Mass Observations: Stephen Gardiner & the Eucharistic Debate
Once the regular clergy and chantry priests were stripped of office and from the clerical estate; once images, statues, rood screens and side-altars were stripped from the churches; the Christocentric nature of Renaissance Humanism came clearly into focus. The old protagonists Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishop Stephen Gardiner responded in a different ways to the sharpened perspective.
Cranmer’s reconsiderations of his considered doctrinal positions set him on a
fresh course; he steered away from Luther’s beliefs. He used Calvin’s Institutes to inform a thoroughgoing reappraisal of dogma and doctrine based upon the sole authority of Scripture, freshly revealed in its original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, whilst all the time holding ever more firmly to the Supremacy as defined by his sometime rival Bishop Gardiner. Cranmer’s theology turned inwards; hide-bound to words in the narrow, refined, defined sense. In a odd way Cranmer became more like the despised canon lawyer but instead of trifling over words in briefs and dispensations; he worried over precise meanings of a phrase in Greek. His notion of justification and salvation became more like Calvin’s. By the time he wrote the Forty Two Articles in 1553 Cranmer’s Christianity was at least as committed to Predestination as Calvin’s and his Eucharistic theology had moved beyond Calvin’s notion of Real Spiritual Presence towards Zwinglian memorialism augmented by the notion of feeding on the communion bread with faith-in-your-heart.
The voyage of discovery taken by humanist reformers sympathetic towards Luther after 1517 had circumnavigated a wide world of Christian belief. Their journey discovered new meanings in the original languages of the books of the Old and New Testaments; they looked afresh at what they took to be the forgotten country of the Early Church; they looked to its practices and ritual for authentic signs of Christian simplicity; they derided errors of translation in the Vulgate of St Jerome; they dismissed the ideas of Aquinas; they denounced all later doctrinal accretions attributed to scholasticism. In the 1540’s; amongst the reformers, in England and elsewhere; in the aftermath of the Supremacy and dissolutions; in the light of the vernacular bible and Calvin’s Institutes; as a vernacular liturgy became the objective of the English reformers, the Eucharist became once more salient.
Gardiner similarly found himself hedged by the same Supremacy he had elevated over all other authority but he increasingly perceived the battle for the traditionalists would be one of practice and doctrine, particularly those practices and doctrines surrounding the Real Presence; and the meaning of the Eucharist, the ritual role of Holy Communion, and the nature of the Mass itself. It is important to note Gardiner’s ‘Humanist’ faith wss, like all the reformers, highly Christocentric: it is focused upon Calvary; focused on Christ as saviour; focused upon the divine nature of Jesus; focused therefore on the Mass, Holy Communion and the Eucharistic Real Presence. But, as for Cranmer, Gardiner’s religious beliefs were not settled. Like Cranmer, Gardiner was on a journey. And, as for Cranmer, it was in the 1540’s that Gardiner took a decisive new direction.
After Cromwell’s execution, the vague doctrinal imprimatur of the Act of Six Articles was stamped over the Henrician church. In 1543, again by means of a published formulary, the English church once again set out its doctrine. The King’s Book once again focused much upon obedience and magisterial authority. Its catechetic avoided controversy and what it said about doctrine echoed the ambivalent pseudo-traditionalism of the Six Articles:
Fourthly, by this bread, which we be taught to ask in this petition, may be understand the holy sacrament of the altar, the very flesh and blood of our Saviour Jesu Christ, as it is written in the sixth chapter of St. John, I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. And the bread which I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. And in this prayer we desire that the same may be purely ministered and distributed, to the comfort and benefit of all us the true children of God; and that we also may receive the same with a right faith and perfect charity at all times when we do and ought to receive the same, so that we may be spiritually fed therewith to our salvation, and thereby enjoy the life everlasting. (The King’s Book – the Our Father.)
Gardiner and Cranmer composed the book between them. It was replete with inelegant ambiguities suggestive of composition by committee. The King’s Book purported to be the last word on issues of contrariness. This book bore the king’s title; it was presented to his subjects as the royal final word on the subject of doctrine; the king expected to be heard in deferential silence; as always he expected to be silently obeyed. However, there was not silence from any side and least from the side where Henry’s right-hand-man, Bishop Gardiner, stood.
The Detection of the Devil’s sophistry was the last in a sequence of compositions Gardiner fired-off between the summer of 1545 and the summer of 1546 – which given the bishop’s extensive travel as a semi-permanent roaming ambassador and his active role in business at home as much as abroad – is quite remarkable in itself. Gardiner wrote persuasively: writing first against Bucer on clerical marriage; then against William Turner and later James Joye on justification and predestination. Gardiner rejected Calvin at every turn, never sparing the evangelicals the scourge of his rhetorical invective; and finally Gardiner in his treatise against Joye turned his full attention to the Real Presence.
