Sermon preached at the fourth special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (22 October 2017) by The Reverend Canon Charlotte Methuen, University of Glasgow

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Sermon preached at the fourth special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (22 October 2017) by The Reverend Canon Charlotte Methuen, University of Glasgow

Focusing on the reign of Queen Mary, Canon Charlotte Methuen explores the religious changes under Mary and whether she is deserving of her poor reputation. 

As we approach the end of October 2017, we approach the key event in this Reformation anniversary year. On 31 October it will be five hundred years since Martin Luther sent his 95 theses against indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz. Luther’s letter of protest sparked a movement which became the Reformation; this changed the shape of Western Europe, including here in the British Isles. In England in the 1530s, Reformation ideas came together with King Henry VIII’s deep concern that he had no legitimate son to persuade him that rejecting his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and, with her, papal authority, would earn him God’s favour and bring him a son with the new object of his passion, Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon had a profound impact on their daughter, Mary. Mary was 18 years old when her father divorced her mother. As a result, Mary herself was demoted from being Princess Mary, the only legitimate heir to the throne, to being Lady Mary, with a complicated, quasi-illegitimate status as the daughter of a royal marriage now declared null. Mary spent much of the next decade virtually under house arrest. She returned to court only in the mid-1540s, during the last years of her father’s reign.

Mary had been given an education fit for a Catholic princess, and she remained a devout Catholic, even as her father swung first towards and then away from Reformation ideas. She continued in her faith as her father married another five wives after the divorce from her mother, siring two further children: a half-sister, Elizabeth, and a half-brother, Edward. Mary witnessed Elizabeth too being excluded from the succession after Elizabeth’s mother Queen Anne was executed for treason. And then, in the winter of 1546/47, as their father lay on his deathbed, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves in his will as his legitimate heirs, to succeed Edward should he die young and without children of his own.

Mary remained a devout Catholic through the reign of her much younger half-brother, Edward VI, under whom the Reformation was introduced into England. She was firm in her faith, and she could be provocative: when Edward and his advisors sought to ban the rosary, Mary and her courtiers rode through the streets of London, praying their rosaries publicly. If Edward had lived longer, Mary might well have found herself arraigned for treason; but in 1553 he died, aged just 15, leaving the throne, not to his half-sister Mary as his father’s will directed, but to his young Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey.

Mary, now aged 37, had to claim her throne, and claim it she did. She had the support not only of those who wanted the return of the old faith, but also of many reform-minded people who believed that Mary, even if she was not of the right faith, was the rightful heir. Within weeks of her claiming her throne, Mary made it clear that she would be working to restore Catholicism, and to return England to papal jurisdiction. The Reformation legislation passed under Edward VI was repealed by parliament, and Mary using her hated legal status as Head of the English church to return that church to papal jurisdiction. The church was instructed to return to the practices that had been in place in the final year of Henry VIII’s reign. This is important. What Mary wanted was not a harking back to the way had the church been in the 1520s, but a church reformed according to current insights in Italy and Spain. Latin mass was to be reintroduced, with the appropriate musical accompaniments; communion was to be received in only one kind, that is, only the bread; vestments were to be worn. Married priests were to put away their wives, a move which it seems met considerable disapproval amongst both priests and their wives.

All this, however, was easier said than done, as the old mass books and vestments had been ordered to be destroyed under Edward. Some parishes had hidden them, and now brought them out again, but other parishes had to find the money to buy new books and accoutrements, and the energy to reactivate liturgical and musical traditions. In his study of the Marian church, Fires of Faith, Eamon Duffy speaks of “the remarkable achievement of Marian parishes in reconstructing the physical setting for catholic worship” (p. 3). It was indeed a remarkable achievement, and it may be that not all the liturgy was Latin. If the setting we have heard this evening is really from Mary’s reign, then some Marian parishes may have been singing matins and evensong. Our evidence here needs to be supplemented by further research.

There can be no question that part of Mary’s policy involved the forcible suppression of the Reformation through the arrest and execution of leading reformers, particularly those who had been involved in engineering her parents’ divorce. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and Westminster, and Hugh Latimer were all burned at Oxford. John Hooper, bishop of Gloucester and Worcester, was burned before the cathedral doors in Gloucester. In total, 227 men and 56 women were burned during Mary’s reign, and many more went into exile, earning Mary the name “Bloody Mary”. These drastic measures created a group of famous English Protestant martyrs, and it is their stories which shaped the image of Mary that derives from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Paradoxically, however, their fate may well have worked to make Protestantism more popular, rather than less, amongst the people of England, supplying a dramatic edge to the Protestant cause around which people could rally.

