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

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


The Traditionalists and Conservatives


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 of 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: 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 adopting the nomenclature traditionalist for 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 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 centred 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 spiritual memorialism which, far from being some happy compromise was in fact doctrinally even more extreme theologically,  have long been the focus historical attention. Yet the argument about the nature of 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 doctrinal formulation to express the nature 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.

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 it is easier to let cats out of sack than to herd them into one. Only as their authority waned and doctrine slipped 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 the originality of his religious thinking is much maligned. He was in fact  both a humanist reformer and spiritually traditionalist.  His Catholicism did not belong to the post Tridentine imagination that shaped Catholicism into Roman Catholicism. But Gardiner, Tunstal, Bonner and Thirlby were with others, like Pole, Contarini, Morone, Caraffa part of an intellectual elite of traditionalists whose spiritual imagination was to shape Trent itself.

In 1532 Thomas Cranmer, a protégé of the greater Howard-Boleyn connection,  managed to  pip Gardiner at the post for promotion to vacant see of Canterbury with its notional primacy of the English church. By then, an experienced diplomat,  Gardiner was principal secretary to King Henry and a senior figure on the privy council. Thwarted in his ecclesiastical ambitions he was then also elbowed aside by the equally ambitious Thomas Cromwell. By then he too had watched the fall and ultimate disgrace of his sometime patron Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. A reformer by predisposition Gardiner was also a defender of the traditional place, powers and privileges of the episcopate. Pressed by events, first, he stood his ground before realising the king was not to be denied.

Then, young, ambitious, pragmatically intelligent, and as mesmerised as any by the brutal force of Henry’s charm, Gardiner saw the need to re-think; re-group; and reorganise. Banished from court for standing up for the old order he used his time in Winchester  to re-imagine a new order within the English church. The Henrician Supremacy was not the work of either Cromwell or of Cranmer: it was rather the philosophical child of Stephen Gardiner’s mind. Gardiner’s rhetoric made the doctrine; Gardiner endowed Henry’s Supremacy with intellectual pedigree; Gardiner bestowed upon the Supremacy ecclesiastical legitimacy. It was Gardiner’s concept of the Supremacy that took hold both of Cranmer, Latimer, Scory,  and other proto-evangelicals on the one hand as much as Tunstal, Lee, Stokesley, Clerk, Vesey and the other traditionalists on the other.

Before he was promoted into the relative oblivion of Paris as resident English ambassador in 1536 Bishop Gardiner used his hours in the quiet of the cathedral close in Winchester to pause; to reflect; and then to set out his ideas on paper. The result was to be one of the most significant and influential treatises of the sixteenth century  – De Vere Obedentia. It was that treatise which fired the debate in England about ecclesiastical authority for the next hundred and fifty years. By then of course Gardiner’s name could not be used but it was Gardiner’s thinking that was the inspiration for the doctrine of royal supremacy.

If in the 1950’s  Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was Pope Pius XII’s eminence-grise, de Vere Obedentia made Stephen Gardiner – to employ Henry VIII’s own phrase – the king’s bishop in the mid 1530’s. In chess it’s the king’s bishop that is often used to in an early opening gambit to secure check-mate. And in 1539 and again in 1540 it was Bishop Gardiner who out-manoeuvred, out-thought and outplayed his royal master’s political grand-master, Thomas Cromwell. If understandably the convention of a protestant confessional historical narrative excluded Gardiner from his proper place in the events of the second half of Henry’s reign then G.R. Elton’s elevation of Thomas Cromwell to secular sanctity merely reprised that folly of his initial exclusion. Gardiner is the missing player who alone makes sense of the continuing narrative. It is Gardiner’s exclusion from his central pivotal place which renders the rise and the fall of Thomas Cromwell and the last decade of Henry VIII’s reign inexplicable. After his return from Paris in 1538, once Gardiner is properly recognised as the architect of much of the cut and thrust of factional politics, then it can be seen that those domestic events are caught in the swirl of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military. It is his skill in diplomatic negotiations that Gardiner shows persuasive fluency to greatest effect. He is repeatedly called upon to play a prominent part in these and during his long absences from court domestic and religious policy takes its sharpest twists and turns. If not quire a principal minister Gardiner makes the political weather throughout the 1530’s and 1540’s. He has a grasp of the bigger picture that is beyond administrative genius. Gardiner is more like Wolsey than Cromwell. Wily Winchester as even John Foxe allowed owned both intellectual fluency and political touch. Only with Stephen Gardiner in the picture is there a comprehensible balance to the ebb and flow of events from the 1530’s until his death in 1555.

