During the 16th century the traditional European clergy gave way to a new, professional kind of cleric. This transformation was by no means an easy transition as traditional structures were often removed without adequate replacement, and changing understandings of the role of the cleric led to a variety of responses from the laity ranging from confusion to contempt.
New conversations around the significance of the priesthood and its role in society took place throughout the western church. Catholic concepts of priesthood had been violently disrupted by religious theorists. In the wake of the decline of the medieval priesthood a new, reformed professional class of priests slowly took shape.
We can develop an image of what the last generation of English Catholic clergy and the new Protestant clergy looked like by examining the changes to clerical careers that took place in the 16th century, the deployment and placement of clergy, and the social mobility of the clergy. The English Protestant clergy of the 17th century are remarkably different than their late medieval counterparts. Catholic clergy were similarly transformed in the Reformation period. So the story of the clerical community in the 16th century is a story of decline and loss.
I. 16th Century Changes in Clerical Careers
The End of the Medieval Priesthood
The sixteenth century was witness to a total transformation in understanding with respect to clerical office. The clergy had previously been thoroughly integrated with the lay community and the structures of medieval society. Significant changes to this integrated model did not take place in England until the 1530s and beyond.
While it can be difficult to discern lay attitudes towards the clergy and the experiences of parochial clergy throughout this transitional time, it is safe to say that there was a struggle over the role and significance of priests. The older medieval understanding of the priest still had currency in England in the 16th century, and in many regions, especially those further from the universities and other large urban centers, there remained a great deal of continuity with the medieval church.
It is important to note that Henry VIII’s split from Rome was not “Protestant” in the full sense; though it created space for Protestants in England to begin to change the religious culture of the country. Hence during the divorce proceedings and the original break with Rome, little changed in the structure of the English Church except for the radical move on Henry’s part to suppress the monasteries of England and appropriate their wealth.
Henry’s son Edward VI (1537-1553) represented a more explicitly Protestant turn for the English church. Though he was young, enthusiastic Protestant teachers had brought him up and he shared their passion for change. It was during this time that Protestantism made inroads in the English church and many of the more significant changes to the structure of the clergy began.
The Clergy Through Changing Religious Commitments
Edward’s advisors sought to implement a policy that would transform the parochial clergy. They had a number of strategies for achieving these goals, including greater education, the suppression of the chantries, and raising the standards required for ordination. This last measure was implemented in part due to fears about the former monks and other clerics dispossessed during Henry’s reign entering the clerical job market and perpetuating continuity with medieval forms of religion.
Edward’s successor was Mary I (1516-1558), known to Protestants as ‘Bloody Mary,’ and her policies sought to return the Church of England to communion with Rome. In order to accomplish her goals, Mary required the laity of England to return to a former model of understanding the clerical office. This was unsuccessful, as the rapid succession of rulers and religions experienced by the English people throughout the 16th century led to a disdainful attitude towards the clerical office, and priests in Mary’s reign complained of being openly mocked and assaulted. Clearly the transcendent respect held for clergy by laity throughout the Middle Ages was broken and never reconstructed.
Even at the time of Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) accession to the English throne, the situation for clerics was dire, and progress towards rectifying this situation was not made until the 17th century. England suffered a clerical crisis for forty years during the Reformation period, and there were a variety of factors in bringing it about.
Clerical Crisis: Alternative Models of Priesthood
One of the major factors in changing attitudes towards clerics was the intervention by religious theorists who questioned the basic role of the clerics in the medieval church structure on a biblical basis. Reformed theology questioned the raison d’être of the clergy, and in so doing split the opinions of both clerics and laity alike on ideological lines.
Catholic theology understood the priest as a mediating figure between divine grace and the fallen people of God. The priest’s administration of the sacramental system was the means by which God’s grace was brought to human beings. In order for an individual to attain grace, the mediation of the priest and the sacraments was absolutely necessary. The medieval mass was an austere rite, and one’s mere presence at the mass was meant to confer the mystical benefits of the transubstantiation and the real presence of Christ.
