For the parish

In his masterly study Thomas Cromwell: A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch's discussion of the dissolution of the monasteries opens an important perspective on this particular aspect of the reformation of the ecclesia Anglicana.  MacCulloch here provides an alternative to Duffy's lament for the dissolution in The Stripping of the Altars.  The very fact that, as Duffy states, the monasteries had "a central place in popular religious practice" establishes the background to MacCulloch's account.  He notes how reformers critiqued religious orders as equivalent to Anabaptist radicalism:

both papist religious orders and radicals cut themselves off from the Church's mainstream life ... by their actions both extremes had 'divided, rent and torn in pieces the quiet unity and friendly accord of the holy religion', Archbishop Cranmer's chaplain Thomas Becon proclaimed ... in 1550 ... In a sermon of the same period Hugh Latimer condemned monks and Anabaptists alike because neither could 'abide the company of men'; they shunned ordinary society, forgetting the 'commandment of love and charity'.

The dissolution, then, was a means of restoring the centrality of the parish - both in terms of the parish church and the parish community - in the life of the ecclesia Anglicana.  Common Prayer in the parish church, and marriage, family, neighbours, and labour in the parish community, became the 'stuff' of Anglicanism, what John Milbank describes as being "sturdily incarnated in land, parish and work".

There is more than an echo of this in words Cranmer employs in his Answer to Gardyner (Book V):

Whereas on the other side the very true doctrine of Christ and his pure Church from the beginning is plain, certain, without wrinkles, without any inconvenience or absurdity, so cheerful and comfortable to all Christian people, that it must needs come from the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth and all consolation. 

The Gospel precepts can be lived "without any inconvenience or absurdity" by "all Christian people", not requiring an exalted view of the vows of the religious life.  Cranmer continues by describing the significance of the ordinary worship of the parish church, in the reading of the Scriptures and the ministration of the Sacraments:

The minister of the Church speaketh unto us God's own words, which we must take as spoken from God's own mouth, because that from his mouth it came, and his word it is, and not the minister's. Likewise when he ministereth to our sights Christ's holy sacraments, we must think Christ crucified and presented before our eyes, because the sacraments so represent him, and be his sacraments and not the priest's. As in baptism we must think, that as the priest putteth his hand to the child outwardly, and washeth him with water, so must we think that God putteth to his hand inwardly and washeth the infant with his holy Spirit, and moreover that Christ himself cometh down upon the child, and apparelleth him with his own self. And as at the Lord's holy table the priest distributeth wine and bread to feed the body, so must we think that inwardly by faith we see Christ feeding both body and soul to eternal life. What comfort can be devised any more in this world for a Christian man?

For all of the losses - spiritual and cultural - occasioned by the dissolution of the monasteries, and for all the grubby desire for property and power surrounding the process (and remember that the religious communities themselves fully shared in that grubby desire), the dissolution was a key means of securing what would become a fundamental characteristic of the Anglican experience, the centrality of the parish church and parish community, the living out of the Gospel precepts "in ordinary society", "without any inconvenience or absurdity".

In the ecclesia Anglicana, the dissolution ensured that the focus of the church's life turned from the vowed, celibate, cloistered community, to the "plain" parish, its common prayer and sacraments, and communal obligations.


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