Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Assumption Behind the English Reformation

Whenever I read about the English Reformation (as I did today), I'm struck by a particular thought, one that's possibly so obvious nobody ever comments on it. This is it;  that the great mistake of the English Reformation was to assume Christianity would remain the national religion of England.

In the sixteenth century, presumably, it was unthinkable that large numbers of English people would become Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or cease to practice any religion at all.

The architects of the English Reformation seemed to think doctrine and dogma were not very important, because custom and practice could stand in their place. Geography trumped theology. The Church of England was the church of the English people, and fussing over articles of faith was irrelevant.

Well, the vast edifice of vicarages, rectories, parsonages, and all the other quaint terms familiar from M.R. James and Anthony Trollope stories has now become a thing of the past. Bricks and mortar, tradition and custom, these things pass like a dream. Doctrine endures-- if it's built solidly to begin with.

Pragmatism in religion is the least pragmatic thing in the world,  in the long run. Dogma and doctrine is much more hard-headed than settlements and compromise and "the spirit of the law".

This, to me, is one of the great virtues of the Catholic faith. It assumes so little. We recite the Creed every Sunday, including the awkward word 'consubstantial', because it is not taken as read. The basic requirements of the Faith are so minimal (but so clear-cut) because it has to be capable of transplantation into any culture, any situation. Catholicism can be a persecuted minority religion or the established religion. It is truly univeral.


  1. I think that this is an unfair characterisation of Anglicanism. The CoE has plenty of articles of faith: its failure in the modern world is because it has compromised on those principles. For most of its history it was far more uncompromising on divorce and scorned RC casuistry about annulments like those granted to Evelyn Waugh.

    It might surprise you to know that the Creed is recited in every 1662 service, every week at the church to which I go!

    The General Confession is quite penitential:

    ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  2. I didn't mean to be hard on Anglicanism. It may be the case that there is more doctrine in it than I realize. I knew that about divorce and always found it rather odd. Thank you for the General Confession. I can imagine Peter Hitchens reciting it with relish!

    1. I've written more sympathetically about the Church of England elsewhere:

  3. If you want to see why I am an Anglican and why it has so much force for some Englishmen, then please do listen to this:

    It's the same precise service that I go to every week, with the same liturgy and much the same sort of music, though not in Oxford. You can follow it with the Prayer Book here:

    It is very beautiful. It might be presumptuous, but I would be fascinate to see your thoughts on it from an Irish Catholic perspective.

    1. Not presumptuous at all. I'll have a look at it...many thanks for linking me to it.

    2. I have to admit it does nothing for me! Which is a fault in me, undoubtedly. I don't really like gorgeousness or elaborateness in the liturgy, I prefer it to be simple and plain. In this I am at variance with most of the Catholics with whom I agree on other things. They are mostly Traditionalists.

    3. You are a perverse Papist, sir! Have you ever considered Crossing the Bann to the the Free Prebyterians!?!?

      Many thanks for listening. IMO, it is much more beautiful than most RC services, though I do have an attraction to the Latin Mass.