Protestants challenged the Catholic model of priesthood, claiming the intervention of any human being (save Christ), or any physical elements would aid in attaining God’s grace. Salvation could be accomplished by the action of God alone. Rather, Protestant understanding of the clergy cast them as teachers who could preach the gospel and provide loving care to each and every member of the community.
Protestant ideas promoted assertiveness amongst the laity with respect to religious matters, which exacerbated the situation. But the most significant contribution of Protestant theology to the changing situation of clergy was the redefinition of the altar and the sacraments. These theologies amounted to a critique of the central function of the clerics.
The two opposing models of clerical office were in open conflict in the 16th century, with passionate arguments made on both sides of the debate. The result was a great muddying of the waters, which along with other factors, led to a shattered trust in the priesthood, and a deteriorating opinion of clerics.
These conflicts led to a breakdown in the solidarity of the clerical community. Instead various clerics sought support from one another and from lay allies, but consensus on their social and spiritual role was lost. Religious divisions among clergy and laity, which played out in the streets and in the churches, contributed to the diminution of clerical power. First ideological divisions split the clergy, and then the reality of those divisions led to an undermining of the clerical community, further contributing to their diminished status.
As clerics attempted to rally lay allies to their cause, and appeared increasingly like lay people, the concrete changes in their composition and practice reinforced their ideological loss of authority. As the traditional role broke down, clerics on both sides of the debate became more vulnerable. They appeared more similar to laity, and the boundary became blurred.
The result of all of these factors was a clerical crisis. During the period 1530-1570 there was a shortage of clerics throughout England, with poorer communities suffering more severely. There were vacancies in clerical livings throughout the country sometimes for a few years, but sometimes for decades. The complex medieval clerical community was transformed into a simple configuration of cathedral elite and parish clergy.
Reformed Ideas and the Last Generation of Catholic Clergy
Reformed ideas took hold slowly, though parochial clergy offered little resistance to the reform measures. Changing opinions of the role of clergy saw to this, as the Catholic conception appeared less plausible. “The fact that wicked, or even mundane and mediocre men might be the prime instruments of divine grace was in itself a paradox, and one that contemporaries from all walks of life often found difficult to resolve.” (P. Marshall, The Catholic Priesthood and the English Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 235).
The Church had created inflated expectations of its clergy and was duly repaid. Reformers sought to resolve the problem by altering the clerical role. The Reformation emphasized two points:
- better training and formation for priests, especially their theological training, and
- the authenticity of their calling.
Ironically, reformed arguments about the character of the clergy actually led to a decline in clerical education throughout the forty-year crisis period. While in theory the reformers wanted better training and education, the reality was that they had not won the battle for the kind of education that would be on offer, and the universities were still heavily entangled in scholasticism, as they had been since their founding.
Given this simultaneous battle for the kind of education on offer, reformers were not particularly enthusiastic about supporting clerical education. Many of the better-educated clergy were their most articulate and powerful opponents, defending traditional church teachings against the “new learning” of humanists and reformers.
Doctrinal issues proved to be of greater significance than education itself. This is understandable for both sides given the religious and political climate, but the result was disastrous for average clergy and laypeople.
Edward’s policies aimed at excluding the ex-monks and former members of religious orders from the priestly job market were doctrinal in intent, and helped to increase the large numbers of parish vacancies throughout the realm.
As the number of clerics declined, their social and economic status went with them. Clergy were impoverished or left the profession to seek another source of income. There was very little lay response to their plight. There were a few reasons for this, one being that laypeople had lost much of their respect for the clergy. Another was that governments were reluctant to aid the clergy because they themselves were not unanimous in their religious perspectives. An impoverished and dispossessed clergy was not entirely unwelcome to many of the landowners and patrons whose status was threatened by the religious conflicts that shook England.
The 16th century bore witness to a growing awareness amongst the clerical and political hierarchy that they needed to educate and control the lower clergy. Lower clergy became the medium for new political and religious changes to reach the people, despite that fact that their status had never before been so insecure. Eventually attempts to consolidate and professionalize the clergy paid off, but these efforts bore fruit only after the turn of the century, and represented the end of the English Catholic priesthood.
