Diarmaid Macculloch, ‘All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation – Allen Lane, 2016

Picture the scene. England (which is at odds with both Scotland and Ireland) decides unilaterally to sever relations with the mainland of Europe. While there is some sympathy in Germany, Netherlands and parts of Scandinavia, it is greeted with anger and hostility in France, Italy and Spain. England itself is deeply divided between “inners” and “outers”. A lot of the inners blame the political establishment for a completely unnecessary decision which has triggered huge political chaos. An additional element of danger is provided by the rise of “religious fundamentalism”. Such individuals can be identified by the size and length of their beards!

I could continue with more parallels. Suffice it to say that this is nothing to do with Brexit, but rather 500 years earlier and concerns the English Reformation.

MacCulloch, ReformationDiarmaid MacCulloch’s superb book on the history of the church – “Christianity the first 3000 years” – is in my opinion the best one volume account of the Christian church. His brand-new book on the history of the Reformation is completely different but equally readable and stimulating. It consists of a collection of essays, articles and book reviews published over many years dealing with the Reformation, but particularly the English Reformation. The collection assumes a reasonable level of knowledge about the Reformation, but although some of the articles are written for more technical publications, they remain highly readable to the interested general reader. What I find particularly impressive about MacCulloch is that despite (or because of?) his gay Anglican liberal background he is completely objective, highly sympathetic and indeed insightful across a range of theological perspectives. A lesson to all of us who want to write about the church!

As always in a collection of essays, some are more readable and interesting than others. The only one where my attention flagged a little was a lengthy essay towards the end on that highly complex character, Richard Hooker. Even here, there are important conclusions to be drawn. MacCulloch argues that Hooker did not in fact define or invent a “third way” for Anglicanism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Ironically, Anglo-Catholics in the 19th century fastened onto the bits of Hooker which they felt supported their case, whilst suppressing additional unpublished volumes by Hooker which were less likely to buttress their arguments.

MacCulloch also argues – persuasively in my view – that the combined efforts of 19th century Anglo-Catholics (such as John Henry Newman) and 21st century Catholics (such as Eamon Duffy) to eliminate as far as possible the reformation in England, or at least to downplay its significance, are not supported by the evidence.  Reading some recent historians of the Reformation, one wonders why anybody changed anything, given the picture that is painted of a Reformation imposed on a fiercely Catholic population by a devious King purely out to manoeuvre his way into a new marriage. MacCulloch shows how the influence of the Lollards helped to shape the English reformation in a different way to that of the continent. Only in England, for example, was there such a strict prohibition on having the Bible in the vernacular. Various English translations culminating in the King James version produced a highly literate group of lay people, whose first surviving book printed in the New World was a psalm book.  MacCulloch also stresses the importance of the Book of Common Prayer, which has had an extremely important influence on the English language.

There is also a fascinating analysis of Thomas Cranmer and, again, MacCulloch shows that, far from Anglicanism being a new third way, in fact Cranmer’s reformation and the Cranmersucceeding Elizabethan settlement was inextricably tied to, and developed from, continental European reformed (not Lutheran) thinking. And that influence was not from Geneva. Rather, the influence  came from Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich. There were also close links between English reformers and places such as Hungarian-speaking Transylvania. I have been to Debrecen, “the Geneva of the East”, which still bears the imprint of its Calvinistic past. MacCulloch also tells the wonderful story of a Hungarian theological student arriving in London, only able to communicate in Latin, asking directions to Cambridge, ending up in Canterbury!

Not until 1662, argues MacCulloch, and the expulsion of more than 2000 Puritan ministers did the Church of England take a decisive turn away from its reformed roots. Even then, there was a significant evangelical “remnant” left within the church. Uniquely, non-conformity in England quickly won toleration (after 1688), giving rise to a situation with two evangelical or evangelically influenced traditions. Meanwhile, across the pond in the 13 colonies, one can see the new church set up which was highly fragmented as ” a continuation of the English Civil War by other means”. The “free market” in ideas was to shape American Christianity in a very different direction to England, let alone mainland Europe. The results of this we can observe to this day.

MacCulloch makes the interesting point that evangelicals seem to have had little interest in church history and the Reformation in particular. They either withdrew completely from writing history or tended to produce very narrowly focused histories trying to trace the roots of their particular small group back to 1517. As noted above, this has tended to leave the historiographical field open to those of the opposite persuasion!

McCulloch also looks at some less familiar corners of Reformation history. There is a fascinating detective story of a truly reprehensible Anglo Irish forger who has bedevilled churches historians for hundreds of years! There is also much to learn from his analysis of the Council of Trent which, far from being a unanimous upholding of papal authority, was in fact characterised by stubborn resistance to papal authority by the bishops in general and the Spanish bishops in particular.

In summary, therefore, this excellent book is packed full of interesting nuggets of information and thoughtful analysis about the Reformation. No doubt people may disagree with some of the conclusions but there is no arguing with the depth of scholarship. Every page bring something new – not least the infamous beards! Thomas Cranmer was printed both with and without beards and sometimes the beards are short and sometimes long! This tended to depend on the theological convictions of the artist and/or the writer who had commissioned the painting. The more reformed the writer the bigger the beard!