Thursday, 6 October 2016

JEH 67/4: Buried treasure

The October number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History is out, and there are several articles I could blog about - Charlotte Kingston's wonderful argument that Gregory the Great's story of finding the devil on a lettuce is not one we should giggle at; Emma Wild-Wood's understated study of African Anglican missionaries at the turn of the twentieth century, beautifully bridging some of the divisions between missionary-led and indigenous-led histories of Christianisation; Eyal Poleg's study of the first Bible printed in England (in Latin), which turns out to be rather more than just a curiosity.

But for me, really, there is no choice: my heart belongs to Winchester. Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I (he died as her Lord Chancellor in 1555) was one of the most hated men in the sixteenth century, reviled by Protestants as 'Wily Winchester', the evil genius whose unseen hand lurked behind every misfortune that befell them. And there is no doubt he had both a certain ruthless lawyer's cunning, and a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way. In person he seems to have been stand-offish and awkward.

And yet ... the man could write. I think he was incontestably the finest religious polemicist writing in English in the generation between the death of Thomas More and William Tyndale, and the rise of John Jewel. And I'd argue he doesn't need to take second rank to any of them. I vividly remember reading his Detection of the Devils Sophistry (1546) and finding myself half-convinced that I did actually believe in transubstantiation ... His reply to William Turner's Hunting and finding out of the Romish fox (1543) only survives in fragmentary part, in the text of Turner's rebuttal of the reply. But even those fragments made it clear that he had essentially demolished large parts of Turner's case, and the rebuttal is no more than blustering restatement of an already shredded argument. And his brilliantly counterintuitive argument opposing attempts to move towards a more 'authentic' pronunciation of ancient Greek in Cambridge is not only immensely powerful, but deeply perceptive in terms of the much bigger issues that were at stake.

He not only could write, he did. During the reign of Edward VI, when most other English religious conservatives were for one reason or other paralysed into silence, Gardiner kept up the battle almost alone. But we know that the texts we have - most of them printed by James Arthur Muller in his indispensable 1933 edition - were not a complete set. We assumed the rest were lost.

Then along comes Spencer Weinreich, in - I am not joking - the first month of his MPhil studies at Oxford. And he finds early 17th century transcripts of two realio, trulio authentic Gardiner letters from the autumn of 1547, hiding in plain sight in a recusant manuscript in the Bodleian. We've just published his transcript of and commentary on them.

To my delight, they are not just Gardiner, but vintage Gardiner. There are some eye-catching details, not least the fact that Gardiner rather rashly cites the ongoing proceedings of the Council of Trent, but there is also simply the man doing what he does. One of the 'letters' is in fact simply a brief memorandum, but the second is a full-length rearguard action against the new regime's religious policies, and in particular the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I won't deprive you of the pleasure of reading it, but one titbit to give you a flavour. The evangelical doctrine of justification, as it was taking shape, insisted that there could be no human participation in justification of any kind, or it would no longer be a free gift and would reintroduce an element of works-righteousness. Nonsense, said Gardiner. Imagine that you invite a guest to your table and feed him for a year. Can he then grouse and claim that the gift was not freely given, because he was required to lift the food to his mouth and to chew it himself?

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