Diarmaid MacCulloch is a professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, an acclaimed telly don and a knight. He is also prodigiously learned and productive – and has won (deservedly) pretty well every major literary prize there is.
Here we have some 360 packed pages of book reviews and occasional pieces, mainly from the last 10 years or so: six of them on the Continental Reformation, the rest on the Reformation in England; many of them invaluable reading for any serious student of 16th-century Europe’s turbulent religious history.
There are remarkable essays, for example, on the Protestant reformers and Our Lady, on the making of the Book of Common Prayer, the (Catholic) genius William Byrd and the (eventually rather tragic) career of Richard Hooker. There is a masterly review of writings on the English Reformation, including positive appreciations of Hilaire Belloc, the Redemptorist Fr Thomas Edward Bridgett and Philip Hughes’s bold trilogy; and a fascinating account of how the 17th-century Irish Protestant firebrand (psychopath?) Robert Ware produced blatant forgeries to promote his cause.
Some of these essays are a bit heavy going, but MacCulloch has a gift for explaining complicated things simply. He can also produce the arresting new insight: for example, that Thomas Cromwell may have indeed have been a “sacramentary”, as his enemies claimed, ie one who denied any Real Presence, and was thus more radical than was Cranmer at the time. Or how the Polish ex-priest-turned-Protestant Jan Łaski did much to drive forward the English Reformation. Or how remarkable was the survival – unique in Protestant lands – of our cathedrals with their full array of deans and canons, organs, choirs and closes, and how their liturgy and hymnody contributed to the rise of Anglicanism.
MacCulloch is also the master of the witty, even cheeky, one-liner: Anne Boleyn, for example, was “dismayingly clever and a bit flash” (as well as being a devout Protestant, he believes). Guy Fawkes planned to “relieve” England of its monarch. And so on. There is a bon mot or a shocker on almost every page.
There is also admirable courtesy towards other scholars even when he disagrees with them. So I hope that some criticism will not be out of place.
Alas, there is an anti-Catholic tone throughout this book. Catholics are always “Roman” or “Romish”. There are anachronistic references to “the Vatican” (a rather nasty place). The Jesuits are a “sect”. The revolution of 1688 is “Glorious” without inverted commas. It is really excessive to describe as a “catastrophe” the Council of Chalcedon (491) which, thanks not least to Pope Leo the Great, courageously reaffirmed the crucial truth that Christ is both truly God and truly man.
And yes, MacCulloch is horrified by the Inquisition, as we all are, especially by the Roman one set up by the future terrible pope, Paul IV. But his review of a recent scholarly study of that tribunal, which showed it to have been considerably less horrific than often lurid anti-Catholic propaganda had claimed, is seriously partisan.
There is another worry. He says several times that Catholics believe in a “corporal” or “corporeal” presence in the Eucharist. He even adds the word “physical” sometimes. That one so accomplished in elucidating even the subtlest differences between Luther and his ex-followers, and between him and other major Protestant leaders such as Bucer, Oecolampadius, Zwingli, Bullinger and, above all, John Calvin (not to mention the radicals who fled to Poland and Hungary, etc), this is alarming. How can he be so inaccurate?
Just about the only theme running through these dazzling essays is that the founders of the Elizabethan Church saw themselves as part of the pan-Protestant movement. But this has often been said by scholars down to our own day. It really is not new.
But then, argues MacCulloch, thanks initially to Hooker, followed by the Arminians and later high churchmen after the restoration of the national Church in 1660, the idea of Anglicanism, the via media between Geneva and Rome, took shape.
The Oxford Movement, he writes, completed the process when “Anglo-Catholics turned their talents to rewriting the English Reformation”. But has this not long been widely agreed?
And here is a final complexity. In MacCulloch’s earlier writings this development, this de-Protestantising, was apparently a bad thing. However, later there is nothing but praise for the “glory of Anglicanism”, its lack of “dogmatism”, its being “a tradition without logic or consistency”. What has wrought this change? We are not told.
But surely we can ask how a stern, rigorous scholar like him can revel in anything “without logic or consistency” and how one as forthright – dare I say dogmatic? – as he often is can applaud the rudderlessness, the “undogmatism” of modern Anglicanism.
This article first appeared in the July 15 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.