3: Recruitment, Training, and Ordination

The Reformation inaugurated significant changes in attitudes and expectations around the clergy, as well as understandings of their social function. These changes meant that questions of clerical training came to be a central concern for governments and church officials alike. In countries where reformed ideas took hold, the church became a new arm of the government, meaning that secular authorities found themselves monitoring and influencing church decisions in an unprecedented way. In Catholic countries, despite the international structure of the church hierarchy, the Catholic Reformation brought with it widespread changes to social organization, and secular authorities similarly took on new roles, and collaborated with ecclesiastical authorities in developing new forms of order and control. In both Protestant and Catholic countries, education was at the center of the conversation and proved to be the key to realizing a vision for Christian society in the future.

Throughout Europe, and later North America, in the Reformation and Early Modern periods, we can identify three important changes in the clergy that affected their formation and their role.

  • The first is an increase in clerical learning. Education was the central focus of conversations surrounding the clergy at the time, and the educational institutions serving the clergy improved in the scope of the learning offered.
  • Second is a fundamental change in the perception of who the clerics were. They were no longer understood as sacral specialists in the manner of medieval priests, but as counselors, pastors, and men of letters.
  • Third was a change in attitude amongst the clergy themselves. As clergy were increasingly educated their sense of cohesion amongst themselves took on a new character. Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries ministering clergy were less and less drawn from the local populace and trained locally, and increasingly were the products of university educations, and emerged as their own unique socio-professional group. This created distance between them and the populace they were trained to serve.

The new attitudes towards the clergy, and the methods developed to recruit and train them, led to a situation where a discrepancy emerged between the ideals of the Reformation and the social situation created by the attempt to institute those ideals. While this process was taking place throughout Europe, here the focus will be the specific example of England. In so doing, we can look at specific instances of the wider trends that will demonstrate the complexity of the Reformation world and the centrality of education and clerical formation in the emergence of modernity.

I. England

Henry VII and the English Reformation

Henry VIII
Henry VIII (Wikimedia Commons)

The Church of England famously separated from the Church of Rome in the reign of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547). Although he did not begin as an enemy of the Catholic Church, and was even named ‘defender of the faith’ by the pope for his refutations of Luther, a dispute over his desire for a divorce and remarriage led to Henry declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534. Henry remained a believer in core elements of Catholic teaching, but his break with Rome created the space for the seeds of Protestantism that had been sown in England by the likes of John Wycliffe (1320-1384) to flourish. It is also important to note that along with struggles for crown and parliament, struggles to control the universities were characteristic of the ensuing battle for the future and the soul of England.

Humanism and the Medieval Church

While humanism had made significant inroads in the educated establishment in England, in London and in the universities, in the early 16th century these trends had failed to touch most of the country. There was still a great deal of continuity with the medieval church in most of rural England, which the reformers sought to change. The method for implementing this shift was to come through education. By raising educational standards, Christian humanists hoped to reform parochial clergy.

Medieval Chantry
Medieval Chantry

The state of the education of the clergy was found to be rather dire. A passion for the institution of the chantry in the late middle ages had left large endowments for the recruitment of priests. Chantries were chapels and tombs where a wealthy donor was laid to rest and priests were commissioned to say regular masses to ease their passing through purgatory. Given the large numbers of these endowments, large numbers of people were ordained as clergy in the early 16th century despite the fact that they did not meet the appropriate standards. Standards revolved around memorization of the New Testament and the articles of the faith. Of the hundreds of clergy ordained in York in the early 16th century, for example, only 28 were university graduates.

In the reign of Henry’s young son Edward VI (1537-1553), the king sought to abolish the chantries and appropriate their funds, and to spread reform doctrines throughout the realm. These priorities led to assessments of the existing parochial clergy, and the vast majority of them were judged to be of extremely poor learning.