II. The Deployment of Clerics
By the end of Edward VI’s reign the traditional path to the priesthood was being abandoned. It had previously begun in youth and been a lifelong formation, but as the clerical shortages of the 1540s-1570s were at their most extreme, ad hoc solutions were developed through ordaining ordinary people to lesser offices or to full priesthood. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the disproportionate number of men who were ordained both deacon and priest on the same day.
Parochial Clergy at the Heart of National Debate
The seemingly timeless parochial system was being replaced by an unreliable system of salaried incumbents. It is one of the great ironies of this historical period that as the Protestant Reformation placed unprecedented emphasis on pastoral care; it was increasingly withdrawn from average laypeople.
Nonetheless, humanists and reformers believed in education for parochial clergy, and implemented systematic attempts to educate them and to disseminate reformed theology from 1538 onwards (with the exception of Mary’s reign, where many Protestant leaders were driven underground or into exile). The vacancies and the decline in education that took place during the 16th century are demonstrative of the way in which Protestants fell victim to their own high ideals, much as the Catholics had before them.
By the 1570s, curiously, reformers such as Matthew Parker (1504-1575) argued that the lowered standards for ordination were no longer necessary, as they merely contributed to the low opinion of the clerical role. And so the tide was beginning to turn in the reformers’ favour. By the 1580s there were more graduate clergy, representing much higher percentages of the parish priests in dioceses like London and Oxford, though this trend took decades longer to reach areas that were more remote from the universities.
The movement towards a reformed clergy was not without difficulties, which continued from the earlier decades of the English Reformation and were largely the result of mutinous lay attitudes and extreme poverty. There were challenges in implementing the ideal of an educated clergy for in 1584 only 600 of the 9,000 parishes in England could afford to support a graduate clergyman.
However, the consolidation and professionalization efforts of the reformers were ultimately successful, and in the 17th century the church was a career for even its humblest members. But the lost ground of the Reformation could not be made up right away, and the difficulties of the period are illuminating.
Loss of Respect for the Clerical Office and Economic Downturn
The vacancies in parish livings began in the 1530s and became increasingly dire until the 1560s. Some of these lasted only a few years, while others lasted decades. There were a variety of factors that caused this phenomenon. There were Edward’s policies of standards for ordination. As well, there was the decreasing respect lay folk had for the clergy, leading them to encourage their children to avoid a career path so fraught with challenges.
Yet even when more people graduated from universities, ecclesiastical poverty, and the system of patronage affected where graduates could go. Most parishes being unable to afford a clergyman had to contend with the changing economic circumstances of the 16th century. Widespread economic downturn affected laypeople significantly, and left them with little to pay their clergy.
During this period, there were changes in laws around tithes, which had previously been based on income. While income from tithes was maintained, they were lessened a great deal, and new tithes on ownership of property were instituted in an attempt to alleviate stresses from poorer laypeople. Nonetheless, tithe policy and tithe collection were two very different things, and many parish priests found collecting tithes challenging or impossible. This led to “tithe suits” where laypeople were taken to court in order to enforce their payment of tithes. These practices further exacerbated distrust of clergy.
There were acts passed by parliament in 1536 and 1549 that altered the method of tithe payment. These instituted the transition from personal tithes on profits and income to tithes based on rent. The second act reduced the rent tithes and brought back tithes on income. As mentioned, there were significant problems with this system and with collections.
Despite tithing practices and collections, the Reformation brought about situation where clergy were very much at the mercy of laypeople. They were dependent upon them for their financial well being as older endowments from the church had shifted into lay hands after the break with Rome. The vacancies can be attributed to a variety of factors, but one thing they suggest is that laypeople wanted to maintain control of their finances during difficult economic times.
Part of the motivation for laypeople maintaining control over the parishes was that there were regular conflicts over local pulpits, and religious convictions differed amongst laypeople and amongst clergy. Laypeople were cautious and selective when it came to the clergy they would allow to serve them.
