by Frederica Harris Thompsett
from To be a priest, pp. 83-89,
edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.
Frederica Thompsett is assistant professor of church history at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. Her area of special interest and research is the English Reformation Church,
In 1551 the new Bishop of Gloucester, John Hoopera powerful preacher and zealous reformer eager to establish the reformed faith in his diocesewas at best dismayed when visitation records of his parish clergy indicated that out of 311 clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the Decalogue, 9 could not count the Commandments, and 33 were unable to locate them in Scripture; moreover, there were 10 clergy who could not repeat the Lords Prayer, 9 who could not locate it in Scripture, and 34 who were unable to name its author. Such statistics might appear incredulous given todays general expectations that a clergyman be a trained, educated professional. However, throughout Christian history, models for ministry have evolved to suit the religious intentions of various cultures.(1) The chronological focus for this essay is on the early days of the English Reformation. In particular we will examine expectations for the parish clergyman in the reign of the Protestant Josiah, the child-king, Edward VI (1547-1553). In this hey day of religious reform and liturgical achievement (e.g. the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552), increased attention was given to realigning and reinvigorating the functions and practice of parochial ministry. In this essay a number of questions will be raised concerning the process of changing expectations of ministry: not only what model for ministry was suggested by mid-Tudor reformers and how it was to be achieved, but also why Englishmen, among both the laity and the clergy, were convinced of the need to reform parish clergy.
Certainly there was room for improvement of the mid-Tudor clerical estate. Most of the parochial clergy (with the exception of clergy in London and the university towns) were casually educated. They might have attended a local ABC school, or one of the Latin grammar schools; or a neighboring clergyman might have taught them to read. University graduates, seeking more lucrative posts, were seldom resident in parochial livings. Few parsons received any specific training in theology, and many were narrowly informed. They tended to focus on local problems, to be comfortable with traditional practices of worship, and to suspect innovation in general. Economically, the value of their livings varied considerably, as did the sources of income (tithes, fees, farming, etc.). It has been estimated that three-quarters of the parochial incomes were inadequate. Moreover, the parsons income, like that of his parishioners, was threatened by inflation. Socially, many of the parochial clergy came from the class they served. Once a clergyman was fortunate enough to find a benefice (often after years of low-paid service as a stipendiary curate) his social base as parson of the village was secure, though social expectations of his position might severely tax his finances. Some parsons were also in need of assistants to adequately serve their parishes, but often they did not have the means to hire them. In sum, parochial clergy in the early years of the Reformation were ill-equipped by training, resources, or temperament to wean their parishes away from the familiar patterns of worship, let alone attract them to Protestantism.(2)
Anticlerical attitudes, particularly indignation and resentment of greedy clerics, were familiar components of English medieval thought. No doubt there were some greedy and immoral Tudor parsons (although anticlerical polemics tended to magnify such evidence), but certainly the early Reformation clergy were not worse, spiritually, than their medieval predecessors. Yet during the Reformation there was a more constructive dimension to anticlerical thought which took the form of an intensified concern for the provision of an adequate ministry. The laity were in part responsible for this transformation as their expectations and standards for clerical performance perceptibly increased. Many laymen seemed less willing to tolerate the conventional abuses of pluralism, simony, and absenteeism. One central impetus for their changing attitudes was that the invention of the printing press eventually led to a general diffusion of education. Many Englishmen struggled to learn or improve their reading skills and many developed a pronounced taste for religious literature. Hugh Latimer, a popular preacher and experienced reformer, wryly noted in a 1549 sermon before the Court that some of the laity were better learned in Scripture than the clergy.(3) Although ignorance and superstition were by no means arrested by accessibility to inexpensive books, standards of lay education were increasing and some laymen began to set a higher premium on an educated parochial clergy.
The impetus for reform of the clergy was further enhanced by the unrelenting social and economic challenges to mid-Tudor society. A long inflationary spiral, unstable patterns of landholding, repeated debasements in the value of the coinage, expensive military campaigns, rebellions among the common people in the summer of 1549, plus the insecurity of a period of minority rule these tensions propelled contemporary criticism and debate. Accordingly, as there was little distinction in Tudor thought between secular and spiritual issues, many of these complaints were quickly absorbed into religious controversy where they served to refuel anticlerical diatribes. The new enemy was envisioned as an even heartier brand of Protestant greed. Contemporary critics argued that popish monks and priests had been replaced by extortioners who fed off the spoils of the Reformation. They pointed to the social and economic ills of society as evidence that the Churchs mission was failing. Individual members of the laity were more reluctant, given the rise in prices, to pay even traditional fees to clergy. Some argued that they wanted better value for their money from their parsons.(4) Anticlerical attitudes were exacerbated by social and economic dislocation and there was a heightened demand for reform.