The archiepiscopal admonitions of 1538 represented the first systematic attempt to improve clerical learning and disseminate reformed theology. They gave an injunction to clergy to acquire a copy of an English or Latin Bible, and to read two books of the New Testament and one of the Old each day, and to do their best to understand it. Clergy were encouraged to memorize the epistles of Paul, and to read The Institution of a Christian Man (also called The Bishop’s Book, 1537 because it was compiled by a committee of English bishops and clergy. It expounded the Creed, sacraments, Decalogue, Lord's Prayer, and Hail Mary, and dealt with various questions disputed between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.), which was meant to be an authoritative exposition of matters of faith.

Monarchy and the Universities in Reformed England

The 16th century was a highly volatile time in England with a rapid succession of monarchs. After Edward’s brief reign, his half-sister Mary (1516-1558) rose to the throne and attempted to restore Catholicism in England. This attempt was violent but ultimately abortive and, though it did also include a mandate to establish seminaries for the training and ordination of clergy throughout England. Her plan to establish seminaries died with her, and when Elizabeth (1533-1603) ascended to the throne and restored Protestantism, Oxford and Cambridge were the only places in England empowered to ordain clergy.

Elizabeth I in her Coronation Robes
Elizabeth I in her Coronation Robes (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth I inherited a monarchy that she felt was under profound threat. The traditional legitimacy of the monarchy was shaken by the Reformation and by Mary’s reversion to Catholicism. The English people were left bewildered by the rapid succession of rulers and religions as to fundamental questions of temporal and eternal significance. Not only that, many parishes had gone without a priest for a decade or more, so the lines of communication throughout the Church of England had been broken.

To rectify the situation Elizabeth turned to the universities. Public opinion in the country at the time held that only the universities could restore proper spiritual leadership. Throughout the 16th century, the universities had become sites for increasing political control. Academics had been necessary during the struggle over Henry’s divorce, and since then they had never quite left the political spotlight.

Elizabeth’s own enforcement of religious control on the universities was minimal; she sought outward conformity and seeming order. The primary purpose of uniformity in her reign was to prevent Catholics from gaining a foothold in the universities, as the legitimacy of her succession from Henry rested on the maintenance of an official Protestantism.

II. Universities

New Roles for the University

Throughout Europe, students who continued their studies beyond Latin school were destined for roles that required university degrees. This was the case whether they were clergy, lawyers, medical doctors, or politicians, these being roles that occupied the most important positions in society. The emphasis in the Reformation on university education fed the growth of universities, though in general their expansion had take place before the Reformation.

Crest of Heidelberg University
Crest of Heidelberg University (Wikimedia Commons)

Before the Reformation there were around fifty universities in Europe, and the reformers founded twenty more. The Reformation and the confessional changes it brought significantly affected the universities; they became the sites for the formation of the new reformed clergy. By the end of the 16th century, eighty five percent of the clergy in the Palatinate, for example, were alumni of Heidelberg University.


In areas with more limited resources, Catholics and Protestants alike sought to establish academies for the education of clergy. They were smaller scale but offered similar programs of formation to the universities. Institutions of this sort appeared in Geneva, Zurich, and in France, where eight academies were established between 1560 and 1604. These institutions focused primarily on the formation of clergy, and had close ties with ecclesiastical authorities.

Reformers and University Education: England

The links between the reformers and university education are clear, through both the use of these institutions to prepare Protestant clergy and the high level of involvement on the part of Protestant ecclesiastical authorities. While magistrates maintained financial control of academies and universities, assemblies of clergy oversaw the day-to-day affairs.

In the case of England, this line of influence ran in both directions, and the 16th century was a time where new roles were envisioned for academic institutions. Without divesting the universities of the duty to train clergy, the 16th century thrust upon them the duty to cultivate the proper religious ideas. The universities were understood to have grown closer to society as a whole in this period. They came to be used as a link between the aspirations of royal power and the people themselves. As such, religious controls were established over the universities, and issues of doctrine became paramount.

