During the 1300’s as the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism were playing out on the continent, another crisis was brewing in England that directly prefigured the Reformation. Kevin Madigan called his treatment of this matter “’Morning Stars’ or Heretics?” in reference to an upheaval of thought centered around an English theologian, John Wyclif (1330-1384), and those who championed his cause, the “Lollards.” Looking back on thinkers such as Wycliffe from this age, it is critical to reflect upon the nature of heresy and reform, specifically the perennial problems of conveying eternal mystery within the limitations of language and human thought processes and bringing accountability to those entrusted with teaching faith and morals in the name of God.
The relationship of England and Rome is a peculiar historical study, and not simply in matters of religion. Before the birth of Christ, Julius Caesar became the first Roman general to cross the English Channel (60 B.C.), beginning an arduous and lengthy effort to subdue the outpost island, and Constantine was acclaimed emperor by his troops (306 A.D.) in York, of all places. Given the great military difficulties encountered by the Romans, it is not surprising that later the English would present governing difficulties for a Christian Church centered in Rome.
Christian missionaries were sent in concentrated numbers by Pope Gregory I (or St. Gregory the Great, r. 590-604 A.D.) and the history of the growth of Christianity in England is remarkable in many respects, including the emergence of scholars such as Bede the Venerable and Alcuin, the development of universities, most notably Oxford, and an energetic concept of the episcopacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was the driving force in the composition and passage of the Magna Carta (1215 A.D.), today the icon of representative democratic government. A medieval history professor at Catholic University—specifically, the one who tossed me out of that discipline in college, no hard feelings—told me of how he earned his doctorate. He went to England, bought a bike, and spent a year or two visiting surviving medieval parishes, where he found in the records that a surprisingly large number of pastors had university degrees from Oxford and other notable schools, suggesting that Catholic laity were unusually well educated and informed in their local settings under the tutelage of their clergy.
It is into this setting that John Wyclif became a noted professor at Oxford, with ambitions to write a Summa along the lines of St. Thomas Aquinas a century earlier. However, he became involved in politics and attended sessions of parliament, where he witnessed two Dominican scholars debate the question “whether, in times of emergency, the state could legitimately seize the property of the Church.” (Madigan, p. 388) Wyclif sided hypothetically with the right of the king, explaining that only God “owns” property, and only righteous men have claim to rent it, so to speak.
Wyclif was headed down the same ideological road as the Spiritual Franciscans, still a force in his lifetime, who believed that absolute poverty was the mother all virtues. Wyclif viewed the Church as severely tainted by its significant holdings, but his words in parliament were also a commentary on Church “owners,” i.e., the clergy, as unworthy of serving as God’s landlords. “Any cleric living in a state of mortal sin would inescapably have forfeited his claims to ecclesiastical dominions or lands.” Wyclif wrote that a civil ruler would be within his rights to seize the holdings in question.
Taking Wyclif’s contentions to their logical conclusion, a sinful cleric cannot exercise his ministry, including administering the sacraments. This is a heretical contention from the fourth and fifth centuries, a movement called Donatism, which holds that the validity of sacraments depends upon the worthiness of the priest presiding over the rite. Catholic teaching to this day holds that sacraments are valid exclusive of the defects of the cleric. Wyclif had revived the Donatist sentiment in his disputations and writing, no small thing for a published Oxford professor.
Wyclif’s teachings put him at odds with Church authorities, and Pope Gregory XI issued a condemnation of eighteen errors in his teaching. Not surprisingly, the professor was ably protected by—naturally—civil rulers and princes, such that Wyclif never appeared before a tribunal or saw the inside of a prison cell. Curiously, his views and writings do not seem to have interfered with his work at Oxford, suggesting that his colleagues tacitly shared his critique of Church mores.
Wyclif, unfortunately, would take a valid concern for reform and holiness and run riot with an apocalyptic vision of his age as “the worst of times” compared to his imaginary concept of the purity of the early Church that he drew from the Bible. No historian questions his sincerity, but nearly all agree that he was a poor historian and quite naïve in his thinking and in appreciating the full dimensions of his work upon his contemporaries. In his quest for the “pure age” he began to adopt the concept of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone.” To purify the Church, he argued, all its non-biblical elements must be purged. He worked backward, starting with the institution of the papacy; if a pope was corrupt, believers are not bound to obey him. Monasticism would be castigated for its drift from the ancient discipline of hermitage in the desert. Religious orders, including the Franciscans, were “private religions.” Later he would deny the ranks of Holy Orders themselves as unbiblical.
His greatest mistake was his denial of Transubstantiation, the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Wyclif maintained that this article of faith was non-Biblical. He might be forgiven many things by his Oxford friends and students, but devotion to the Mass and Real Presence was the third rail of personal and communal belief throughout Medieval Europe. Having alienated much of his following, his works fell under closer scrutiny by local bishops without civil intervention, though Wyclif himself continued his studies and writings until his death in 1384. He was the inspiration for the Wyclif Bible, the first translation of the sacred text into English.
In 1428 the bishop of Lincoln exhumed his body and had it burned publicly, an odd gesture of ecclesiastical censure for a man forty years in the grave. What this suggests is that Wyclif’s writings and teachings had an energetic life after his death. His followers came to be known as “Lollards” or “mumblers” (a slang term for heretical mystics). The Lollards continue to intrigue historians, and Madigan comments on the twentieth century debate about the composition and beliefs of the group.
In the 1960’s the Lollards were viewed as something of a social phenomenon, a collection of the disenfranchised poor who saw in Wyclif an agent of social reform. Madigan, writing from a contemporary perspective, states that “contrary to scholarly views expressed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wyclif’s followers were organized, powerful, learned, and linked by common appreciation of Wycliffite theological views and not, as had been argued, by economic or social factors.” (p. 393) Madigan’s description resonates with my Catholic University professor, Dr. Lytle, in his findings during doctoral research, that a strong educated laity was in place to discuss and promulgate theological issues. Although later persecuted, the Lollard movement survived until the Reformation where it morphed into the several reformed churches then developing under Henry VIII.
Wyclif’s England gives us an indication that the Protestant Reformation did not emerge ex nihilo (out of nothing). The span of his lifetime gives evidence to considerable sympathy for Church reform; enthusiasm for a return to the sources of the Church, notably the Bible; civil rulers who resisted various Vatican disciplinary interventions; and a well-versed laity who did not interpret reform as dissent or heresy. Moreover, the interest generated in the Wyclif affair was transported across the Channel and received in parts of the Continent. Around 1400 a Czechoslovakian reformer, Jan Hus, would appear in Eastern Europe, inspired in part by Wyclif’s theology. Hus was burned at the Council of Constance, giving the reform movement the inspiration of a martyr.