John Wycliffe: A Fascinating Case Study of a Political Churchman

I’m studying several biographies of John Wycliffe (link) in preparation for a lecture on his life this Sunday evening. At the same time (a happy coincidence), I’ve been studying what I believe to be the dangers of politicizing Christianity, especially for church leaders. (link 1, link 2) The two studies converge remarkably, for Wycliffe is known for both his political and theological stands in 14th century England.

Early in Wycliffe’s ministerial career, he was called upon to assist England in its attempt to throw off the political and financial dominion of the Pope. A century and a half earlier, in 1213, England’s King John (the thumb sucker from Disney’s Robin Hood for all you history buffs) had essentially given England to Pope Innocent and his successors, actually laying his crown on the floor in subservience, submitting to rule as the Pope’s vassal, and promising to pay the Pope an annual tribute of 1000 marks. The exercise of that authority waned for a time, but in Wycliffe’s day, in 1365-66, Pope Urban V tried to reassert that authority over a much-strengthened England, requiring that King Edward III and England pay him 33 years’ worth of “back taxes” (if you will), an enormous amount of money. To make matters worse, the Papacy was then in the middle of “The Babylonian Captivity,” ruling from Avignon, France—England’s long-time enemy, with whom England was engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. Infuriated, both King and Parliament appealed to John Wycliffe, the pride of Oxford, to provide a compelling answer. A loyal Englishman, he complied, writing his Determination in defiance of the Pope’s claim to civil authority and thereby endearing himself to his King and country as a national hero. For a time.

However, when in his later years Wycliffe opposed the Pope and his Church for religious rather than political abuses, his popularity diminished. He was summarily abandoned and rejected—by friends, by Parliament, and even by his beloved Oxford. People love having a national pastor, it seems, so long as he keeps his nose out of the Scriptures.

Was Wycliffe right to invest his considerable influence in the political issues of his day? Well, one can’t deny that the Roman Church (which owned roughly one third of all English property) had grievously overstepped its authority in a way that was bad both for the country and Christianity. Further, it was both a political and spiritual matter, as involved not only the state but the Church. Perhaps most importantly, England’s defiance of the Pope provided another crack in the armor of the Church, preparing the way for the ultimate defiance of the Roman Church in the Reformation some 150 years later. Wycliffe had a right to speak as an Englishman as well as as a Christian, just as American Christians today have the right and responsibility to influence our nation as engaged citizens, especially when there are biblical issues at stake.

That said, it’s interesting to me that Wycliffe devoted the final years of his life to spiritual matters—opposing the Roman Church for theological matters (such as Transubstantiation), translating the Scriptures into English, and training and deploying faithful preachers, the Lollards. The results of these endeavors changed the world, one soul at a time.

The Morning Star of the Reformation was popular as long as he used his brilliant mind and eloquent tongue for political ends. But when he preached the message of the gospel? He was an embarrassment to his nation—and a mighty tool in the hand of God.

Perhaps there’s something to be learned here.

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Note: It is a bit difficult—and perhaps a bit misleading—to use Wycliffe as “a case study of a political churchman.” On the one hand, it is undeniable that he was a nationalistic champion for England for taking up its cause against Rome. Thus, biographers such as Douglas C. Wood refer to the “political phase” of his life (vs. later spiritual/theological phases). On the other hand, it is equally true that Wycliffe argued effectively against church participation in government—be it Rome’s abuse of it’s power, or the tendency for clergy to fill political offices, both of which he condemned. So in one sense, he was the consummate “political churchman,” while in another sense, he was opposed to “political churchmen.” It’s complicated.

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