In the Elizabethan period, the enforcement of church uniformity achieved a very clear political end. It was not driven by spiritual concerns alone, despite the desires of reformers. Elizabeth needed the episcopacy to reinforce her rule, and she favoured Catholic styles of worship in continuity with the past. These preferences allowed Elizabeth to chart a middle way between the radical Protestant reformers and the traditionalists who all had to share the emerging national church. The preferences demonstrated a will towards national unity, and a consolidation of royal and ecclesiastical power, which assured legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were at the crux of this power struggle.

III. Oxford and Cambridge

The English universities were the arena of political and religious struggle in Tudor England. They drew closer to English society in the 16th century and central government interest in the universities increased from the 1530s. There is a tendency in older scholarship to present a divide between the two universities, a radical puritan Cambridge as opposed to a more traditional Oxford. This division is over-emphasized, however, for both universities were the site of the struggles between reformers and traditionalists.

University College, Oxford
University College, Oxford (Wikimedia Commons)

Curriculum and Character of the English Universities

The curriculum taught at the English universities in the 16th century was still structured around the seven liberal arts from the Middle Ages. The subjects of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and geometry remained central supplemented by a focus on languages and classical literature as humanism rose to prominence. In the 17th century as forms of knowledge changed and developed, there was an increased focus on subjects like mathematics and astronomy. The faculty of canon law, long a hallmark of the medieval universities, was officially closed in 1535, signaling the break with the medieval church.

By the 17th century the universities saw sharp declines in the numbers of students. At Oxford in 1600 there were 370 students, falling in the 1610s and rising again slightly in the 1620s. At Cambridge the most significant numbers demonstrate total members, including faculty and fellows, with 1783 in the year 1575 falling throughout the early 17th century. After the English Civil War both universities saw a leveling and stabilizing in numbers. There was no serious recovery for centuries, and increasingly the hard core of students were clergymen to be.

As clerical education became the prerogative of the universities alone, it appears that the pendulum had swung quite far in the opposite direction from the early reformers’ concerns with clerical education being too sacramental and pastorally focused to the detriment of doctrine. For example, in the years 1606-1620, one-tenth the number of clergy were ordained as in the same period one hundred years earlier. However, what they lacked in quantity they made up for in quality of academic education, for every single one of them held a university degree, mostly either a bachelors or masters of arts. These degrees were hardly suitable training for the realities of clerical life. While they had some preaching expertise, they had little experience ministering to the laity.

Religious education in the universities, despite their mandate to educate clergy, was largely extracurricular. There were regular chapel services and lectures on issues of religious significance. Most of the students took on these extracurricular elements of their education diligently and faithfully. One professor is recorded as having recommended to students to proceed directly from their tutor’s chambers in the evenings to their private prayers and bible studies. It is clear students had a great appetite for religious discourse, lectures, and catechetical practice.

Lady Margaret, John Fisher, and the First Stirrings of English Humanism

John Fisher
John Fisher (Wikimedia Commons)

Lady Margaret Beaufort
Lady Margaret Beaufort (Wikimedia Commons)

A number of key figures shed light on the cultural climate of the English universities in this period. Historically first among them is the chancellor of Cambridge John Fisher (1469-1535), and his relationship with Lady Margaret Beaufort (c. 1441-1509) cemented his legacy and influence. Lady Margaret was grandmother of Henry VIII and a prominent figure during the Wars of the Roses. She was known for her generous patronage of the universities, and at Fisher’s behest, she founded two colleges at Cambridge and crucially established a professorship in divinity.

Fisher became Lady Margaret’s spiritual director, and while beforehand she had been a patron of both Oxford and Cambridge, her friendship with Fisher soon led her to focus primarily on Cambridge. Lady Margaret’s patronage combined with Fisher’s connections with Yorkshire gentry and humanist churchmen in London led to a steady stream of benefactions to the university. However, the influence of Fisher and Lady Margaret extended beyond financial considerations.

