The Reformation of the 16th century was a movement within Western Christianity that removed the church of medieval abuses to restore the practices that the reformers believed conformed with the Bible and the New Testaments model of the church. This led to a break between the Roman Catholic Church and the reformers whose beliefs and practices came to be called Protestantism. However was there a need for this too take place?
With the benefits of hindsight we can now form two main views about the state off the church pre-reformation.
The traditional viewpoint, is that it was inevitable and was necessary, the second is a revisionist viewpoint which attempts to deny the generally accepted past events and furthermore opposes this view that a reformation in the English church was necessary. The main criticisms of the Church that suggest reasons for reform were anticlericalism, antipapalism, erastianism and heresy. This essay will analyse the impact of such criticisms and the contribution they played to reform.
Anticlericalism is direct criticism of the personnel of the church, from parish priests to Roman cardinals, it claimed that all member were lazy, poor workers and uncommitted to church ideals.
The fundermental concern was their main interests were not on the welfare of the church but attaining power and authority for themselves. However there is little evidence to prove this. Colet’s sermon of 1511 openly opposed the clergy in convocation; he claimed that too many members of the church were far more preoccupied on climbing an ecclesiastical hierarchy than committing to church ideals. However the attacks were said to be heavily exaggerated, especially as they were preached in convocation, one churchman to another. Cloet was also a cleric; Dean of St Paul’s and shared no public dissatisfaction for the clergy. Another outburst of anticlerical ideals was preached by William Melton, chancellor of York Minister. His complaints were that too many priests were offensive and ignorant. Again this was a small insignificant complaint that had little impact. Anticlericalism was rarely experience in 16th centaury England, the only anticlerical actions that took place was when the king, who had great influence of the church of England, appointed higher posts to educated and able administrators instead of spiritually devoted ones, but this was no fault of the Church.
Another issue that concerned anticlerical ideas was absenteeism. Absenteeism was when a member of the higher clergy were absent from their diocese; this involved the appointing of suffragan bishops to carry out their episcopal duties. The higher bishop’s intentions and commitment to the church could be questioned; however it was never a significant issue in 16th century England due to the hard work of the lower bishops that took their place. Absenteeism was a customary characteristic of Church life that never posed a cause for concern.
Two other major flaws that highlighted anticlericalism were Pluralism and Simony. Pluralism is when ecclesiastics hold more than one post. This could be bad news because it means they have an abundant work load and pressure to complete all work to a high-quality standard. Two prime examples of pluralists in the 16th century were Thomas Manus who held more than nine posts and Wolsey who held several as well. It is important to note nevertheless that these were rare exceptions, and for the very few clergymen that did hold numerous posts, the work was carried out promptly and carefully.
Simony relates to the buying and selling of posts. This capitalist approach to gain privileges can be seen to be the only offence that can not be justified by the clergy, but the true extend to which
simony was exploited is still very indistinct. It is fair to say though that the preponderance of the clergy were well thought of, hardworking, dedicated members of the church.
A key criticism of Church that could lead to reform was antipapalism. Antipapalism was the questioning of the authority of the pope and the dispute over who should be in control of the church in England.
Already in Germany there were widespread feelings of antipapalism due to the sentiment that papal agents and the pope were exploiting them. In England, conversely, the effects of Antipapalism were lesser felt; the main reason for this was probably the combined control of the pope and the king of the church. The pope was the official leader of the church however the king did have a large input as well; so this caused a minimal antipapal pandemonium.
In 1518, Thomas Wolsey was appointed a papal legate, someone to be a representative of the pope. His decisions would be very important in he increase or decline of antipapal impressions. Wolsey worked in conjunction with William Warham, an uninspiring aged, inferior, but he did not cause concern for Wolsey and opposition to Wolsey was very limited and the changes he brought about were improvement and generally accepted. Wolsey showed interests in Lutheranism and spoke openly at Oxford and Cambridge University about heresy, which make relations between him, the king and the pope stronger as they all opposed heresy. Wolsey was a humanist he opposed the vernacular bible and taught the clergy to lean from classical texts, he fully for filled the demand of converting Church wealth to educational ends.
The main reasons for concerns about Wolsey therefore never existed, he cause no upset towards the pope: The king, Wolsey and the realm were all in agreement against heresy.
Erastianism is said to be the elemental cause for reformation. Erastianism proposes that the monarch should be in control of the church. The ideal of erastianism had been around long before the eve of the reformation. Marsiglio of Padua claimed about 200 years prior to the 16th century in his ‘Defensor Pacis’ that the secular ruler should have ultimate control over the church and not the Pope in Rhome. Although he was excommunicated, his views were aired again by Henry VIII’s reign. The king already had a sufficient amount of power however dispute occurred over certain matters. The king began to want more and more power and therefore take over the church. This was the flame that sparked the beginnings of the reformation and crated a divide within the church between the people and the king. Erastianism provoked the king to obtain ownership of the church.
Heresy is the final underlying issue that was facing the Church in the 16th Century. Heresy is the opposing and questioning of the Roman Catholic Church. This was not, however a new issue, it had been staged in the 1500’s by a group called the Lollards, inspired by John Wycliffe. They believed in an English bible so opposed Wolsey’s humanist ideals; they also did not believe in transubstantiation, a common view shared by Protestants, they were punished for openly talking about their views. Another small insignificant and ineffective supporter of the Lollards was a group call the White Hourse, there ideas proved weak but they were still punished. Heresy had spread very little within the regular clergy and overall the majority of the public and church opposed ideas of heresy and supported the church, showing that it was a week complaint.
The four key points that all contributed to the underlying causes of the reformation, with close examination, actually have very little significance. The circumstances all had very little impact and in most case did not even exist only for an exaggeration or a general summary of the whole Church. It is clear to see that from the 1500’s protestant viewpoints and ideals had been stirring with the uprising of the Lollards and the position of the king and this controversy could portray reformation inevitable, however on a wider scale the problems discussed were so trivial and had such a little impact that there was no need for reformation., agreeing to a revisionist historian viewpoint.