The former model of ministry, suited to a culture in which religion was a ritual method of living, was also proving less viable. Under the prolonged impact of the Reformation, functions of ministry, as practiced by the medieval parson, were becoming less distinct. According to an historian of religion and magic:
Protestantism thus presented itself as a deliberate attempt to take the magical elements out of religion, to eliminate the idea that rituals of the Church had about them a mechanical efficacy, and to abandon the effort to endow physical objects with supernatural qualities by special formulae of consecration. . . . The reformers set out to eliminate theatricality from church ritual and decoration, and to depreciate the status of the priesthood.(5)
Only a few theologically informed members of a parish might notice the lack of emphasis on the sacrificial character of the priesthood in the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books, but most parishioners paid attention only to changes within their local church removing the rood screen, defacing images of saints, replacing the altar with a table, etc. Before their eyes much of the luster was withdrawn from the drama of worship and thereby from the principal actors. When, early in Edward VIs reign, clergy were officially permitted to marry, yet another barrier that set the parson apart from the laity was removed. The clerical office itself was suffering a loss of distinction.
The central reason why there was concern for providing skilled ministry was that a well-trained clergy could help meet the polemical needs of competing professions of faith. It was abundantly clear to Bishop Hooper, even before his diocesan visitation, and to other English clerics and statesmen engaged in laying the foundations of Protestantism, that reform of the parochial clergy was more than a familiar religious ideal it was a matter of necessity. The fate of alterations in religious policy engraved in statutes, liturgies, and injunctions, rested on the parish clergy of rural England. If these changes were to be maintained, and the reformed faith was to prosper, then the parochial base must be firm. English reformers also realized that traditional functions of ministry must be realigned to suit the reformed Church. In sermons and other polemical tracts, reformers resolutely began to discuss and define ministerial functions that were in harmony with the intentions of Protestantism.
Attention focused on preaching. English reformers of the 1530s, 40s and early 50s concurred in defining ministry as exhortation of the word of God. In his colorful sermons Hugh Latimer insisted that salvation was a preaching and not a massing matter, and that preaching was necessary for a spiritually starving people because it was meat not strawberries.(6) In a more complicated analogy Thomas Becona prolific preacher and homilistdescribed the preacher as the eye who allows the light of Scripture to enliven the body of the congregation. Becon added that if a parson could not preach, this was evidence that he was sent by the devil, not by Christ.(7) Other traditional functions of ministry extended from the preaching base, as in Becons 1550 description of the ideal pastor:
The spiritual minister is appointed of God to rule with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, to rebuke sinners with the law, yea, and to excommunicate them if they be obstinate and will not repent, to comfort and cherish the weak with the sweet promises of the holy scripture, to encourage the strong, and to exhort them forward until they wax ancient, and be perfect in Christs religion, to minister the sacraments, to make collections for the poor, to maintain hospitality for the relief of the needy.(8)
There was also repeated insistence that the parson lead an exemplary life, mirroring Christian virtues in his actions and words. If this was not done, more than one layman noted, the doctrines preached by the parson would have no credence. In England, as on the continent, reformed notions of ministry were emphatically grounded on proclamation of the word.
Henrician and Edwardian reformers maintained that in addition to establishing the true faith in England, preaching ministers would contain sedition and promote social harmony. Well-trained preachers could convince their parishioners, whether beggars or commoners, to remain content within their vocations. In fact a few reformers, who in 1549 were anxious to absolve themselves from any connection with social agitation, noted that one of the causes of the recent rebellions was the lack of good preaching, and they threatened that brutality might continue if able preachers were not provided.(9) They extended their arguments to suggest that preaching parsons could become the linchpins of social harmony by awakening parishioners to the dangers of oppression within society and encouraging charity and stewardship to the poor. Robert Crowley, a Tudor pamphleteer who was remarkably sensitive to the plight of the poor, envisioned the ideal parson as a custodian of the social, as well as the spiritual, welfare of his communicants. Throughout their discussions of need for preaching clergymen, the reformers were persuaded that the English Church would be invigorated when its ministers learned to deal directly with the central issues of their society.
To achieve their objective of a preacher in every parish, the reformers advocated sending aspiring ministers to the universities, and then providing parsons with decent livings. The first provision was problematical for two reasons. The reformers had to insistto counter those who suggested that a good preacher was the handiwork of God and not of manthat while men should trust in divine inspiration, they should not presume upon or tempt God.(10) Hugh Latimer and Thomas Lever, a young preacher who was particularly sensitive to the need for training parochial clergy, were also worried about the decay of universities and other schools and the dearth of divinity students. Latimer noted that there were 10,000 fewer students than twenty years earlier, and that unless immediate attention was given to reviving schools and universities, there would be very little divinity in England.(11) He and Lever urged that schools and scholars should be supported by generous charitable giving. Lever addressed the need for adequate livings in an ingenious sermon on Christs feeding of the five thousand. He implored the king to gather together all benefices and other spiritual offices and fees (which had supported only a privileged few) and then to redistribute them to honest preachers, thereby feeding the multitude. His plea was: For the love of God give your servants wages."(12) Bishop Hooper, with customary zeal for the welfare of the laity, noted that the maintenance of an educated, well-paid parish clergy would eventually lead to a better educated, less superstitious laity. The reformers hope was that by reviving educational opportunities for clergy and by paying parsons well, the new religion could be zealously and ably promoted.
