Thursday, December 09, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #1

  Garry Williams on 'The English Reformation Today: Revise, Reverse or Revert?'

Here are some notes on Garry's paper.

Revisionists historians such as Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh wish to overturn the traditional Protestant view of the English Reformation. Some Evangelicals seem to want to reverse the Reformation for the sake of unity with Rome. Protestants might wish that we could revert to English Reformation, but that is not without its problems.

I. Revise

Duffy and Haigh

1. Re-examination of the state of church

Anticlericalism in England not as popular as once thought. There was no great cry for reform of the pre-Reformation English Church. The Church was part of everyday life for most people.

2. Slow speed of the English Reformation

The Reformation took time to settle in because it was  not generally embraced by the masses.

3. Mary's reign was more successful that thought

Mary was a competent monarch. England was more conservative than once believed. People were happy to revert to Rome under Mary's reign.


1. The traditional Protestant view was not necessarily right. The Whig school of history suggested that the English naturally embraced Protestantism, gladly throwing off the Roman yoke for the sake of the liberty of England. The idea that the English were 'naturally' Protestants, embracing the gospel and wanting reform is based on an overly optimistic view of human nature.

After the reign of Mary, the Elizabethan Act of Settlement, which made the country Protestant once more was won by only 21-18 votes in Lords. Unlikely victory for Protestantism more an act of God than historical inevitability due to the essential English character.

Older Protestant views of the Reformation  are distorted by the revisionists. The older writers did not exaggerate poor state of church prior to Reformation.
Anticlericalism was present prior to the Reformation, but there was no universal outcry against the Church as such. Anticlericalism did not amount to Protestantism - witness Erasmus.

The Roman Catholic Church was part of the fabric of people's everyday lives. Some parishes were conservative, others were more reformist.

Desire for reform was disproportionately represented in the political power base of England.

2. The historical study of wills made during the period of the English Reformation can lead to misleading conclusions. It is possible to tell whether a person was Catholic or Protestant by their will, whether Mary and saints mentioned or not etc. Wills underestimate the progress of the Reformation movement amongst young.

The impact of Bible. According to Duffy, the Roman faithful  had Harmonies of the Gospels. They knew Bible stories through stained glass windows. But the harmonies were more about Mary than Christ. It has also been pointed out that it is difficult to explain the message of   Romans in a stained glass window. 20,000 English Bibles were printed in 1534. As people read their Bibles they began to notice discrepancies between the Roman dogma purgatory and the teaching of Scripture. Also the Bible does not have Rome's great focus on Mary. 

Preaching. In  1570 not many clergy could preach. By 1584,  400 or more preachers were produced by Cambridge University. The Oxbridge Universities were rapidly becoming seminaries for preachers who proclaimed the Protestant message.

English  Protestant identity was reinforced by events like the Spanish Armada of 1588. Defeat of the Armada was widely celecrated. Charles I attempts at  re-Romanising England were strongly resisted. One of the factors that led to the Civil War.  All this indicates that the English Reformation went deeper than the revisionists suggest.

3. Mary's attempt at Re-Romanising England was a model counter-Reformation experiment. It is no defence that Mary may have been a competent ruler. She could have been wrong, but competent. Archbishop Pole made massive efforts to re-Romanise England. Roman propaganda, coercion and  persecution of Protestants. The Reforation was too deep deep seated to be easily reversed. Elizabeth may have put dissidents to death, but Mary oversaw the most intense religious persecution in the 16th century. Elizabeth had dissidents put to death for political subversion. Mary had Protestants martyred for their faith. The grim industrial efficiency of her reign of terror does not count in her favour.

At the heart of the revisionists' attempt re-rewrite the  English Reformation is a theological disagreement.  Mary's actions were sinful. She took a stand against gospel.

II. Reverse

Is the Reformation Over? by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Their argument is that Rome has changed. Differences remain, but not so serious as to prevent co-operation between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.

Claimed that 2/3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is agreeable to Evangelicals. But we must respond to Rome as a complete system, not just cherry pick the bits with which we agree. Evangelicals and Catholics Together fudges justification by faith alone. No alone. Debates on justification not regarded as too important.  J. I. Packer says that we are not justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is true in a sense, but what might be true on individual level is not true of Roman church as a whole. The Reformation is not over.

ECT is ecumenism of trenches. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics  against secularism. But our enemy's enemy is not our friend. The gospel must define with whom we have fellowship on an ecclesial level.

ECT gives little attention to the Mass. Seen as a  mistake and irrelevance, not for what it is, an act of idolatry.

III. Revert

Simply reverting to the English Reformation of the 16th century is problematic

1. It was Reformation by Parliamentary Statute.

2. The Church of England was only church allowed and Protestant dissent was stamped out.

3. The Reformation in England was unsatisfactory. Cranmer wanted to further revise the Prayer Book to make worship more like the Genevan pattern, but did not succeed. Puritans wanted dynamic reform, but they were blocked.

4. The situation in modern day UK is not like the 16th century, but more like 1st - paganism, pluralism etc.

5. Beware of an unhealthy Reformation antiquarianism. We must be concerned for gospel witness today.

6. The English Reformation spread by preaching. Consider the need to identify and prepare ministers, 2 Timothy 2:2.

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