But Mary’s reign was not only about bloody suppression. Her vision for the re-established Catholic church in England was for a church inspired by sixteenth century Catholic renewal. In this she was supported by Cardinal Reginald Pole, appointed papal legate, and then, after Cranmer’s execution, Archbishop of Canterbury. Pole had been closely involved with a movement of pre-Reformation renewal in the Italian dioceses. The so-called spirituali, spiritual people, were influenced by renaissance Humanism, and believed in better education for the people. They tried to reform the church by improving clerical education and renewing diocesan structures. From 1555, Pole implemented this vision in England, drafting new diocesan constitutions. Using her power of appointment as queen, Mary selected theologically educated, pious men as bishops, rather than lawyers and diplomats. They were explicitly chosen to lead the renewal of the church.

Mary’s Spanish husband, Philip, also brought experience of church reforms through the dioceses. This was how his grandparents had reformed the church in Spain. Philip’s Spanish Dominicans were also an important force for bringing renewal into the re-established English catholic church, particularly through the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where they were appointed to the Regius chairs in theology.

The English church under Mary Tudor was, therefore, a church which sought to renew and develop the faith of the people. The sacraments were deeply important to it. So too were devotional practices: the use of the rosary; holy water, ashes on Ash Wednesday, palms on Palm Sunday, the sign of the cross, images of Christ, and the invocation of Mary and the saints. All of which had been outlawed or suppressed under Edward. They were reintroduced under Mary, seen as means of receiving God’s power and blessing. Prayer and devotional education was also central. Mary’s reign saw a profusion of primers being published. These were collections of prayers and devotional texts aimed at lay people, many of them scriptural, but in some uncontroversial cases they included homilies or texts written by the Reformers. These were intended to be used either privately at home, or during divine service, so that the people might pray during the Latin liturgy, and participate in it.

Mary and Pole were able to achieve a remarkable amount in the relatively short time they had available. Both of them died on 17 November 1558. Mary had been Queen for just over five years. Under her half-sister Elizabeth, the English church would again become Protestant, strongly influenced by the faith of those who had been suppressed or exiled under Mary. But Mary and Pole left the Elizabethan church – and the Church of England in generations to come – some important legacies: a people who had been encouraged to pray; a group of Reformers who had become passional Protestants; and renewed diocesan structures which proved of enormous help to Elizabeth and her advisers as they implemented the new Protestant settlement.

Mary has often had a very bad press in the history books of the English church, in many ways undeservedly. She was not always wise in her dealings with the Reformers who had wrought such destruction in her life and the life of her mother. But nonetheless, I do believe that she genuinely sought wisdom. In the passage we have just heard read, Proverbs advises us: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. Prize wisdom highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” Mary, who wore a beautiful crown of her own, was trying to walk the path of wisdom in an age in which ideas about what constituted theological wisdom were becoming increasingly polarised. She wanted to lead her country back to the religion which she herself had never abandoned, but she wanted this to be an up-to-date Catholicism, which had benefitted from the insights of Catholic Reformers.

The sixteenth century was an era in which discerning the spirit became critically important. Mary witnessed at first hand the powerful pull of those who had, as I John puts it, laid down their lives for one another. 1 John also exhorts it readers to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” For Mary, the teachings of Martin Luther were the teaching of false spirits, and she was seeking to lead her people back to the truth, from error. We might well see this differently. But wherever our allegiances lie, Mary’s reign, and her re-catholicising of the English church offers us a reminder of how very difficult it is, especially when we are in the midst of complex developments, which affect the very essence of our being, to be as confident as 1 John about our ability to know the spirit of truth from the spirit of error.

In times of trouble, we need the spirit of discernment. But we also need patience in that discernment. I want to end with a prayer for patience, translated into English from the Latin of Thomas Aquinas by the young princess Mary Tudor, aged just eleven years old.

Let us – in a modernised translation – pray: [Merciful God,] in prosperous times may I give you thanks, and in adversity may I be patient, so that I be not lifted up with the one, nor oppressed with the other. And may I rejoice in nothing but in that which moves me towards you, nor be sorry for anything but for those things which draw me away from you, desiring to please nobody nor fearing to displease any besides you.[1] Amen


[1] Jaime Goodrich, “Mary Tudor, Lord Morley, and St Thomas Aquinas: the politics of pious translation at the Henrician court,” ANQ 24 (2011), 11-20.