Fisher also invited the celebrated humanist Erasmus to lecture at Cambridge, which as we have seen previously was instrumental in cultivating the attitudes that led to the English Reformation. Similarly, the chair Lady Margaret established in divinity, with its mandate to offer public lectures in theology, became a crucial element in the developments that shaped the tenor of reformed English theology.

The professorship was endowed by Lady Margaret and founded in 1502. The position was up for re-election every two years. The first professor to hold Lady Margaret’s Chair was Dr. Humphrey Walkden (who held the professorship in the years around 1520), a friend of Erasmus whose theological leanings shed light on what the professors taught in the early days. Walkden was a dedicated scholastic who lectured from Peter Lombard’s Sentences. However, the ensuing break with Rome would change theology at Cambridge forever.

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell (Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Cromwell and the Reformed University

Cromwell was a powerful advocate of the English reformation, and is sometimes credited as the chief architect of Henry VIII’s divorce and the break from Rome. Although he was later executed as a traitor and a heretic, his influence would long be felt in the English academic establishment.

John Redman, and the English Church

Cromwell’s banishment of Catholic intellectuals from the universities created the space for a new generation of thinkers to take up the mantle of theology, and Lady Margaret’s professorship. John Redman (1499-1551) held the professorship during this period, from 1538-1542. He is considered to be mid-Tudor Cambridge’s most prominent theologian. He lectured in the new humanist style directly from the Scriptures.

More than that, John Redman was English in a deep sense that casts light on the character of the English Church. His theology prefigures what would come to be some of the most important debates of the church in the Elizabethan period and beyond: i.e. the central Protestant doctrine of salvation through grace by faith, with a special emphasis on the inefficacy of earthly works in contrast to Catholic doctrine.

The most hard line Calvinist position also argued for a doctrine called ‘double predestination’ which was official religious doctrine in England in the 16th century. Double predestination argues that God decided which of the human souls would be saved and which would be condemned even before the founding of the world, emphasizing the inefficacy of human works to an extreme degree. The reformers who subscribed to this doctrine would praise the epistles of Paul and heap ridicule on the epistle of James, which says that ‘faith without works is dead.’

John Redman sought a reconciliation of Paul and James. He attempted to chart a middle way between the religious extremes of his day, and in so doing he earned the respect of all concerned. Redman was Augustinian, rather than Lutheran or Calvinist. He claimed that a justified person in this life is in perpetual need of growth in justice. This moderated position on the question of justification would also characterize the approach of church leadership in the Elizabethan period and beyond.

Laurence Chaderton and the Puritans

Despite the eventual moderation of Calvinist theology in the Church of England, prominent Calvinist intellectuals played an important role both in generating the moral conscience of the church, and in educating its ministers. The Calvinists in the English universities and beyond in the wider culture, came to be known as the Puritans.

John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester
John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester (Wikipedia Commons)

There was a real lack of success in English clerical training. John Hooper (c.1495–1555), Bishop of Gloucester, developed a test for English clergy asking a few simple questions to test their knowledge of the faith. These questions consisted of things like:

  • What are the Ten Commandments?
  • Where can they be found in the Bible?
  • Where in the Bible can the Lord’s Prayer be found?
  • Why is it called the Lord’s Prayer?

There were three hundred and eleven clergy examined and it was found that one hundred and sixty eight of them were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments.

Laurence Chaderton
Laurence Chaderton (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the Puritans who filled the need, whereby, typically, a group of preachers would expound a passage of Scripture, moving through particular books, in the course of which a systematic theology evolved and practical and pastoral questions were addressed.

In a university context, this method could be applied more rigorously. At Cambridge, Laurence Chaderton (1536-1640) brought together scholars trained in the humanities, Greek and Hebrew philology, Greek and Roman history, comparative exegesis, rhetoric and logic. Weekly conferences were held at which one scholar dealt with the original language, another with grammatical interpretation, another with logical analysis, another with ‘the true sense and meaning of the text’, and another with the doctrines. Here was a cooperative method of training that possessed considerable flexibility.