Co-incidentally there are other similarities between Stephen Gardiner and Alfredo Ottaviani these two leading traditionalists born four hundred years apart. Like Stephen Gardiner, Alfredo Ottaviani was a man of relatively humble origins. Both were able; both well educated; both trained as legists rather than theologians; both cultured;  both difficult and, at times irascible; both capable of great charm; both capable of deep thought; both churchmen and both politicians; both greater in life than the sum of their gifted parts; and both denied their proper place by history.

Alfredo Ottaviani was made a cardinal in 1953 and served initially he served in the Holy Office. He did not in fact receive Episcopal consecration until 1962 from the hands of Pope John XXIII. Later in the 1960’s it was said that Ottaviani had whispered into Pope Pius XII’s ear false rumours about the doctrinal reliability of Pius’s talented assistant secretary of state Monsignor, Giovanni Batista Montini. Consequentially Montini’s career took an unexpected turn. Monsignor Montini was shunted from the closed world of the curia into the Archbishopric of Milan. But Pius XII then resolutely refused to make his new archbishop a cardinal –  a deficiency John XXIII put right within three weeks of his election in 1958.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Ottaviani’s star was in the ascendant in Rome and inside the papal court or curia to give it its Latin name. Ottaviani’s prominence inside both curia and the Holy Office brought to him seniority within the college of cardinals. Ottaviani was cardinal proto-deacon and therefore, alike his later pupil Josef Ratzinger, in 1963 Ottaviani, was to be responsible for organising the conclave and presiding over the vote counting in the Sistine chapel. These were the functions he duly carried out on the death of Pope John XXIII.  Unlike Ratzinger in 2006, in 1963 Ottaviani lost out to the favourite Cardinal Archbishop Montini, the former mere monsignor whom he had pushed aside. In the high summer of that year it fell to  Cardinal Ottaviani both to announce the election of Paul VI and subsequently to crown his erstwhile rival with the triple tiara. It was said Ottaviani sardonically observed of Paul VI’s boldly modernist tiara –  made especially in Milan by Italian car-workers –  that it was ‘fiat’ without ‘voluntas tua’.

From the outset there had been a rivalry between Montini and Ottaviani who were the brightest of their generation and at first that rivalry was probably friendly. However, after the Second Vatican Council the rivalry became more than personal as it also became principled and doctrinal. This sharp conflict between two able principles echoed that between equally sharp rivalry between Thomas Cranmer and  Stephen Gardiner. It is probable that all such rivalries between ecclesiastics; scholars; and churchmen are cut from a similar cloth.

In 1547 Stephen Gardiner  presided over the final obsequies and the burial of Henry VIII next to his third wife Jane Seymour as dean of St George’s chapel in Windsor and dean of the Noble Order of the Garter, offices usually part of the patrimony of the bishops of Winchester. Gardiner also sang the dirige and the solemn requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral for the old king. It was, unexpectedly, a role he was destined to reprise in the Tower 1553 for Edward VI.  However, in 1547, like Ottaviani in 1963, Stephen Gardiner lost out on the main prize –  in his case to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – who presided over Edward VI’s coronation –  the only English sovereign crowned both king and Supreme Head of the church. It the sermon at this coronation service Archbishop Thomas Cranmer took the royal supremacy to a doctrinal place beyond even the Infallibility later claimed by the papacy in 1870.

It was a doctrine with fateful consequences both for Cranmer and for the English church.

In 1549, asserting the omnicompetence of the Edwardine Supremacy, Protector Somerset’s Privy Council promulgated a new order of the mass in Thomas Cranmer’s (First) Book of Common Prayer. Stephen Gardiner was appalled by and vigorously opposed the new rite of the Prayer Book although eventually he accepted the new rite was ‘conformable’ to his ‘conscience’. Gardiner’s willingness to swallow the deliberate ambiguities Cranmer devised in the First Prayer Book drove demands from the religious radicals around the king to commission a second Prayer Book – one whose tone and doctrine was to be unmistakably evangelical and reformed,  beyond even simple Calvinism. And lest there was any ambiguity left this Second Prayer Book was followed by the promulgation of a Second Act of Uniformity and Forty Two Articles of Religion. With hindsight the traditionalists saw clearly where the occluded nature of secular authority over the church’s doctrine led. On the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 when once again they were asked again to follow their lawful sovereign into the same schism, to a man, they refused.