Further local and regional research on the impact of Reformation Policies is needed before we can estimate whether the reformers ambitions were realized. Various local studies of the village parson in Queen Elizabeths reign (1559-1603), suggest that the standard of living and of education (judging by the larger libraries of the late Elizabethan parson) had improved. But the model of the ideal parish clergyman advocated by Henrician and Edwardian reformers did not have enough time to be implemented. Advancement of Protestant policies came to an abrupt halt with the death of the king in 1553 and the reversion to Roman Catholicism under Mary Tudor (1553-1559).
Englands evolution toward Protestantism was a long and complex process. Historians may have underestimated the difficulties of effecting Reformation policies at the local level. Even Bishop Hooper, with all his haste for founding the reformed Church in Gloucester, had to combat ignorance (in itself a conservative force) among the clergy and laity. Religious indifference too was an enemy of reform. Latimer frankly acknowledged that there were lots of people who preferred to hear stories of Robin Hood rather than a sermon. One parson ingeniously saved money on books, and avoided changing services, by simply crossing out references to King Edward in his copy of the 1552 Prayer Book and substituting Queen Marys name.(13) Presumably he used this Prayer Book during Marys reign. Many rural parochial clergy were neither hot nor cold, nor perhaps even exposed to Reformation policies and ideals.
Latimer, Hooper, Lever, Becon, and a number of other inspired preachers and reformers were in part responsible for laying the foundations of English Protestantism in Edward VIs reign. Their repeated public advocacy of the need for preaching parsons may not have been appreciated by most of the mid-Tudor parochial clergy, but their exhortations did not fall entirely on deaf ears. Bishop Hooper, as we have seen, had reason to despair over his parish clergy, but he had great confidence in the laity of his diocese. Hooper was hopeful that the laity would expect and eventually demand well-educated, preaching parsons. He thanked God:
For that he hath mercifully inclined the hearts of the people to wish and hunger for the word of God as they do. ... there lacketh nothing among the people but sober, learned and wise men.(14)
1. Urban T. Holmes, III, The Future Shape of Ministry (New York: The Seabury Press, 1971); see especially Part 1, The Evolving Function of Ministry.
2. Two recent books proved particularly helpful to this discussion of the Tudor parish clergy: Peter Heath, The English Parish Clergy on the Eve of the Reformation (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969); and Christopher Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1975). One of the most useful surveys of the Reformation in England is A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (New York: Schocken Books, 1964).
3. Hugh Latimer, The Works of Hugh Latimer, ed. G. E. Corrie for the Parker Society, 2 vols. (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1844-45), I. 122. The spelling and punctuation in all sixteenth-century quotations has been modernized. On the popular appetite for religious literature, see H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers, 1457-1557 (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1952).
4. A Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England (1549), ed. E. Lamond (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1893), p. 134. This text is now thought to have been written by the Tudor statesman, Thomas Smith.
5. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971), p. 87.
6. Latimer, Works, I, 178 & 62. Latimers justly famous Sermon on the Plough (1548) is well worth reading as an example of Tudor homiletics; ibid., pp. 59-78.
7. Thomas Becon, Works, ed. J. Ayre for the Parker Society, 2 vols. (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1843-44), II, 421 & 320.
8. Ibid., p. 616. A similar description of a minister was stated in 1550 by Thomas Lever, Sermons, ed. E. Arber (London; n.p., 1871), p. 74.
9. Latimer, Works, I, 269; and Becon, Works, II, 595-96.
10. Latimer, Works, I, 269. The same issue was discussed by the Christian humanist, Thomas Starkey, in A Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset (1538), ed. K. M. Burton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1948), p. 187.
11. Ibid. A recent analysis of Tudor education suggests that Latimer may have overestimated the decline in university students; Joan Simon, Education and Society in Tudor England (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1966), pp. 220, 248.
12. Lever, Sermons, p. 74. Lever delivered his sermon on feeding the multitude in 1550; ibid., pp. 53-90.
13. The Boke of Common Praier, and Administracion of the Sacramentes, and Other Rites and Ceremonies in the Churche of England (London: Richard Grafton, 1552). This extremely rare copy of the 1552 Prayer Book is in the library of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. There are other interesting alterations in the text including crossing out the phrase in the Litany which asks for deliverance from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities, ibid., sig. B iiii.
14. This quote is from a letter written by Hooper in 1552 and is cited in an informative article by F. Douglas Price, Gloucester Diocese under Bishop Hooper, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, LX (1939). p. 112.
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