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Feast of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus (July 6)   Leave a comment

Above:  Dawn with Mountain Landscape

Image in the Public Domain

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JOHN WYCLIFFE (CIRCA 1320-DECEMBER 31, 1384)

English Theologian and Church Reformer

“Morning Star of the Reformation”

Also known as John Wiclif, John Wickliffe, and John Wyclif

Episcopal feast day = October 30

Church of England feast day = December 31

influenced

JAN HUS (1371-JULY 6, 1415)

Czech Theologian, Church Reformer, and Martyr

Also known as John Huss and John Hus

Moravian, Episcopal, and Lutheran feast day = July 6

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It is better to die well than to live wickedly.  One should not sin in order to avoid the punishment of death.  Truth conquers all things.

–Jan Hus, 1415, quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 292

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INTRODUCTION

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One of my purposes in renovating my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days is to emphasize relationships and influences.  Therefore I, citing the latter, merge the Feasts of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.

The Moravian Church, founded by Hussites, has long commemorated Hus, who has been a saint in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), and their predecessors since the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978).  The Episcopal Church added Hus and Wycliffe to its calendar in 2009.  Meanwhile, Wycliffe, with separate feast days in The Church of England and The Episcopal Church, has remained absent from all Lutheran calendars I have consulted.

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THE “MORNING STAR OF THE REFORMATION”

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Above:  John Wycliffe

Image in the Public Domain

The fourteenth century was a difficult time for much of Europe.  During five years in the late 1340s and early 1350s the Black Death killed no less than two-fifths (and probably more) of the population of Western Europe, upending civilization there and helping to give rise to the modern world.  The tumult of that time called authorities and institutions into question as, for example, many peasants revolted, many urban workers asserted their rights, and the Church restaffed with substandard personnel.  The devastating death toll called the legitimacy of the Church into doubt in the minds of many people, some of whom favored apocalyptic understandings of recent events.

Meanwhile, the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (1309-1377) at Avignon, France, a great scandal, was a self-inflicted wound for Holy Mother Church.  Another great scandal and self-inflicted wound, the Great Schism of the Papacy (1378-1417), ensued promptly.

John Wycliffe lived during those times.  He, born near Richmond, Yorkshire, England, circa 1320, was a priest.  Wycliffe was also an academic at Oxford University.  He matriculated at Baillol College in 1344, became master of that college by 1360, and resigned in 1361.  He held overlapping portfolios:

  1. Rector of Fillingham (1361-1368);
  2. Prebend of Aust, Bristol (1362-1384);
  3. Warden of Canterbury Hall, Oxford (1365-1367); and
  4. Rector of Lutterworth (1374-1384).

Meanwhile, Wycliffe was also a lecturer at Oxford until his forced retirement in 1381.

Wycliffe, a popular lecturer and preacher, became a radical.  He, interested in science, theology, local history, canon law, and philosophy, earned various degrees, culminating in his Doctor of Theology degree in 1372.  His move away from affirming the status quo began in 1374, at the start of the last decade of his life.  (Not everyone grows more conservative with age.)  Wycliffe served as a royal envoy to a conference with papal representative at Bruges.  The topic was provisions, or papal appointments to posts not yet vacant.

By 1376 Wycliffe became a committed reformer of the Church.  He criticized papal taxation, fees, and appointments, perhaps more out of political considerations than theological ones.  Our saint, who affirmed the Divine Right of Kings, became convinced that in terms of both doctrine and life the Church had strayed from its apostolic roots.  He argued that the clergy should not hold secular power, so no Pope should exercise power over the English Church.  Furthermore, Wycliffe wrote, Christ is the sole Head of the Universal Church, the Bible is the Law of God, and the true Church consists solely of the predestined Elect.  Wycliffe also affirmed the priesthood of all believers, questioned the theology of purgatory and transubstantiation, opposed the veneration of relics and statues, inveighed against the invocation of saints, criticized the celibacy of the clergy, and insisted that the state (with the monarch as the head of the state church) had an obligation to seize church lands for the benefit of the poor.  Certainly the Great Schism of the Papacy (1378-1417), a time of competing Supreme Pontiffs, influenced and reinforced Wycliffe’s criticism of the Papacy.

Wycliffe alarmed Popes, bishops, and leaders of religious orders, but had protectors in the royal family and among the nobility.  Nevertheless, after he became a scapegoat for a peasant revolt and Oxford authorities declared him a heretic in 1381, forced retirement became his fate.

Wycliffe was fortunate; he got to live and to retain his church positions.  He died three days after a stroke at Lutterworth on December 31, 1384.  Wycliffe was about 64 years old.

Wycliffe’s legacy continued, however.  The translation of the Bible into English was a project in which he was deeply involved, with help from others.  Wycliffe’s theology influenced Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.  The man had died, but his ideas lived.