Competitiveness and Atomization in Declining Clerical Market
The culture of Reform shattering the clerical community left the clerical job market a very competitive environment. There were many positions available but few of them provided the economic promise of a decent life. Many were very impoverished. Competitiveness came along with atomization, so before the full professionalization of the clergy, the life of a cleric was very isolated from clerical solidarity, increasing the dependence upon laypeople.
The competitive clerical environment led to a variety of strategies for cobbling together a living. Urban preaching could supplement a meager parish income, and so the desire to find individual preaching positions was high. Another tactic was pluralism, where a clergyman held multiple parish and administrative positions in order to collect more money. Incumbents had to combine pastoral, administrative, and preaching functions in order to scrape by. There were both official and non-official versions of these strategies.
This state of affairs did bother reformed authorities who were committed both to heightening education and to emphasizing pastoral care as the vocation of the clergy. While they managed to accomplish the first with amazing ease, they found the latter much harder to administer. They devised a strategy whereby they would serve vacant parishes through a combination of educated clergy in pluralist situation, with support from trained laypeople called readers.
This was a good strategy aimed at attaining one of the reformers primary goals, but it encountered real resistance from the old patronage system. The patronage of many of the parish livings were held by laypeople, who were reluctant to deviate from traditional patterns of ownership and endowment. The landed classes simply used their financial clout to prevent these measures of reform and pastoral work. This pattern cropped up again and again throughout the crisis period.
This meant that the presence of uneducated, untenured, stipendiary clergy as primary parish curates was almost unavoidable without an overhaul of the patronage system which would have threatened assumptions about private property and opened up further questions concerning control of the pulpit. These repercussions were intolerable to the landed classes, and so change was slow in coming, and traditional systems of patronage and private property remained unchallenged.
Insecure, part-time work for clerics casts the 16th century in a familiar light. Landed classes refused to aid the clergy during their time of need or cooperate with the plans of reformers who hoped to bring pastoral care to people in England. It took until Elizabeth’s reign for the ideas of the Reformation to make a significant impact on average English people, besides representing a source of chaos and upheaval.
Enthusiastic Protestantism among parochial clergy had to wait until the return of the Marian exiles. Their strengthened resolve and the missionary example of the Swiss Reformed church ever in their minds brought a new energy and momentum to the stagnating English Reformation. The exiles returned throughout the 1560s, and many of them took up church positions. They determined to give pastoral care regardless of the obstacles, and slowly English popular religious sentiment began to shift.
III. Social Status and Mobility of Clergy
As we have been exploring so far, the social status of the clergy suffered a series of blows in the 16th century and really struggled to recover. Throughout the 16th century the status and popularity of the clergy remained highly questionable. One anecdote tells of a Cornish parishioner returning from Mass during Mary’s reign claiming that he had just seen what he hadn’t been able to see for the past for years. His neighbour opines that he wishes all priests would be hanged. The variable opinions of lay folk demonstrate the precariousness of the clerical position.
Lay Perspective on the Clergy
Most laypeople recognized the precarious position the clergy were in, and so encouraged their families to avoid that career. Although there were economic motivations, and the competitiveness of clerical life appeared very unappealing, the evidence shows that it was not primarily for financial reasons that laypeople avoided the clergy.
“As on the continent, the ministry became more popular as a career when its status rose and standards of admission became more rigorous, not when it became more lucrative. Looked at in this way, it seems reasonable to suppose that the shortage of clergy in the 1560s and 1570s was the result of doubts cast upon the status of the ministry much earlier during the English Reformation when Protestantism had yet little hold on the minds of the people.”
The decline in education and popularity during the 1560s and 1570s and the clerical crisis also brought with it decreased opportunities for advancement. Finances were closely connected to this decline, but it is clear they were not the only factor. The rug had been pulled out from under the traditional significance of the clerical office.
Rising Costs of Living
The dire economic situation affected everyone in England at the time. The cost of living in the first half of the 16th century rose 175%, and by the 1560s it had risen to 268% of pre-Reformation levels. This remarkable increase is indicative of the collapse of the older medieval financial order that came about, not only due to the Reformation, but due to social, economic and political factors. There was a growing urban population, and although systems of patronage remained, the feudal model was being transformed and consolidated by landed classes.
