CHAPTER VI. HENRY VIII (ii), 1509-32 - BIRTH OF THE REFORMATION
John Colet was appointed to the Deanery of St. Paul's four or five years before the death of Henry VII., being transferred thither from Oxford, where he had won high repute, not merely for character and learning, but as the initiator of a new and rational method of Scriptural study in place of the old scholasticism. At St. Paul's the Dean proved himself a great preacher, exercising also in private life a powerful influence on all who came in contact with him, alike from the splendour of his intellect and the large-hearted purity of his character. His outspoken sermons were by no means to the liking of his bishop; but some of the leading prelates, notably Warham of Canterbury and Fox of Winchester, were well disposed to the new school of learning and exposition and to higher moral standards, as Cardinal Morton had been. When the young King ascended the throne in 1509, his accession was hailed by all men of the new school as heralding the reign of intellectual liberty and enlightenment.
[Colet's sermon, 1512]
Accordingly, when Convocation was summoned in 1512 to discuss the suppression of heresy, in consequence of some stray reappearances of Lollardry, the prevalence of a wider spirit was shown by the selection of Colet to preach the opening sermon, and by the subsequent ignominious failure of the Bishop of London to have the Dean punished as a heretic. It is to the sermon preached on this occasion that we must turn to see how Colet viewed the situation. It was a direct indictment of the manner of life of the clergy from Wolsey down; a summons to them to amend their ways, to set a higher example to their flock; an appeal to them to fix their eyes on apostolic ideals, and so to remove the real incitement which turned men's minds to heretical speculation. While the positive arguments of the preacher are evidence not only of the purity of his own aims and his courage in supporting them, their reception shows that the substantial justice of the indictment was recognised by the audience at whom it was personally directed, however little disposed they might be to act individually on his appeal. On the other hand however, it is a striking fact that the charges brought are almost exclusively of worldliness, laxity, indiscipline, unbecoming in pastors and in ministers of the Gospel of Christ - though these charges were pressed home relentlessly; not at all of that rampant immorality and vice of which the clergy were so freely accused in later years. From what Colet did not say, we may fairly infer a reasonable average of respectability among them.
If, in the Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, which Erasmus wrote at about the same period (1511), the vices and follies of the Church were lashed with a mockery still more unsparing, we have to note, first, that the great scholar drew his picture less from England than from the Continent; next, that it had no injurious effect on his appointment to the professorship of Greek at Cambridge. The patronage extended to him by the Primate, and by Fisher of Rochester, the most orthodox and saintly of the English bishops, is a sufficient proof that the authorities were not bigoted enemies of all reform; a proof borne out by the enthusiastic welcome extended to his edition of the Greek Testament in 1518, by Fox of Winchester amongst others.
[The Utopia, 1516]
From the Utopia of Sir Thomas More we derive precisely the same impression. In 1516, when the work was published, Luther had not yet defied the Pope; the German Peasants' War had not yet broken out, nor the spread of new ideas been associated with Anarchism under the name of Anabaptism. Persecution, which fifteen years later More advocated and practised as the unavoidable remedy for the spread of doctrines which he had come to regard as actively pernicious, was alien to his instincts; in his ideal Commonwealth, men might expound whatever they honestly held, provided they did not deny God and the Future Life. More's nature was tolerant and charitable. But his own convictions were thoroughly orthodox; he had at one time a strong disposition to enter the priesthood himself; he held the priestly office in high reverence. Yet his restriction of the number of priests in Utopia shows his vivid consciousness of the evil wrought by their unrestricted multiplication in England; and in the description of English social conditions in the introductory portion of his work, he refers in emphatic terms to the large proportion of "sturdy vagabonds" among them. His whole tone in the section of his book devoted to religious matters implies that he is pointing a contrast between his ideal order of things and that familiar to his readers, wherein non-essentials are so emphasised that essentials are practically forgotten. Yet More, like Colet, makes no sweeping attack on the morality (in the narrower popular sense of the term) prevalent among the clerical body.