Chaderton was a real force for the Puritan cause. He was a compelling and persuasive orator and writer. Elizabethan Puritans singled out his educational program for endorsement. For the regular curriculum for students it involved two kinds of training: biblical studies, and disputation. Biblical studies included training in Greek and Hebrew, as well as the art of rhetoric, then logic, and a comparative approach to scripture with commentary. Finally, students of the Bible needed deep knowledge of Greek and Roman history.

John Rainolds
John Rainolds (Wikimedia Commons)

At Oxford, John Rainolds (1549-1607), another prominent Puritan intellectual, developed a very similar scheme for the curriculum for clergy. However in Rainolds’ version much more emphasis was placed on the study of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvinism and its offspring, Puritanism, provoked a conservative reaction, and in the late 16th and early 17th century there was a descent into arguments over the doctrine of predestination and the availability of God’s grace for all. The Puritans were dealt blows during this period, and in the 17th century, orthodoxy was wrested from Calvinism at Oxford and Cambridge.

Lady Margaret’s Chair, and Shifting Theological Commitments

The Lady Margaret chair at Cambridge played an important symbolic role throughout these controversies. Prominent Puritan Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) held the chair (1569-70). He argued for a Presbyterian organization of the church, and was eventually exiled. The monarchy felt too existentially connected to the episcopacy to allow for such a profound restructuring of the church.

During the period of Marian exile, English Protestant academics had an experience of the Lord’s Supper which the felt to be much more biblical. In contrast to the Catholic mass with its elaborate devotional apparatus, reformers read in the New Testament what appeared to them as descriptions of a common meal in remembrance of Christ utterly different in form and sentiment from the mass. In exile in Europe during Mary’s reign in the 1550s, they experienced communion as a common meal around a table.

Despite these proclivities towards a biblical purity, a certain English pragmatism won out in the end. Peter Baro (1534-1599) later held the Lady Margaret professorship from 1574, and he represented a theological tradition that would come to be known as Arminianism, which eventually gained the upper hand over the Puritans. Baro and his allies were instrumental in turning the tide of religious opinion in the universities.

IV. Conclusions

The ferocity of the theological debates throughout the Reformation period marked the English nation with divisions. The clergy produced from that environment were in many cases ill suited to the parochial parishes they eventually occupied. Misunderstanding between clerics and laity abounded. The clerics saw themselves increasingly as an independent class. And they began to develop clerical dynasties, with the sons of university-educated clerics also attending university and taking over their fathers’ positions.

Furthermore, the manner in which education was structured, depending upon patronage and the ability to move within courtly circles, increased the distance between clerics and people. Rather than being locally trained and educated, clergy were imports from the university. The students who were able to attend the universities increasingly came from the gentry class, and the emergence of clerical dynasties reinforced this trend.

The culture that emerged in English society increasingly privileged careers that moved between the clerical establishment, academia, and government roles. This culture was at odds with the Protestant ideal of a minister who is completely focused on pastoral duties and preaching, as diligent attentiveness to these duties was not rewarded.

The techniques for recruiting, training, and ordaining clergy in the Reformation period contributed to advances in academic culture, new discoveries in biblical scholarship, the availability of vernacular bibles, and an enduring attitude privileging the authenticity of Scriptural tradition. They also left a legacy of a divided society, along fault lines of class and ideology. The policies of a tumultuous England drove separatist Puritans to the shores of America, and created theological and political conflicts that eventually boiled over in the English Civil War. In retrospect we might say that there were flaws in the original English religious settlement that gave rise to these conflicts. But at the same time they gave rise to the Church of England as it has endured to this day, prizing thoughtfulness and the value of moderation—trends which have deeply shaped the society we still live in today.