Those who lived through the violent changes from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic, and then to the firm but moderate Protestantism of Elizabeth I, must have wondered where God was in it all.
That is still the question raised by our history. Many of us would recognise ourselves as beneficiaries of the Reformation in terms of what it has brought to our institutions, our democracy, and our traditions of learning. We rejoice at the flourishing of Anglicanism as a via media that has offered both continuity and a capacity to embrace change.
But the nagging doubt remains. The question “Where was God in the English Reformation?” is impossible for us to answer. What we should not do is forget that the moderation for which the Church of England is respected was forged in fires of a religious savagery that we would shudder at today.
In next week’s Church Times, a series of articles will be published to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.