The force of the logic in Gardiner’s arguments builds from tract to tract. It is as if, once again, that it was in the process of composition that he clarified his own thinking as much as he was rebutting the thinking of the reformers. Gardiner employed all the linguistic flourishes of the Humanist scholarship; the devices of rhetoric he had long ago mastered in Trinity Hall; and the sinuous craft of the canon lawyer as he used a proof in one argument to unpick the logic in another. It is easy to see why he so infuriated his opponents. But there is much more than cleverness in these works. Gardiner’s writing is shot through with passion. At times his fervour is deeply moving. As he writes the reader can feel him being moved by the force of his own argument. This is a man rediscovering his faith.
With the rhetoric, there is hard reflection on the compromises to which he has been party; a sense that he is starting to resile from the doctrinal ambiguities which he now sees only succeed in feeding the reformers’ appetites for further change. Inevitably, once Gardiner had spoken-out in this manner he drew return fire; each subsequent engagement between reformers and traditionalists became more personal in character; each riposte concentrated more upon the narrow field of the Mass and its multiple meanings. From the middle-ground of reason, high ground where Henry VIII saw himself fully in command, the king could also see his own bishop in a new and unflattering light; and in light of what he saw he disowned the man who had given full expression to his Supremacy.
From this same battleground, where Gardiner had decided to fight for his beliefs, the sensibility of Protestant and Roman Catholic was destined to finally emerge. Battle joined, sixteenth century Christians were to fight each other over this sacred ground; they fought until none was left standing; their descendants fought-on over the same sacred ground for another four centuries. The cut and thrust of rapier-tongues between these Humanists scholars became a war of intellectual nihilism. It redefined Christianity; it redefined Europe; it defined the world into the twentieth century.
In the end it had all come back to the Mass. In practice, the subsidiary devotions; the use of indulgences (and their perceived abuse); the role of saints and intercessions; the proper place of the Virgin Mary; the nature of sacraments and sacramental theology; the nature of the clergy and clerical authority; the nature of all these appurtenances of medieval religion; all of them turned upon the Mass. The Mass had defined mediaeval Christianity; as it had then defined the Reformation; finally it was also to define the culture of the Counter Reformation. Therefore, historians must follow Cranmer and Gardiner into the detail of this great debate.
In order to explain the Reformation; the course of the revolution triggered by Luther; the Protestant exegesis of Calvin and others; the Catholic reaction; and the efflorescence of counter-belief inspired by the new orders; the Jesuits; and ultimately Trent; historians need to grasp that the entire complex of argument and counter claim in reality turned upon the meaning of the Mass. And beneath the long history of that single act of worship there was then located, and is still, a more ancient fault line between the Johannine and Jacobine; and the Pauline traditions in Christianity.
Traditional History teaches us that as Thomas Cranmer was an inclusive, gentle, saintly figure – perhaps intellectually agonised but ultimately scholarly and deeply religious; Gardiner was the opposite: divisive; querulous; irascible; more politique than cleric; a man for spiritual forms rather than religious depths. Cranmer’s most recent biographer, Diarmaid McCulloch gives a compelling account both men; at once more nuanced; at once, like we all are, more complicated.
Gardiner and Cranmer fought sometimes like two hostile academics, giving no quarter; sometimes, like husband and wife, goading with prods to old scars; sometimes like enemies newly wrought from old friends, with irrational hatred.
McCulloch’s magisterial account of Cranmer’s Eucharistic theology ranges across the archbishop’s principal writings in the 1540’s and makes a persuasive case for more interior doctrinal continuity between the two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, at the very least in Cranmer’s mind, than history has allowed Cranmer’s words to express. If that is the case then like many a doctrinal theologian Cranmer was not a liturgist – for after both Prayer Books it was what was seen that mattered more than what was said; for what was seen impacted on the catholic faithful in the 1540’s. Much in the same way as after the Novo Ordo Missae in 1969, it was what was seen as much as what was said that impacted upon the catholic faithful in the 1970’s.
Liturgy communicates on many differing levels; oftentimes saying more than all the of readings from Scripture and sermons convey in their tumble of words. Indeed we know this was well understood at the time for the Third Session of Trent whilst acknowledging the utility of vernacular liturgy rejected it precisely because of what it would appear to convey to the generality of the faithful about the nature of the Mass:
Though the mass contains much instruction for the faithful, it has, nevertheless, not been deemed advisable by the Fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere in the vernacular tongue. …..the holy council commands pastors…..all who have the cura animarum that they…. explain frequently during the celebration of the mass some of the things read during the mass, and that among other things they explain some mystery of this most holy sacrifice, especially on Sundays and festival days….(Session XXII c. VIII).
