Reform or innovation

Margaret Laird lists some of the many parallels in church disruption and discontinuity between the turbulent days of the sixteenth century Reformation and the present ill-defined revolution in church organization

In 1965, Bishop John Robinson published The New Reformation? in which he considered whether or not 'we were trembling on the verge of a new Reformation' and this idea was mooted in ecclesiastical journals. A cautious Canon of Winchester wrote: "The prospect of a new Reformation is clearly in sight,' while Professor Torrance stated: 'Without doubt we are in the midst of a new Reformation.' So, when did this Reformation begin, and how long will it last?

That first Reformation

Historians still disagree about a termination date for the sixteenth century Reformation. Christopher Haigh has argued, "The process was slow rather than rapid,' which led Peter Marshal to ask in 1997, 'How slow was slow?' Whereas in the Sixties it was generally thought that the Reformation ended with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, recent historians suggest that there was no such thing as Anglicanism until the Restoration.

If we are experiencing a new Reformation, are we living at the beginning, end or middle of the process? A difficult question but the problems in both periods are strikingly similar.

Recent historians have shown that the transfer of power from Pope to King was not as easily accepted by parishes or clergy as we were once led to believe. Conflict did not cease with the Act of Supremacy. Amongst serious disagreements in today's church, there is still opposition to the national church, although for different reasons. Calls for disestablishment cause conflict and if acted upon would result in complications for both Church and State. Furthermore, religious changes cannot be achieved without cost. The abolition of Peter's Pence did not solve Henry VIII's financial problems and the Injunction of 1550, forcing English Bibles, left many parishes in debt. 'Popery,' commented Professor Scansbrick, 'was cheaper if nothing else.' Similarly, the recent Turnbull Reforms did nothing to reduce parish share.

Breaking from Rome resulted in The Prayer Book of 1549, 1552, and after returning to the Mass under Queen Mary, that of 1559: four changes in ten years, so the contemporary Church should be grateful for only two in twenty! Liturgy of

the Word affects liturgical practice and in the sixteenth century, statues, candles and vestments were prohibited and stone altars were replaced by wooden ones. These days, church buildings have been re-ordered to accommodate nave altars and westward facing celebrations of the Eucharist.

Nothing has caused such social devastation in the present era, as the suppression of the monasteries did in the sixteenth century, although there has been widespread disposal of church property to solve financial problems. Parishes which had been endowed for a thousand years, even if the form of that endowment changed, now find themselves with no capital at all. People are at last beginning to question whether this is always the wisest policy.

The patronage of the monastic livings generally passed to the Crown and then were gifted or sold to loyal subjects. Private patronage has preserved the comprehensive of the Church of England but at present, things are changing in that the amalgamation of benefices has introduced joint or alternate patronage and the suspension of livings has reduced the influence of patrons.

Fewer legacies and vocations

In the sixteenth century, there were fewer bequests to churches because of the prohibition of ornaments, furnishings and candles for the Mass. Today, the threat of redundancy and the rapacity of dioceses discourages churchgoers from leaving money to their parish churches.

A decline in priestly vocations in the earlier period resulted from uncertainty about the future direction of a church wavering between Catholic and Protestant. These days, the secularization of society and the fear that the church may not be able to pay nor even employ them has affected prospective ordinands.

Disunity is the most devastating effect of religious change. However, despite the turmoil of earlier centuries, the Church emerged reformed but still Catholic and held together by a common ministry. Will this be true as she emerges from another turbulent period?

Since the ordination of women, she no longer has a common ministry and there are serious doubts about her doctrine. As Canon Norman comments, 'What we

are seeing now is Christianity being reinvented... People are astonishingly ignorant of Christian teaching... They regard themselves competent to define religious positions for themselves without reference to the long established traditions of thought and practice, and then put together an interpretation of Christianity either to relate to individual needs or to the great issues of material welfare.'

The sixteenth century also left the parochial system intact despite the many demands made upon it over the centuries. Again we can ask: for how much longer?

Reformation or innovation

Finally, the Church emerged from the Reformation able to pride herself on checks and balances and on a dispersed and distributed authority. For four hundred years that balance between Church and State, bishops and clergy, clergy and people, has been maintained with the rights and duties of each recognized.

It is said that 'nations and organizations in decline come to be dominated by their bureaucracies at the expense of their life blood.' The Church of England is certainly being dominated by bureaucracy at the expense of her lifeblood - the parishes. The suspension of benefices increases the power of diocese and bishop at the expense of the parishes. Patrons when exercising their powers carefully with parish representatives provide a defence against diocesan policy. The abolition of the freehold will further increase the power of the diocese. If, however, the parishes are to remain the lifeblood of the church, they must retain some institutional rights against this powerful bureaucracy.

Will the Church of England emerge from this era reformed or as a completely new church - detaching herself from her traditional doctrine and her historic ministry, anxious to liberate herself from the state and the long established parochial system, abandoning the checks and balances which have characterized the church in this country as we know and recognize her?

The former Archbishop of York once commented, 'If we are truly to discern some sense of direction for the future... we need also some connectedness and continuity with the past.' \ND\

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