06 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (1) John Wycliffe & the English Bible

This is is the first in a series of brief articles on the history of Anglicanism.

One of the challenges of presenting a series on “Our Anglican Heritage” is where to begin. For a start, we need to recognize that the word “Anglican” really means “English”. Thus to speak of “our Anglican heritage” is to a great degree to speak about a tradition which has come to us from England. We could begin, then, by tracing that heritage back to the origins of Christianity on the British Isles, past Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to men like Ninian and Patrick, Aidan and Brendan, intrepid missionaries who brought the good news of Christ to the Celtic people. There are even legends that seek to trace those origins all the way to the Apostle Paul or Joseph of Arimathea.

However, we shall skip over a thousand years or more of history to the fourteenth century, to a priest and scholar named John Wycliffe (d. 1384). Little is known about the man himself. Stephen Neill writes of him as “a bitter, angry and disappointed man, with a harsh and narrow mind”. A.G. Dickens reflects,

The man himself remains in some respects a mystery; we know so much of his thought, so little of his thoughts, so little of the inner sources of his radicalism. An obstinate North-Country mind endowed with the subtleties of the Oxford schools; a combination of disappointed careerist, temperamental rebel, sincere reformer of immense moral courage; all these and yet further complexities seem to dwell side by side.

Wycliffe has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, and for good reason. He is best known for his translation of the Scriptures, although exactly how much Wycliffe himself rendered into the earthy English of his day is not certain. What was for certain was Wycliffe’s recognition of the Bible as the one sure basis for the church’s teaching and of the need to bring it into the hands of the common people. He also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the mediæval teaching that Christ is physically present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion) but spoke of Christ being present “sacramentally, spiritually and virtually”. He also questioned the supremacy of the pope, spoke against the celibacy of clergy and advocated the disendowment of the church, which had become rich and decadent. “Perhaps the only major doctrine of the sixteenth-century Reformers which Wycliffe cannot be said to have anticipated was that of Justification by Faith Alone.”

John Wycliffe died in relative obscurity, but his teachings were perpetuated by a group that came to be known as “Lollards”. The word is a derisive Middle Dutch term meaning “mutterer” or “mumbler”. In spite of hot persecution, the Lollard movement grew rapidly through the first quarter of the fifteenth century and seems to have remained a force to be reckoned with, though largely underground, right to the time of the Reformation.

No comments: