Anglicanism: A Gift in Christ – Part 2: The Medieval Church

The first night of the Anglicanism course was on the Church’s history and structures and given in five parts. The notes from that talk will be featured in the Newsletter over the next few months. – by David Phillips, chaplain of Holy Trinity Utrecht.  

(see also Part 1: An Ancient Church  and  Part 3: A Reformed Church)  

A Scholarly Church

Medieval stained glass in Yorkminster

One of the characteristics of the Church of England has been and continues to be its high regard for scholarship. Just to give you some sense of the level of scholarship in the Church of England in the Middle Ages, here are a few of the most renowned in the early Medieval period:

Alcuin of York (c. 735 – 804 AD) An English scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria studied the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (which comprised arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time)). These were the divisions of a liberal education in classical learning and the basis of monastic education at that time. Alcuin was invited by Charlemagne to His court in Aachen and arrived in 782 and taught both Charlemagne and his two sons. He played an important role in the Carolingian renaissance. Alcuin is described in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, as “The most learned man anywhere to be found”. He was made Abbot of Tour in 796.

John Scottus Eriugena (circa 815- 887AD)

He is generally recognized to be both the outstanding philosopher (in terms of originality) of the Carolingian era and of the whole period of Latin philosophy stretching from Boethius to Anselm. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]  He was a Greek scholar and so read and translated many of the Greek Fathers, formerly inaccessible to Western (Latin) scholars. You find this continued interest and engagement of Anglican theologians in the writings of both Eastern and Western theologians into the Reformation and to the present. [e.g. in quotations in the Homilies, in the work of Richard Hooker who was heavily influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius.]

There are also famous later medieval theologians:

St Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109 AD). Though born in Italy and wrote his greatest works while a monastic in France, he spent the last 16 years of his life as Archbishop of Canterbury. Martin Thornton, in his book English Spirituality, has said, “In Anselm, there is neither rationalism nor arrogant humanism, but a respect for human reason as the ally of faith and promoter of love…” From Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, “As on the one hand, right order requires that we believe the deep things of the Christian religion before presuming to subject them to the analysis and test of reason, so on the other hand it looks to me like indolent neglect if, already established in the faith, we do not take the trouble to gain an intellectual intimacy with what we believe.” Thornton comments, “If doubts arise in the mind, they are to be calmly faced and resolved as the struggle continues, they are hurdles to be jumped as we progress towards understanding and love. That is truly Anglican, for it is neither “free thought” in the sense that anyone has the right to believe what he likes, nor does it make dogma anything but dogmatic, but it does not impute sin to honest inquiry.”

John Duns, commonly called Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – 8 November 1308), generally believed to have been from Duns, in Berwickshire, Scotland and studied in Oxford, later lectured in Paris and finally Cologne, where he died.  He is generally considered to be one of the three most important philosopher- theologians of the High Middle Ages. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) is, along with Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, among the most prominent figures in the history of philosophy during the High Middle Ages. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]  William is believed to have been born in Ockham in Surrey, England.  He was an English Franciscan friar who studied at Greyfriars in London (a place said to rival Paris and Oxford for theological studies) and Oxford.

The great centres of learning in England and Ireland were at first the great monastic communities.  It was in the later middle ages that Oxford University (11th century) and Cambridge University (13th century) were established.

English popes?

There has only been one English pope to date: Pope Adrian IV (Latin: Adrianus IV; born Nicholas Breakspear; c. 1100 – 1 September 1159) was pope from 4 December 1154 to his death in 1159. He sought ties with and the repair of the break with the Eastern Church. (The only Dutch pope, who had the same name, Adrian VI, from Utrecht, was pope from 1522-23 AD.)

