It must have been difficult for the priests and congregations of England at the time of the reformation. Clergy must have been frantic with worry. Morale would have been low. For the ecclesiastical and political landscape was changing and none could avoid the choices confronting them, not even those tucked away in tranquil backwaters. Everyone had a choice to make. Either remain faithful to the Catholic church (and face the consequences of ruffling the feathers of the increasingly autonomous establishment), or side with the establishment and accept the new reality of becoming a reformed church in this land.
Doubtless many felt trapped like rabbits in headlights. But in the end this mattered not because indecision, however attractive it may have seemed, was delusional. It ultimately counted as a choice for the establishment- and, over time, those burying heads in the sand simply got swept along with the change and found themselves members of the new protestant reality. You cannot stand still when the landscape is shifting around you.
It was a choice made harder for many in that both the establishment in England and the situation in Rome were far from perfect. England was ruled by a despotic King and Rome embroiled in terrible scandal with corruption at the highest level of power. Few would deny that the papacy was in a dire state. Luther and his ilk clearly had a point but should they be fighting for reform from within or from without?
Not that pure Protestant ideals were driving change in England. Here the bully boy King was spotting tremendous opportunity in the wider chaos of Europe. Seeking marriage despite no annulment, and lusting after the riches of the monasteries, Henry VIII decided to break with Rome to serve his selfish end. A decision with implications we deal with to this day. The Church in England became the Church of England and joined that fractured part of Christ’s body that, lacking defined doctrine and a central authority, would splinter over the following centuries into myriad different pieces. So that today we find literally tens of thousands of autonomous protestant communities, each claiming truth for itself! And now the C of E itself faces fresh schism over various theological matters.
Back to 16th Century England and all this change is bubbling to the surface and the clergy and people are faced with a choice. Stand with the Catholic faith or accept Henry’s audacious bid to replace the pope with himself as head of the church in this land?
History teaches that those who stood with Rome suffered terribly. We might consider the Bishop of Rochester at that time, Saint John Fisher. One of the few who dared defy the King’s hubris, despite a clear understanding of the scandal of the Borgia papacy. (He admits in his own correspondence to Luther, ‘if the Roman Pontiffs, laying aside pomp and haughtiness would but practice humility, you would not have a word left to utter against them’) His fidelity was to the office and not to the man who was the successor of Peter.
‘I fear’, said Fisher whilst locked in the Tower of London, ‘that we be not the men to see the end of this misery.’ How right he was as we continue to live with the pain in this 21st Century. ‘The fort is sadly betrayed,’ he further reflected, ‘by those who should have defended it.’ Fisher acknowledging that most clergy and people ducked the issue in his day thereby allowing the establishment to exert its unbiblical changes. When push came to shove most thought of themselves and their comfort, opting for pensions over truth. These the ones willing to put up with whatever befell them.
For Fisher the decision to stand for the faith of his ancestors cost him dear. He was tortured in the tower and later beheaded. Then his naked decapitated body was exhibited to the public before being dumped without ceremony or prayer within a shallow grave. In every church in the land those who had ducked the issue and imagined that it would not affect them were forced to preach sermons against his criminality. They were also ordered on that same day to scrub the Pope’s name from all their prayer books. A new era had begun and over the following centuries Catholics would find themselves barred from preferment, mocked and derided and many would die a martyr’s death. We might think of Edward Campion, Margaret Clithero and others besides.
Praise God that in 2012 nobody faces such violence anymore. But in many ways we have turned full circle. For within the Church of England are many who claim to be Catholic. And, like their reformation forefathers, they have arrived at a point of clear decision- a choice must be made because the ecclesial landscape is changing before them and standing still is no longer an option. Those before them just about survived in a middle way church, ‘catholic yet reformed’, but now that church is changing and the Catholic ecclesiology being undone…
So will they stand up for Catholicism and unity by joining the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, following in the footsteps of Fisher, Campion, Newman et al? Or else opt to accept whatever befalls them from the Synodical Church of England- with its women bishops et al?
It is a decision that cannot be dodged no matter the backwater one lives in. Either one stands for Catholicism and works for the unity the Pope is offering or one opts to belong to a body that is now universally and globally contradicting Catholic teaching. No matter how much incense one personally uses the situation is clear. The Church of England is manifestly no longer ‘Catholic and Reformed’ but now walks in a liberal, protestant direction.
I wonder how many have taken the time to make the choice facing their future and how many are simply sleepwalking into a new reality as members of an evolving postmodern church?