Sermon preached at the second special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (8 October 2017) by The Reverend Daniel Sandham,Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Brownswood Park

Today at the Cathedral View More
12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at the second special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (8 October 2017) by The Reverend Daniel Sandham,Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Brownswood Park

Looking specifically at King Henry VIII, The Reverend Daniel Sandham looks at the changes made during his reign - political as well as religious - and says he finds it hard to 'celebrate' Henry's reign, despite it 'giving birth to so much we hold dear in the Anglican tradition'.

But at last came a king who had greed in his eyes,
And he lusted for treasure with fraud and with lies.

This time last week I was singing those words, which form part of the Pilgrim Hymn at the restored shrine in Walsingham. This North Norfolk village, an unlikely centre of medieval pilgrimage, was the scene of untold drama and destruction during the reign of Henry VIII. Odd then that, a week later, I am preaching about that reign, just a hundred yards from St Paul's Cross, the outdoor pulpit from which so much of the English Reformation was preached. A week is a long time in religion.


Henry accedes to the throne in 1509; eight years before Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenburg. For the first half of his reign, Henry is the model Catholic. He opposes the flurry of reform on the continent. He even writes a book refuting Luther, for which the Pope Leo X confers on him the title Fidei Defensor – Defender of the Faith; a title which successive monarchs have retained to this day, even if it is not 'the Faith' the Pope intended them to defend.

Henry's closest aide at this point is Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, and it's from this period that this afternoon's anthem [Christe Jesu pastor bone | Taverner] originates – although not quite in the form we heard it…

In the 1520s Wolsey begins to dissolve monasteries – a process which would be revived with vigour later on by Thomas Cromwell. With the proceeds Wolsey founds Cardinal College, in Oxford – later to be re-founded by Henry as Christ Church. O Wilhelme, pastor bone, to give the motet its original title, was a prayer to St William of York, one of Wolsey's predecessors as Archbishop. Written to be sung each day in the college chapel, it prays for God's blessing not on the king, as we heard this afternoon, but on 'our founder, Cardinal Thomas'.

Revisionist historians of the last few decades have argued – strongly – that the life of the Church at the beginning of Henry's reign was vibrant and healthy.[2] So why a reformation at all?

Crucial to our understanding of this Reformation is that the motivation is more political than it is religious. Henry wants to secure a Tudor dynasty. But by the late 1520s he loses patience with Catherine of Aragon's inability to produce a male heir. His attentions turn to Anne Boleyn. Here begins Henry's long, drawn-out case for an annulment, on the grounds that he should never have been allowed to marry his brother's widow in the first place. Leo's successor as pope, Clement VII, is stuck between a rock and a hard place: prohibiting the annulment would risk the wrath of an island nation; agreeing would put at jeopardy his relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Catherine's nephew. European politics are nothing if not incestuous.

The late 1520s and early 30s are dominated by arguments about papal versus royal authority. Wolsey's inability to negotiate an annulment sees him fall out of favour with the king. Cromwell emerges as the new 'chief aide', and in 1532 the Boleyn family is influential in the appointment of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. In defiance of the Pope, Cranmer ratifies both the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine, and validates his new marriage to Anne.

Pope excommunicates King and Archbishop. Henry retaliates by declaring himself the only Supreme Head of the Church of England. This Act of Supremacy of 1534 commands a nation's assent – on the point of death.

It's a common misconception that the Act of Supremacy instantly makes the Church in England a Protestant church – that, overnight, churches are white-washed, shrines dismantled, missals replaced with prayer books, and clergy wake from their beds with wives and multiple children.

That simply isn't what happened. (Indeed, in many cases – including Cranmer's – clergy already had wives and children illicitly!) England's split from Rome is purely political at this stage. Cromwell orders the removal of all references to the Pope in church services. But, otherwise, English religion remains unchanged. The religious reformation is yet to come…

Come it does however, but only gradually. Cranmer and Cromwell serve a strong-willed, essentially conservative king. And, as various riots will testify, the old religion has public popularity.

So what do the reformers actually achieve during Henry's reign?