A Mystical Church

Medieval Stained Glass showing St John’s Revelation

The fourteenth century has been described as the Golden Age of English Mysticism, with the most widely known writers and their writings being:

  • Richard Rolle (c. 1300-1349): The Fire of Love. Rolle was a lay hermit from the age of 18 and became an important spiritual counsellor in his day.
  • Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396): The Scale of Perfection.  Hilton spent some time as a hermit and then became an Augustinian priest and canon at Thurgarton Priory.
  • Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love. Julian at age 31 had 16 visions in two days and spent her life reflecting on and finally writing on the meaning of them, she became an anchoress.  In this past century, Julian’s writings have been among the most widely read of the mystics.
  • Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438): The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe was a mother of 14 children! before she and her husband made vows of chastity and then she made many pilgrimages, even as far as the Holy Land, and wrote of her mystical experiences and travel.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing (Anonymous) (latter half of 14th century) The anonymous author of the Cloud was a priest, an interpreter of Dionysian mysticism (he wrote commentaries on the writings of the Greek 6th century writer Dionysius the Areopagite).

The Church of England has been recalling its Benedictine roots with the recovery of monastic vocations and the call to contemplation since the 19th century.  Our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking to a Synod of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome, at the invitation of Pope Benedict, said, To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.  It is a deeply revolutionary matter.  (click here for a link to his full speech (audio and written))

An early call for Radical Reform

As has been said, the Church all over Britain developed in the middle ages under the same learning and influences as the larger Western Church and under the authority of the pope. But popes and kings (not only in Britain) throughout the middle ages struggled with confusions about temporal and spiritual authority. One only needs to read the history of the Norman kings in Sicily to see many clashes between popes and kings.

Throughout the Middle Ages kings were often involved in choosing bishops, popes favoured one Christian monarch over another in battles for power and land. So there was nothing new in the 16th century in the battle between popes and kings over authority.

And among lay people there was an increasing desire for reform of abuses in the practices and teaching of the Church all over Europe.  Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet of the Divine Comedy and theologian, rages, especially in the Paradiso, written in the early 14th century, about the need for reform of the clergy and the abuses in monasteries, of the gluttony and greed of monks and ecclesiastics, of the poor teaching from the pulpits, and of the destructiveness caused by confusions in the exercise of spiritual and temporal powers – arguing for the complete separation of powers between the pope and kings.

Kirkby, Thomas; John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384); Balliol College, University of Oxford;
John Wycliffe, Balliol College Oxford, by Thomas Kirkby

In the mid 14th century in England John Wycliffe (1331-1384 AD) a priest, from Yorkshire, began to advocate publicly for many of the things that were taken up by the 16th century Reformers. He was called by these later Reformers the “Morning Star” of the Reformation. He advocated for:

  • Scripture to be as the ultimate authority in matters of doctrine;
  • He argued there is no biblical support for the papacy;
  • He advocated for the translation of the Bible into the language of the people (he or his disciples translated the whole of the NT into English);
  • argued the dissolution of the monasteries as irredeemably corrupt;
  • Attacked veneration of saints, transubstantiation, requiem

Wycliffe was never excommunicated nor deprived of his living – but died of a stroke suffered while celebrating Mass in 1384. The English King called on him for his opinion on whether the traditional payments to the pope were a religious obligation (he concluded – no, to the king’s great satisfaction!).

His doctrines were condemned posthumously by the Church in 1388, 1397 and at the Council of Constance in 1415 and his writings were banned.  But a group called the Lollards took up Wycliffe’s writings.  The Lollards were condemned by the Church, but they spread Wycliffe’s teaching widely in Britain.  Wycliffe’s writings also inspired the early Czech reformer John Huss (c.1372-1415) and many of Wycliffe’s writings survive only in Czech manuscripts.  Not all of what Wycliffe advocated for became a part of the later English Reformation, but he was an early voice speaking publicly for major reform.

In England the ongoing struggle for reforms to the abuses of power of the Church under the authority of the Pope in Rome came to a head in the 16th century.  Yes, next time we’ll get to Henry the VIII!

(see also Part 1: An Ancient Church  and  Part 3: A Reformed Church)