Monday, July 2, 2012

Wycliffe in Politics

A church reformer gets his start.

We don't know a lot about the early years of John Wycliffe (c.1324-1384). There were likely a few "John Wycliffe"s around this time, and there are doubts that the one who went to Merton College in Oxford in 1346 was the same one who was master of Balliol (a far more liberal-minded college) in 1360, who was given a position in the parish of Fillingham. His time at Oxford might have overlapped that of William of Ockham; it is certain that the Wycliffe in whom we are interested was familiar with and influenced by Ockham's writings.

His running of Fillingham (and a succession of parishes) did not prevent him from living at Oxford and participating in the college as an instructor and a scholar. He became known and respected as a theologian, and received his doctorate in theology in 1372.

Wycliffe's entrance to politics is presumed to be in 1365, when he advised John of Gaunt (the king's son, but a powerful political figure in the wake of King Edward III's increasing senility) to deny Pope Urban V the 33 years of feudal tribute for which England was in arrears. The tribute had been established by King John, but Wycliffe told Gaunt that the papacy was wealthy enough and did not need or deserve the money. Gaunt and Parliament were all to willing to agree: Edward III had the habit of outspending his income, money was always needed in case a war with France should arise again, and this was the time that the papacy itself was in Avignon, France. Giving money to the pope in France felt like giving money to the enemy against whom you might need to fight a war some day!

By this time, Wycliffe had developed strong opinions opposing the wealth of the church. He was not branded a heretic (yet!). Had he been openly thought of this way, he would hardly have been included in the delegation that attended the peace congress in Bruges in 1374. Bruges had two purposes: establishing reduced hostilities between England and France, and dealing with the papacy's problems in the English church. He seems to have attended purely as a respected theologian whose opinions were academic, not militant. At the time he was still friends with men like the monk John Owtred, who held that St. Peter proved the union of spiritual and temporal power—an idea totally opposite to Wycliffe's thoughts on the subject.

That would change in the next decade. By the time of Wycliffe's death ten years later, he would lose his friends, his positions, and the respect of the papacy and many of his colleagues. He would also start a reform movement, produce a controversial Bible, and influence a reform movement in Bohemia. More tomorrow.

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