Traditionalists & Conservatives, today and yesterday

A Real Presence – The Traditionalists & the Eucharistic debate in the English Reformation

The abdication of Benedict XVI is a perfect moment to examine the meaning we attach to the notions of traditionalist and conservative in the history of religion. For in mistaking one for the other we often overlook profound truths about events and thereby about ourselves.


The last fifty years has been fruitfully filled by scholarly revisionism. Reformation studies have been enriched by a new spirit of less confessional enquiry. History has been liberated from the ‘confessional’ straight-jacket.  Yet, allowing for all this; allowing for the reassessment of Thomas Cranmer; allowing for the heroism of say Nicholas Ridley and John Hooper or say, Thomas More and John Fisher; even allowing for the rehabilitation of Mary I and her government; allowing for the remarkably clearer understanding gained of the swirl of factions and events that is the story of the last fifteen years of the reign of Henry VIII – largely as a consequence of court studies inspired by Starkey’s seminal work on the privy chamber; and allowing equally for the more subtle perceptions we have of Edward VI and of his reign – still two things stand pretty much unchallenged in standard histories: the mythic glory attributed to the person and policy of Elizabeth I; and the patronising contempt History bestows on the conservative bishops – or as I, in the early 1970’s and, perhaps originally, denominated them – the traditionalist bishops – who made up the larger part of the English episcopate before 1559.

The term employed traditionalist was not meant to serve as surrogate for conservative. For much as John Fisher the bishop of Rochester was catholic and conservative, it might be said  Bishop Thomas Goodrich of Ely, Edward VI’s Lord Chancellor, was reformed and conservative.

Rather, the term traditionalist was borrowed from the turmoil raging in the Roman Catholic Church from the late 1960’s in the aftermath of the promulgation of the new Roman Missal by Pope Paul VI. The normative rite had reignited a fierce debate over the true nature of the Mass and the nature of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The traditionalists were inspired by the vigorous leadership of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani whom many thought of as Pope Pius XII’s preferred choice for his successor.  These traditionalists accepted the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council but they strongly argued that the Novus Ordo Missae and other doctrinal eliding that took hold of the church’s liturgy and practice went well beyond anything the council had envisaged or licensed.

Thus, implicit in the adoption of the nomenclature traditionalist to describe the English bishops of the mid sixteenth century, was the parallel between their position in the 1530’s and that of the curial bishops in the 1960’s. For they, like their later traditionalist successors in the 1960’s, had accepted the principle of the revolution – in their case the royal Supremacy – but did not accept nor see as inevitable, the doctrinal, liturgical and institutional changes that followed in its wake. Indeed, the traditionalist bishops in the 1530’s would not have accepted the two were necessarily were linked. That was for a good reason for, despite what history has made of them and their theology, the majority of them were ecclesiastical reformers in the Erasmian sense (or even in the sense of ‘Catholic reformation’ championed by Pierre Janelle). This, once again, is a shared intellectual position with the traditionalist bishops of the 1960’s many of whom including Ottaviani and young Josef Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) were favourable to institutional reform.

As in the 1960’s so in the 1530’s it was not the question of authority and governance of the church which drew these traditionalists away from the reforming agenda it was rather the attacks upon the practice of worship. Their fight in both instances centered upon the Mass. The Mass; its merit; its meaning and its nature were the issues which defined these traditionalist bishops separated by four centuries.

Historians have focused on the narrower doctrine of the real presence in the bread and wine. Aquinas’s doctrine of transubstantiation; Luther’s consubstantiation; Zwingli’s memorialism; Calvin’s notion of real spiritual presence and Cranmer’s real-spiritual-memorialism which, far from being some happy compromise was in fact a more extreme theological proposition, have long been the focus historical attention.  However, this debate on the real presence was always subsidiary to this wider debate about the nature of the mass. It was to this wider debate as well as the narrower nature of the meaning of the real presence in the bread and wine, to which these traditionalist English bishops made a crucial contribution in 1540’s and early 1550’s. It is a contribution both sides of the confessional divide have refused to acknowledge and which, until it finds its proper place in our understanding of events, will prevent a clear understanding of both the reformation and consequently distort the true political narrative history of the sixteenth century.

In the aftermath of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn the bishops in the 1530’s were supine; passive and leaderless, for, at first,  they did not clearly see they needed any leader beyond their king. For,  all that Henry VIII’s spiritual heart no longer seemed quite to be in the right place, the king had owned a long history of almost blameless orthodoxy. The English church and its bishops assumed, that having granted the king his divorce on his royal terms; and the succession settled, that  matters spiritual and temporal would in their turn return to the status-quo-ante. Only gradually did it become apparent that it is easier to let cats out of a sack than to herd them into one. Only as their authority waned and doctrine also slipped its anchor did these traditionalist bishops come to see the need to find an authentic voice to speak truth to power.

They coalesced around a man of rare gifts and rare skills, Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester. Gardiner was the most able young scholar of his generation. He was a canon lawyer but had more to him than purely a lawyer’s training. Gardiner’s intellect and…..continued here….


This entry was posted in History and related subjects. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.