Nevertheless, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe as a heretic posthumously in 1415.  Thirteen years later Richard Fleming, the Bishop of Lincoln, ordered the exhumation and burning of the old priest’s remains.

Some of Wycliffe’s followers were more radical than he was.  The Lollard movement began in 1380 and continued into the 1500s, influencing the English Reformation.  “Lollard” came from the Middle Dutch word for “mumbler” or “mutterer.”  The term, already applied to Flemish heretics prior to Wycliffe’s time, stuck to his followers by 1382.  It was a persecuted minority movement, some of whose members dared to plot to overthrow the government and disendow the English Church in 1431.

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THE CZECH REFORMER

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Above:  Jan Hus

Image in the Public Domain

Lord Jesus Christ, it is for the sake of the gospel and the preaching of the word that I undergo, with patience and humility, this terrifying, ignominious, cruel death.

–Jan Hus, July 6, 1415; quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints (1997), 291

Jan Hus, born in Husinec, Bohemia, in 1371, was 17 years old when Wycliffe died.  Hus, influenced by Wycliffe’s writings, became a reformer in Bohemia and walked the road to martyrdom.

Hus, educated at the University of Prague (starting in 1390) was a Roman Catholic priest, as Wycliffe had been.  Hus, based in Prague, was, from 1392, chaplain of the Bethlehem Chapel, where he preached in the Czech language.  Our saint, the dean of the philosophical faculty of the University of Prague from 1401, served also as the Rector of the university in 1403 and 1409.  The following year, however, Archbishop Zbynek Zajic of Hasenberg excommunicated Hus.

Hus had been reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting writings of Wycliffe, as well as translating some of them into Czech.  Wycliffe’s ideas had already begun to influence politics in Bohemia, where the Church owned about half of the land, and many people, including a large number of priests, were poor.  Many peasants resented the Church, for obvious reasons.  Also, simony was rife.

Although Hus was radical in his setting, he was less radical than Wycliffe.  Hus, for example, affirmed transubstantiation consistently.  Yet, like Wycliffe, Hus condemned ecclesiastical abuses and defined the true Church as the assembly of the predestined Elect.

Hus managed to survive as long as he did because of protectors.  In 1410  King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia attained a bull from (Antipope) Alexander V (in office 1409-1410) ordering the burning of Wycliffe’s works, forbidding the preaching of their contents at Bethlehem Chapel, and allowing no appeal.  Archbishop Zajic burned those writings that year.  The following year (Antipope) John XXIII, one of three competing Popes, placed an interdict on Prague, but Wenceslaus IV ignored it and ordered others to do the same.  Meanwhile, (Antipope) John XXIII was waging a war against King Ladislaus of Naples and selling indulgences to finance that war.  After Hus, technically excommunicated yet living as though there were no excommunication order, condemned the sale of those indulgences and accused (Antipope) John XXIII of being the Antichrist.  Wenceslaus IV had been protecting Hus, but ceased to do that in 1412, after (Antipope) John XXIII threatened the Bohemian monarch with a crusade on the charge of protecting heretics and heresy.  So, from 1412 to 1414, Hus lived, wrote, and preached in southern Bohemia for two years.

Hus died as a heretic at Constance, Baden, on July 6, 1415.  He had traveled there under a promise of safe conduct, for the Council of Constance, in 1414, but found himself a prisoner instead.  Hus, after having refused to recant, burned at the stake as a heretic.  He was 43 or 44 years old.

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CONCLUSION

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Much of the history of ecclesiastical reactions (as opposed to responses) to heresies, alleged and actual, is an account of behavior contrary to the spirit of Christ.  What in the Gospels might give one the idea that Jesus would approve of burning accused heretics?

One might disagree with Wycliffe and Hus on certain political and/or theological points, but one should recognize and respect their courage in risking their lives by resisting authority nonviolently in the knowledge that the authorities they objected to had the power to torture and execute them.

The Church has silenced and killed prophets, unfortunately.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

APRIL 26, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM COWPER, ANGLICAN HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF ROBERT HUNT, FIRST ANGLICAN CHAPLAIN AT JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA

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O God, your justice continually challenges your Church to live according to its calling:

Grant us who now remember the work of John Wyclif

contrition for the wounds which our sins inflict on your Church,

and such love for Christ that we may seek to heal the divisions which afflict his Body;

through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 43:26-33

Psalm 33:4-11

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 4:13-20

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 659

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Faithful God, you gave John Hus the courage to confess your truth

and recall your Church to the image of Christ.

Enable us, inspired by his example, to bear witness against corruption

and never cease to pray for our enemies,

that we may prove faithful followers of our Savior Jesus Christ;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Job 22:21-30

Psalm 119:113-120

Revelation 3:1-6

Matthew 23:34-39

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 455

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