Thus understanding the Mass was always more than a matter of formal literacy, for liturgy, of all forms of worship, is an assembly of sensory experiences: the old Mass pleased the eye; delighted the ear; teased the nose; and with its blessings and rituals gestures which were echoed by the actions of the faithful, it even enlivened touch. This form of worship was not the passive act of gazing at the consecrated elements at the elevation; it was a theatre of religion. By the sixteenth century its ritual form was already augmented by the stage entertainment of the sermon – with all its rhetorical flourishes and grandstanding oratory.
The Reformers in the 1540’s (and 1960’s) liked to portray the ‘old style’ worship as inert: idolatrous in outer forms; fussy; unlearned in content; and missing vital connection with Scripture. The opinions of the faithful were never canvassed. There is little evidence beyond the partisan denunciations of the parti pris that the laity shared these views. Quite the opposite: the sheer speed and force of the restoration of the mass in the late summer of 1553 after Mary’s accession speaks to a broad general opinion that was disdainful of the new rites; if not actually hostile to them.
Before we can engage with Gardiner in the perplexing detail of this debate on the Mass; the Real Presence; and Eucharistic theology; and, as the history of Christian church will turn on the choppy narrows of this detail, some broader general context may help better to inform the twists and turns of the detailed arguments.
Heavenly bodies observed from historical distance:
First, from today’s perspective, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and informed by the parallel dilution of most Protestant practice, the aerie doctrinal distinctions of the Reformation may seem not only incomprehensible; or, unintelligible; but also to be less than important to any beyond perhaps the pulpit; the marble halls of the Roman curia; or ivory towers of Academe.
Yet when these dividing lines were first drawn almost half a millennium ago this was clearly not the case; and as little as fifty years ago it still was not the case. Reverend Ian Paisley scandalised a TV studio audience in the early 1960’s by taking out what he claimed was a consecrated host and stamping on it with his foot whilst he roundly declared it was nothing of Jesus Christ; it was nothing more than bread. When Queen Elizabeth I first visited Cambridge in the 1560’s a group of University scholars entertained her with a play wherein a dog was used to carry a host in his mouth to make a similar point. Canine comedy did not amuse the queen then, anymore than Paisley’s antics amused four hundred years later. Yet both these excesses of bad taste serve to underline the deeply held conviction that once surrounded this central act of Christian worship.
The historian of the sixteenth century must therefore take considerable trouble to understand the nature of the Eucharistic debate; not merely for the sakes of better understanding those on both sides of the confessional divide; but better to comprehend the overwhelming force unleashed by any such religious fission. English historians understandably have generally spent more effort explaining the doctrinal innovations of the reformers than the theology of the English traditionalists.
Generally, and with considerable consequence for church history, catholic orthodoxy was refracted through the prism of the Council of Trent. The canons of the council whose three sessions were separated by a quarter of century provided a doctrinal litmus paper. They found clarity of expression in the Roman Catechism (1566); the Roman Breviary (1568) and Roman Missal (1570). These definitions subsequently were read back into the Reformation debates, implying the settled Roman Catholic position has always existed prior to the 1560’s. It was never that simple. But, as with so much else in the sixteenth century, the authorised versions of events often differ widely from events themselves. Myth-making on both sides of the confessional divide became part and parcel of ‘propaganda fide’ – of which Elizabeth’s ‘Golden Age’ is as much a product as anything imagined by the Counter Reformation popes.
Informed by Trent’s certainties Roman Catholic historians in first six decades of the twentieth century were quick to spot telling heterodoxies in the theology and thinking of the traditionalist bishops in the 1530’s and 1540’s. Similarly, those from the opposite confessional tradition (or from none) have seen only unoriginal repetitions of older scholastic theology from the traditionalists. As both these interpretations cannot simultaneously stand correct; it is also true that neither judgement is fair nor balanced.
Modern scholarship now favourably acknowledges the late medieval church: it has been conceded many of its institutions functioned well far into the Reformation; the social efficacy of its rituals and rites have been confirmed; it is generally granted that the church of Wolsey was popular; vibrant; socially inclusive; and spiritually active. All of this is welcome; vital; and hugely important. Much of the best work on the religious orders was done by David Knowles but once again, recent scholarship is even more sceptical of grounds which were used to justify the dissolutions of the regular orders in the 1530’s and 1540’s. That said, to outsiders it is puzzling that the Reformation travelled so far so very fast. If the old explanation that the intuitional church was sclerotic; corrupt; and tired no longer holds true then what is the truth?
