January 5, 2010
A book club selection called Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man-Booker Prize, has sent me back to reading histories of the English Reformation. Over Christmas I have taken in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s masterful biography of Thomas Cranmer, and Eamon Duffy’s paradigm shifting work called Stripping of the Altars, along with his ‘follow up’ books, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village and Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor.
All of these offerings could be described as ‘revisionist’ in one way or another. Mantel makes a hero of Thomas Cromwell over against the ‘man for all seasons’, Thomas More, as Henry VIII sought his first divorce in hopes of a male heir. MacCulloch offers a positive assessment of Cranmer, sometimes criticized for expedience over principle, casting him more as (to use the terminology currently in vogue but not in the book) an ‘ethical pragmatist’. Duffy shows that the religion of Catholic England was quite vibrant and remained so throughout the period of reformation is spite of the reformers and then Marian, and then Elizabethan changes in policy.
I’ll have more to say about these books in future posts but for now, I am struck by how fundamentally messy was the English Reformation and how the same tensions and issues of power and control seem to be afflicting Anglicans today. I plan to use the Thirty Nine Articles as an expression of the Elizabethan Settlement and as the basis for some wide ranging reflections on Reform and Renewal in GIFT presentations through the spring.