Merry Old England…Not

I’m off to speak at Coming Home Network’s Deep in History conference this weekend. The topic is the English Reformation, and I’ll be on the platform with English friends, Jamie and Joanna Bogle and biographer Joseph Pearce as well as fellow former Anglican priest, Ray Ryland, Marcus Grodi, Scott Hahn and others.

I’m giving an overview of the Church in England up to the Reformation and focussing on correcting some widely held myths. The Protestant view of the Reformation is that there were lots of fat old monks sitting around idly while they scared good folks into giving lots of money as a way out of purgatory. Jolly old Henry VIII came along and tidied things up, and if a few eggs got broken to make an omelette, well so be it. Then the English people saw the light, embraced their new religion and started reading the Bible and going to church again.

The reverse is the truth. Groundbreaking scholarship over the last thirty years has shown that the Catholic faith in England was thriving at the end of the fifteenth century. It wasn’t dominated by corrupt clergy. Instead lay people were heavily involved through membership of fraternities and guilds. They had an active and lively social life in the church, and ran most of the charitable work of the church through maintenance of schools, hospitals and poorhouses. Church building was at an all time high. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life was soaring, and people gave generously to support the ministry of the church. Oxford scholar Christopher Haigh writes, “The English were investing heavily–perhaps more heavily than ever before–in their religion. There is nothing to indicate that we are on the eve of a Reformation, or that there was any decay of conventional piety.”

This scholarship is supported by new research: of contemporary records from guilds and fraternities, inventories from churches and the witness of thousands of ordinary wills and last testaments. Read J.J.Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamonn Duffy. It’s absorbing and fascinating stuff, and when all is said and done it reveals that for cultural looting, destruction of art and learning, political bullying, violence and sheer wanton greed the Reformation in England ranks right up there with the worst excesses of Joe Stalin and Mao. Henry VIII and his croneys make them look like pussycats.

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