Here readily to hand we may draw upon more recent experience. Between 1963 and 1973 a revolution of the scale of the Reformation took place inside the Roman Catholic Church. As is in the sixteenth century, the faithful of the later twentieth century faithfully accepted unsought changes they may not have chosen for themselves simply because their bishops, priests and clergy told them so to do. If it was that simple in the twentieth century there is no reason to suppose it may have been any more complicated in an even more hierarchical society in the sixteenth century. In short, elites debated and decided; and generally laity followed their betters’ lead. That being the case these doctrinal debates are much more important than historians have allowed. The outcomes of these narrow points of doctrine fought-over between the intellectual cognoscenti shaped the world for four hundred years. If this is true, perhaps historians need look no further afield for evidence that the word is mightier indeed than the sword.
Contemporary historical interpretations must also inevitably reflect the cultural ecumenism of our times. Today it is commonplace to find statues, icons and votive candles in Anglican cathedrals. Visitors to these churches are once more encouraged to pray at the site of ruined shrines – as did Archbishop Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI in Westminster Abbey at St Edward the Confessor’s shrine during the pope’s recent state visit to the United Kingdom. It used to be that the Thirty Nine Articles were inconvenient truths only to the priests and prelates of the Anglican High Church shaped from the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century. Today the doctrine of the Articles of Religion is glossed-over by almost the whole of the Anglican Communion. In the 1960’s all of this would still have been unthinkable.
The restoration of these ritual signs is not a sign of continuity rather it is an indication of the profoundest change. Similarly, in Roman Catholic churches, post Vatican II reordering often created a liturgical space better suited to the Protestant rites of Holy Communion or Sung Eucharist than to offering the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass. Many aspects of the ICEL translations of the new Mass approved in the early 1970’s deliberately played down the Tridentine emphasis on sacrifice and oblation in the liturgy. in many roman catholic churches there was a cull of images, candles and the like. From the 1970’s benediction became a rarely performed rite. These seemingly easy accommodations of practice to contemporary tastes must not blind the historian to unpalatable truths about the past. For the hatreds and confessional certainties of Protestant and Catholic were the two countervailing forces that shaped the great continental divide of Europe; and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through empire the Europeans imposed those religious divisions on the wider world.
It is a hard fact that countless men and women willingly died for the sake of narrow doctrinal truths of between these two arms of the Christian faith; truths we have come to regard as little more than nice intellectual points. For what appears in retrospect to be no more than small differences of religious detail amongst the finest of early modern Europe were martyred: some in fires; others executed on gibbets, ostensibly for treason; some murdered by their neighbours; others driven from their homes; yet more killed in battle; untold numbers starving to death, or perishing in unforgiving cold, or dying fleeing for their lives. These doctrines fired a conflagration of ethnic cleansing across a continent. These sparks of mean distinctions ignited a century of continuous conflict.
Intellectually we have shied away from the very devilish detail fought over word by word by the protagonists of these sixteenth century battles over doctrine. Perhaps because it appeared there was nothing much new left to say. After all, much of what was fought over has long been readily available in print. Today, we are inclined to consider the writings of these more either as curiosities or social commentaries on their age. It is understandable. Religious fervour plays such a small part in the secular life of contemporary Western Europe. This is why we are so perplexed by any manifestation of it. We are baffled and exasperated by zeal whether it is from Muslim, or Christian, or political fundamentalists. We are inclined to regard them all as dangerous ‘extremists’. In contemporary European culture Christianity has lost the sensibility of owning certain truth. This is a new phenomenon. It was not the reality even in my childhood. It most certainly was not the reality of Tudor England.
In order to comprehend the events after 1533 it is essential to remember that the religious debate between those in the educated elites of the sixteenth century over this seemingly narrow band of doctrinal specifics – like say transubstantiation – shook early modern Europe to its core: it changed the world of belief; it divided loyalties; it separated families; it created mistrust between neighbours; it fomented regional hatreds: and afterwards each of modern Europe’s emergent nation states bore its scar which, like the mark of Cain, stained the collective political consciousness. Its poison endured into the twentieth century. Sixteenth century intellectuals on all sides of the argument would have seen these ideas as matters of life and death; or, more properly, life and afterlife As Bishop Gardiner detected: the devil’s sophistry was most dangerous because it robbed the unlearned of truth. And with its loss went their hope of salvation.
From that perspective, these small differences could hardly have been more important.