Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
Most Anglicans take it for granted that their ancestors deliberately left the Catholic Church on account of its corruptions. They are much mistaken. In England, as in most other lands, the people were driven into the Reformation by fines, imprisonments, terrorism, the rack, the scaffold, and foreign soldiers; all this process was promoted by slanders, misunderstandings and all manners of deplorable deceptions. Look at the facts of history.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, the faith of the English people was still the same that it had been for nearly a thousand years, ever since St. Austin, with his monks, had brought it to them from Rome. True, the Pope was no longer acknowledged by the party in power to be the spiritual head of the Church in the realm; the King had usurped his place. But the people generally clung to the ancient doctrine as firmly as ever. Lingard writes:
To dispel these prejudices, Henry issued injunctions that the very name 'Pope' should be carefully erased out of all books employed in the public worship; that every schoolmaster should diligently inculcate the new doctrine on the children entrusted to his care; that all clergymen, from the bishop to the curate, should on every Sunday and holiday teach that the King was the true head of the Church, and that the authority hitherto exercised by the Popes was a usurpation, tamely submitted to by the carelessness or timidity of his predecessors; and the sheriffs in each county should keep a vigilant eye over the conduct of the clergy, and should report to the council the names, not only of those who might neglect these duties, but also of those who might perform them in deed, but with coldness and indifference.
A general espionage was organized to suppress all murmurings. Many priests and laymen were punished with death for resistance to this tyranny. In the north of England, the opposition was so vigorous as to lead to a succession of rebellions; but the Duke of Norfolk, with the aid of disciplined troops, put down the unorganized multitude.
When open opposition was suppressed, and the citizens were cowed by terror, the King drew up a brief summary of religious faith in six articles, the Bloody Six, as even Froude calls them, because those who denied any of them were burned at the stake. The Catholics who refused to take the oath of Henry's supremacy in spiritual matters were hanged and quartered. There was no free choice in those days in any country that is now Protestant.
After Henry's death, his son, Edward VI, a boy of nine years, succeeded him, with the Duke of Somerset as temporal and Cranmer as spiritual ruler during the minority. The latter had been till then a Protestant in secret; he now threw off the mask and imposed the Reformed doctrines on the realm. At his discretion, one law after another was enacted by parliament to change the religion of the people. The celibacy of the clergy was abolished. The Mass was at first retained "until a better order of service could be devised;" but Communion under both kinds was enjoined. The election of bishops was withdrawn from the deans and chapters and vested wholly in the crown. The Book of Common Prayer was completed and adopted by parliament in 1549, as having been "dictated by the aid of the Holy Ghost." All beneficed clergymen had to subscribe to this decree and use the new service instead of Holy Mass. The Six Articles of Henry were suppressed, and forty-two others substituted for them.
In all this change of religion, the people had no choice, nor the clergy either. Bishop Gardiner objected vigorously, saying we should obey God rather than man; he was sent to the Tower. The people rose in rebellion throughout the kingdom, but they were crushed with the aid of foreign troops. The Protestant historian Hallam writes:
The common people looked to their own teachers as guides in faith, and the main body of clergy were certainly very reluctant to tear themselves, at the pleasure of a disappointed monarch, in the most dangerous crisis of religion, from the bosom of Catholic unity.
This is a somewhat humiliating admission, that the Protestant faith was imposed upon our ancestors by a foreign army.
Edward died young, July 6, 1553. But his death was first kept secret till another Protestant could have been installed in his stead. Happily Mary, the legitimate heir, was notified by the Earl of Arundel. She at once unfurled her banner and the country rallied to her support. She who was dubbed by her enemies "Bloody Mary" spared Cranmer and other leaders of the plot for nearly two years before she consented to sign their death warrant; many she pardoned entirely. It was only after Wyatt's rebellion that she adopted really severe measures against the restless rebels who plotted for the restoration of Protestantism. In this, she followed the bad example of her enemies, of whom Hallam writes:
Persecution is the deadly sin of the Reformed churches, that which cools every honest man's zeal for their cause in proportion as his reading becomes more extensive.
Nearly the whole of English literature for three hundred years was a conspiracy to hide this truth.
Of course, Mary restored the Catholic religion, which was still that of eleven-twelfths of her subjects. She reinstated the Catholic bishops who had remained faithful; the married bishops and clergy retired or were removed. Cranmer had purposely so changed the forms of ordination for priests and consecration for bishops as to make these sacred Orders invalid. Of the men thus ordained, some were ordained anew in the proper manner, others retired among the laity, where they belonged.
|Elizabeth I of England|
The greatest difficulty in the way of reunion with Rome was the large number of influential men who had fattened on the Church property. Bishop Gardiner, Mary's lord chancellor, obtained from the supreme Pontiff leave for them to retain spoils; it was like throwing the cargo overboard to save the ship. Cardinal Pole, of the royal blood of England, was sent to his native country from Rome as legate of the Pope; everything was done that conscience allowed to restore peace to all. The entire nation was solemnly absolved in parliament of all censures incurred under Henry's and Edward's reign. Unfortunately for all concerned, Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by Elizabeth, who had become a Catholic and had sworn to the sincerity of her conversion. But finding that the Pope would not acknowledge her legitimacy, she determined to follow her father's example and make herself the head of Church and state. She took up the Reformed doctrines as a matter of state policy, and by forty-four years of persecution she forced Protestantism on the English people.
She chose William Cecil as the principal instrument of her tyranny. The plan he devised was this: to forbid all Catholic sermons, to terrorize the clergy, to make them odious to the laity, to remove obnoxious magistrates, to restore the Edwardine liturgy, and to do all this cautiously under various false pretenses. He packed a new parliament, lords and commons, at the opening of which the Queen assumed the imperious tone of her father, stating she would do what she thought best, but would prefer to have their assent rather than to act without it. Next, she forced the parliament to abolish the Catholic religion. The convocation of the clergy and the faculties of the two great universities entered a vigorous protest against this apostasy. Thereupon, the two most influential bishops were sent to the Tower. The rest, though terrorized, did not yield, but their protest was simply ignored. All the acts of Henry and Edward abolished under Mary were re-enacted. The new worship was enforced under penalty of fines, confiscations and death. Under Henry, the articles to be believed were six; under Edward, these were abolished and forty-two others were put instead; under Elizabeth, there were thirty-nine, which remain to this day. They are sworn to by every Anglican clergyman in England; but half of these ministers do not believe in them. Only one bishop consented to take the oath required, that he might keep his see; all the others were deposed, many of them imprisoned. So many of the lower clergy withdrew that laymen, mostly mechanics, had to be employed in some places to read the service. Priests who said Mass in secret were hunted like wolves, and when found they were hanged, disemboweled while still alive, and their limbs exposed in public placed. The faithful who harbored them or who assisted them at Holy Mass were imprisoned and tortured to make them betray their friends. By such persecutions, continued under several reigns, Protestantism was gradually propagated among the English people. Once separated from Rome, private judgment gradually divided the nation into countless sects.