Firstly, there is a far more far-reaching dissolution of the monasteries. In 1535 Cromwell begins a country-wide visitation, exposing the monasteries' apparent moral depravity and excessive wealth. In the ensuing years monastic life is almost completely suppressed, its wealth transferred to the Crown.

At the same time a growing tide develops against the 'superstitious' practices of devotion to the saints, pilgrimage and the veneration of relics. So alongside the dissolution of monasteries, we see the destruction of shrines – more often than not annexed to monastic houses.

Walsingham, for example, falls prey to the second wave of suppression in 1538. An unsuccessful rebellion costs eleven men their lives, and the Sub-Prior is executed for high treason outside his own priory. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, the focus of devotion for almost half a millennium, to which Henry himself had made pilgrimage, is taken to London and burned. That Pilgrim Hymn continues:

The order went forth: and with horror ’twas learned
That the shrine was destroyed and the image was burned.

Less fiery and less bloody is Cranmer's gradual revision of the Church's calendar. He reduces the number of holy days, again seeking to quash devotion to the saints. No wonder then that Taverner's O Wilhelme, pastor bone becomes Christe Jesu, pastor bone: a prayer not to a saint, but to Christ; not for a cardinal, but for the king.

The other nascent reform we begin to see in the 1540s is the language used in worship. Up until now everything was in Latin. Hence Tallis's Latin settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis we heard earlier. But in 1543 Cranmer announces that certain Bible readings must be read in English.[3]

More advanced still is Cranmer's Litany of 1544 – entirely in English.[4] Henry is at war with both Scotland and France, and wants his parishes to recite a litany during patriotic outdoor processions. This is where we first begin to see the real Cranmer at work. He draws on a rich diversity of sources, from the Sarum rite of medieval England, to Luther's own litany. The saints are invoked, but only briefly. Prayers are made for the king, of course. But most striking is the prayer against the pope: 'From the tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities… good Lord, deliver us.' [5]

By the mid 1540s Cranmer is beginning to experiment with new forms of worship. In a first draft – still in Latin – he keeps the monastic pattern of seven daily offices, or services. The second draft is more radical. The number of offices is reduced, and we glimpse an embryonic version of the Evensong we celebrate today – an amalgamation of Vespers and Compline.[6]

It's just possible, given the stylistic similarities, that Tallis wrote today's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis as a pairing for this experimental draft. Indeed, the music echoes the religious tone of its day. It is much simpler than the elaborate mass settings and motets of the previous generation. Yet it is nowhere near the simplicity which Tallis will use for English texts just a few years later.

As a snapshot is given of the reforms Cranmer is desperate to roll out, so Henry's health declines. He dies in January 1547, aged 55, and his nine year old son, Edward, comes to the throne. Now a properly religious reformation can gather speed, but that's the subject of next week's Evensong…


So I end where I started:

But at last came a king who had greed in his eyes,
And he lusted for treasure with fraud and with lies.

Walsingham's Pilgrim Hymn delivers a damning verdict on Henry VIII. It is indeed difficult to see past the cruel savagery and political and material greed which characterised much of his reign. It seems a far cry from the sentiments of the first letter of John we heard earlier: 'Do not love the world or the things in the world.' [7]

I find it hard to 'celebrate' Henry's reign. And yet it gives birth to so much we hold dear in the Anglican tradition. Today we have prayed a liturgy which has remained virtually untouched for nearly 400 years, and has been and continues to be a source of inspiration and prayer for countless people.

It is perhaps a reminder that God can use for good even the darkest days of the Church's history and the gravest sins of her sons and daughters. And if that's the case, he can use us too.

[1] Pilgrim Hymn, from The Walsingham Pilgrim Manual, Twenty-sixth edition (2016), 60
[2] See Haigh, C. English Reformations: Religion Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Oxford, 1993) and Duffy, E. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (New Haven, 1992)
[3] Proctor, F. and Frere, WH. A New History of the Book of Common Prayer (London, 1932), 31
[4] See Proctor and Frere, 31-32
[6] See Proctor and Frere, 34
[7] 1 John 2.15