Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On the English Act of Supremacy

With the English Act of Supremacy we see clearly that the Reformation produces not Protestantism but Protestantisms. This comes through what one might call the Venn-diagram approach to liturgical decisions: retain what is Sciptural and retain what traditional, retain what is Scriptural only and discard what is traditional, or retain what is Scriptural but leave traditional worship optional.
But of course the forces that gave Christendom a profusion of Protestant churches were not solely religious. The global unity of the church fractured since the Great Schism now breaks apart entirely as regional churches take up their own loyalties, just as nations are consolidating out of the fragments of feudalism. The English church henceforth belonged to the English king. It would also have its own English favor, once it came to disregard the Roman traditions that constituted that church before the Reformation. This meant that national churches would only enhance the distinctions between the churches, as political and regional concerns mixed with decisions and concerns about church polity.

This affected the Catholic church, too, as in the instance of the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the consolidation of powers in the Iberian peninsula. To be Spanish Catholic was now different from being French Catholic, and English Protestants were now religiously distinct from German Protestants. In other words, the Reformation as it developed birthed new categories, perhaps even new ways of being human. Allegiances would be strained. The Europe addled by the effects of the Black Plague was also the Europe of burgeoning market economies. Wealth and monarchs alike moved from affinities to feudal lords to affinities for the new urban centers; this meant a shift in ecclesiastic authority as well, as serfdom became a distant memory and merchants consequently gained more wealth, and often more social honor, than poor clergy. The Reformation, after all, was itself a part of much larger social change, though it remained a discrete part of it. What began with a crisis of authority concerning one pope in the second Great Schism became in time the distribution of spiritual authority to the priesthood of all believers, which in turn gave us the crisis of spiritual authority that claimed so much of Europe’s blood as Protestant and Catholic factions fought for social space. The Reformation meant that for the foreseeable future nothing significant would be settled by councils (Who would sit on them?). The Catholic popes and higher clergy had shown that they themselves were not what anyone imagined spiritual authority to be like, and the Bible then as now refused to interpret itself.

The nadir and synecdoche of this crisis of authority must be the treatment of the Anabaptists, who insisted on separating national and church authority and were thus despised by everyone and drowned for their convictions; one might here have wished for a simple declaration of heresy as in the days of old. Instead, Protestants could not (and cannot) agree on the proper interpretation, even the proper significance of, the Scriptures and the churches themselves. In the Protestantisms of the developing Renaissance, we see all the powers and perils of multiple and local authority: the ability of the spirit to energize specific people and the ability of powers and principalities to energize them against each other.

It is true, ultimately, that the Reformation made further reforms and revivals possible, but by confounding the authorities of church and state it also made those same future reforms necessary and inevitable. One wonders what would have happened if Luther had achieved his goals and contained the Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. How would the story of church and state played out differently if states did not have churches to choose from?

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