In 1549 and 1550 Bishop Gardiner’s refusal to accept these innovations; his refusal to sign off a deposition denying the Real Presence in the Sacrament; and his outright rejection of the validity of the Edwardine Ordinal provided his many enemies with the pretext for his deprivation and his replacement with the radical evangelical and popular court preacher, John Ponet. Gardiner’s beloved cathedral of Winchester fell into the hands of a devout iconoclast. It hurt Gardiner enormously. He never lived to see its interior fully restored, though he did conduct probably the greatest single wedding in English history in its ancient walls in 1554.

To draw one final parallel it was Alfredo Ottaviani who wrote an (in)famous letter to Pope Paul on 25th September 1969 challenging the orthodoxy of the normative rite and asking for  permission for the simultaneous continuance of Tridentine rite. Pope Paul VI refused his request – though Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) has recently effectively granted the licence his predecessor refused. In the end Ottaviani remained  firmly traditionalist and accepted the new Roman Missal as he continued to uphold the Supremacy of the pope. But he was a spent force. In 1978 though yet a cardinal because of the changes Pope Paul had made to the procedures for a conclave, Cardinal Ottaviani played no part in the election of either of Paul VI’s successors – because he was by then over 80. His career ended therefore in an apparent failure. Only later with the emergence of Cardinal Ratzinger did Ottaviani’s doctrinal positions become once more mainstream.

Gardiner too tasted the bitters of failure. He was wounded by his apparent irrelevance in Edward VI’s reign. But he used prison to craft, as we shall see, something intellectually coherent and  doctrinally compelling. But unlike Alfredo Ottaviani, Stephen Gardiner lived into an Indian summer of power and influence. He was Lord Chancellor in Mary’s reign and when he died in 1555 his funeral was one of greatest public occasions of the sixteenth century – though perhaps it was his moving sermon at Paul’s Cross to tens of thousands of Londoners who knelt reverently to receive his absolution; a plenary indulgence and, a papal blessing, on 2nd December 1554, which was, for him, the crowning achievement of a long career in service to the church and to the crown. Like Wolsey he must at times felt he had served one of these masters too well; but unlike Wolsey,  Gardiner was to live to at least attempt to reset the balance.

These parallels serve to illustrate the working distinction between a traditionalist and a conservative. It does not imply that the events of the 1960’s and the 1530’s can simply be annexed as two sides of one coin. But like all parallels in history they can serve to illustrate how patterns of behaviours recur in similar situations.

In the aftermath of the new missal in the 1960’s the divisions in the Roman church between progressives and traditionalists became ever more acute. The progressive march had already been effectively halted by Humane Vitae – the 1968 encyclical in which Paul VI rejected the advice of his own commission and in which the pope restated the Church’s opposition to every form of contraception. But the progressive cause championed by those like Cardinal Bea and Professor Hans Kung pressed on for more concessions and in the areas of liturgy and, some say, doctrine, and here they generally pressed successfully.

The traditionalists continued to fight their corner but for some compromises with the new mass and its missal were anathema and they then joined the conservative faction. The term conservative was then reserved for those who held grave doubts about the teachings of the Second Vatican Council  itself  – whose 50th anniversary is coincidentally being celebrated this year.  But the conservative cause eventually at its extreme became embodied in the person of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) at the Seminary of Écône. These conservative zealots were excommunicated in the 1980’s but, as with much of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy they are now marvellously restored. Although The Vatican and Pope Benedict subsequently were appalled to find they were also holocaust deniers.

In the 1540’s and 1550’s we do indeed see similar patterns of religious division playing out to more defined and more absolute positions on both sides. But is isn’t the superficial similarities that interest- quite the opposite – in the 1540’s it was to be the traditionalists bishops in England who struck out a new and original position – one that was denigrated by reformers at the time –  and one whose significance has been played-down by most historians since. But it is one that strangely helped both to shape doctrine, particularly of Roman Catholicism, in the lead up to its defining moment – the third session of the Council of Trent; and simultaneously, it also set precedents for legitimate legal minority dissent – which given England’s future history were to prove precedents of no small matter.




One Response to 2. A Real Presence – The Traditionalists & the Eucharistic debate in the English Reformation

  1. Pingback: Traditionalists & Conservatives, today and yesterday | John Murphy