Our Christian Heritage

Our Christian Heritage

John Robertson

If Westminster must be considered first among the Abbeys, then Canterbury must claim that distinction among the Cathedrals. The Archbishop of Canterbury is primate of the Church of England and has been since the time of Augustine, the first to hold this lofty position.

The visitor to Canterbury cannot but be impressed by its beautiful setting, lying in a saucer of green hills with its tall towers grouping unforgetable against their background of Kentish fields and woods. Inside two tombs are the objects of much interest, that of the Black Prince famous in war and that of Thomas Becket, churchman and martyr for his faith. His death more than any other single event points up the deep rift that existed between the Roman prelates and the king. Beckett had been a prime favourite of Henry II and had served him faithfully and well as Chancellor of the Realm but on his appointment to the primacy of the Church he forsook his wordly ways and became the pope’s man. In a fit of peevish anger Henry had expressed a wish to be rid of this troublesome fellow. The slaying of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral was the result. The fame of the martyr spread rapidly throughout Europe, and Becket’s tomb became a shrine to which a stream of pilgrims including kings, princes and cardinals flocked bringing offerings of jewels and gold. At the time of the Reformation Henry VIII removed the wealth of the shrine to his own royal treasury.

The very nature of its organization forced the Church into conflict with anyone who disputed its authority. Reformers within the Church were hampered by the arrogant intolerance of the scholars in the hierarchy on the one hand and the abysmal ignorance of the laity, most of whom could neither read nor write, on the other hand. A few raised their voices in protest. Stephen Langton, named a cardinal by the pope and appointed to the see of Canterbury challenged the extent of episcopal power and Grosseteste, Archbishop of York, refused to accept the nephew of the Pope to a vacancy in his see but theirs was but a faint cry in a powerful and intolerant Church. It was not until the time of John Wycliff that the rights of the individual and his responsibility to God became an issue that could not be overridden and silenced.

There had been rumbles of discontent with the power and demands of the monastic orders but mostly on economic grounds. Wat Tyler led an ill-fated revolt against the tyranny and oppression of the secular bodies who held the peasants in virtual slavery. In Wycliff, however, the Church found a more formidable opponent. Technically a parish priest, he was in reality an Oxford Don and it is as a scholar he ran a foul the papacy. He denounced the doctrine of transubstantiation and questioned the right of the pope to speak for the Church on earth. His two greatest contributions to our heritage were in translating the Bible into English and in the formation of a group of “poor preachers” whom he sent about the countryside preaching the Gospel with the Scriptures in their hands. Wycliff proved to be too popular a figure to be prosecuted for his rebellion to Church authority and he was still at his benefice at Lutterworth at the time of his death. His followers who were called Lollards did not fare so well and many of them died for opposing the teaching of the Church, the most famous being Sir John Oldcastle, the first of noble blood to be martyred by popish cruelty.

Wycliff has been termed the “Morning Star of the Reformation” and no doubt his writing did influence John Huss and Martin Luther on the Continent. William Tyndale who was greatly influenced by Luther’s teaching followed Wycliff in translating the Bible but he was unable to do so in England. In addition to translating the Bible he wrote many pamphlets attacking the teachings of the Church. He not only repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation but held that the sacrament was a commemorative act only. He incurred the displeasure of Henry VIII by opposing his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and was finally tried for heresy and put to death. Strangely enough his translation of the Bible, as far as it went, formed the basis of the Authorized Version, nearly a century later.

At the time of the Reformation, the power of Rome was very great. For a thousand years it had been uniting politically with the government of Europe and building itself into the life of the people with the pope in supreme command. No one questioned its divine authority on a national scale. Knowledge and books had been the exclussive privilege of the aristocracy and it was in their interest to protect vested rights. In Wycliff and Tyndale the nation had found men ready to champion the freedom of Worship and willing to take a lead in attacking intolerance. Repressive measures introduced to compel all to worship in the manner prescribed by the State Church had permanently divided the people into Conformists and Nonconformists, of which latter body the Lollards had enjoyed considerable public support. This movement was outwardly suppressed but there always remained small groups who were determined to worship after the manner their conscience and the Scriptures, as they knew them, dictated.

The Reformation did nothing to ease the lot of the Nonconformists. Henry VIII, by a series of Acts of Parliament, cut England off from Rome and made himself supreme head of the Church. This simply led to a modification of the Constitution of the Church but all the old abuses remained. Tyndale’s Bible was revived and edited by Miles Coverdale and placed in each church but the reading of it was reserved for, “judges, noblemen, captains and justices.” Others were forbidden to read it under severe punishment from the law.

All forms of Dissent were relentlessly persecuted; Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and independents. The first two favoured a State Church, but under a Presbyterian form of government rather than Episcopalian. The Puritans hoped to remain within the Church of England but with a purer form of worship. They took the lead in the struggle against the doctrine of the divine right of kings so strongly held by the Stewart Kings. This led to the beheading of Charles I and the establishment of Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. All the Dissenters had united in this struggle and under the Commonwealth freedom of worship was enforced by law. “Such as profess faith in God by Jesus Christ, though differing in judgment from the doctrine, worship or discipline publicly held forth shall not be restrained but shall be protected in the profession of their faith and exercise of their religion,” was the edict of the Council of State of 1653.

This liberty was short-lived under Charles II the old order was restored. It was this intolerance that caused many to leave England and seek freedom of worship first on the Continent and then in the New World. Many of the early settlers in United States were those seeking the right to worship as they pleased.

By the time of the Revolution and the disposition of James II, toleration was very much in the air. James I, in spite of his determined adherence to the principle of the divine right of kings, did have the Authorized Bible translated and made available to all who could read. This book has been the mainstay of our faith for more than 300 years. And even though Charles II attempted to stifle freedom of worship, a work had begun that could not be denied. Some persecution lingered as witnessed by the imprisonment of John Bunyan, author of that wonderful book the Pilgrim’s Progress, that is second only to the Bible in popular reading in our tongue.

It must not be thought that this hard-won victory meant salvation for the masses. Most people remained indifferent to religion and there was little or no life in the Established Church to awaken man to his need. Immorality and drunkenness were a characteristic of the age and the clergy was in many cases little better than the people. Yet out of this “garden of weeds some goodly trees sprang up to bear good fruit.” Men like John Newton, Rowland Hill and William Romaine were true Evangelicals but the most influential figure in the proclamation of the Gospel in the 18th century was John Wesley.