Clergy as a Professional Class
In Elizabeth’s reign, the situation of clergymen in England slowly improved. Elizabeth brought stability and demanded loyalty. Under her auspices the clerical estate was allowed to rebuild from the damage it had suffered. What emerged was a newly minted profession, which did not have a precedent in the medieval context. With the turn of the century and the accession of James I, the clerical career became increasingly respectable, and finally vacancies were filled with university-educated clergy.
The social status of the clergy in their Protestant incarnation was closely related to the awareness of being a separate profession. Their university connections generated solidarity between them and a new sense of community. The fractious, competitive, isolated environment of the 16th century was left behind. Intermarriage and clerical dynasties began to emerge after 1600. And on the eve of the English civil war the situation of clergy was dramatically different than it had been a century earlier.
Marriage represents an interesting case study in the transformation from the last generation of English Catholic clergy to Protestant ministers. The problem of clerical marriage had been central in the 16th century and represents a good example of the way that theologies and practices intersected to change the face of the church.
In 1567 Matthew Parker summarized the problem, asking whether a priest could still perform their duties if they were married? These considerations demonstrated the centrality of the Bible to 16th century English Protestants. They identified the prohibition of clerical marriage as an innovation, and hence as a mark of the false church.
This view was especially pushed by the Marian exiles who upon their return to England identified married clergy as Protestant. They were certainly disproportionately deprived during the Marian period. The status of clerical wives was uncertain, and they still faced many obstacles to marriage. The livelihood of priests in the 16th century was too meagre to attract many women to that still new role in social life.
What were the effects of marriage on clergymen is a question of debate. Were families an economic burden or an aid? It appears they were an aid in some cases and a burden in others. What was the experience like of having to repent of carnal sin before one’s congregation in the Marian period? Such displays likely evoked shame and confusion both in clergy and in laypeople.
Little is written about the experiences of the clerical wives, and why they might choose such a life for themselves. In most cases their experiences remain hidden from historical research. Though one has to imagine the feeling of being spurned and ostracized during the Marian period would be far more tragic for the wives than for the priests themselves, who were allowed to keep their status.
Lifting the prohibition on clerical marriage was part of the essentially religious mission of reformers. They hoped to restore Biblical religion, purged of idolatry. And the institution of clerical marriage legally in the 1540s was a victory for the Protestant mission. However it also demonstrates the problems faced by the English church as a whole during the 16th century. “The Protestant message, even if it was preached by a minister with reformist sympathies, was likely to be treated with skepticism by those who had seen the same minister married in 1549, but separated from his wife and celebrating Mass in 1554.”
The English conversation on marriage was not isolated, and the marriage of Luther and other German reformers in the 1520s dominated discussion. Nonetheless in the English context the practice proved to further confuse the Protestant cause, and give a divided message to laypeople. This is indicative of the social status of English clergy in the 16th century; it was throughout the period an occasion of conflict, and the subject of significant doubt.
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.
The 16th century in England is a story of slow transformation. Often missteps were taken and ideals failed to be achieved. In terms of clerical life at the time, and their career prospects, it was a story of decline. Doctrinal concerns overrode questions of clerical education, the stability of their lives, even their safety and that of their families.
The status of the clergy was constantly in question, and Protestant reformers forever destroyed the stability of the clerical community that existed in medieval England. The old complex parochial system seemed eternal to everyone involved. It was thoroughly integrated with English society and provided the basis and source of spiritual life. The doctrines and practices of the English church were not in question for the average English person, and to a large extent it is this habitual, traditional attitude towards collective religious life and worship that lends the Anglican church the liturgical character it still has today.
However, religious conflict had the twofold effect of setting the clergy against one another, and of making them dependent upon the laity. The clergy fragmented along ideological lines and were thrust into fierce competition. These tendencies broke down the trust and status clergy had enjoyed during the medieval period.
“What had been an easily recognizable and definable body, albeit with many sub-groups, was becoming a loosely defined group of individuals, many of whom claimed no collegial relationship. The individual cleric was left to find support where he could among both fellow clerics and the laity.”