The English Reformation: Not as radical as you might think

Libby Lane was consecrated as the first female bishop in the Church of England this week. The ordination of women has been the most radical change of the Church of England, more radical even than its breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church in 1531. In the Episcopal Church, the Church of England’s American offshoot, there have been female priests since the 1970s and a female bishop as the head of the church since 2006, so the controversy surrounding Libby Lane’s ordination astounded me. So I started thinking about the changes the English Church underwent in the Reformation and how it affected the public, and women in particular.

In my doctoral research, I look at how the church services of England changed when Henry VIII decided to become the head of his own church. Using religious books, like the Book of Common Prayer (still used by the Church of England today), I have noted many similarities between the pre- and post-Reformation English Church.

Despite the continuities, the Protestant Church was less inclusive of women than the Catholic Church.

When the Pope was still the head of the English Church, women had some function within the religious culture of England. Much of this was related to how female figures from religion were represented to medieval people. The most famous of Christian women was the Virgin Mary. Mary was held up to medieval people, women in particular, as a figure to emulate. Her humble acceptance of her position, her care of her child (Jesus Christ), and her suffering at the death of her son were what made Mary special. Anne, Mary’s mother and Christ’s grandmother, was depicted as teaching Mary to read. Consequently, women were expected to teach their children to say rudimentary prayers, and if they were able, to read using prayer books.

Within the church, women had very specific roles in four ceremonies. Two roles were the options open to women in terms of how they could spend their lives. The first ceremony was the traditional route of matrimony – women obviously had to be present at the wedding ceremony where they were handed from the father or male relation to the husband. The second was the path of becoming a nun – a woman dedicated her life to the service of God in the only way allowed. Women who opted to become nuns were then divided from the rest of society and kept in seclusion. The women who followed the traditional path of marriage were expected to fulfil the purpose of marriage: to have children. Babies were frequently delivered by midwives. The role of midwife was not usually religious except in those cases where a child might not survive the birth or would be too unwell to make a trip to the church. In the event that a priest was not readily available, the midwife was authorised to make an emergency baptism. So baptism, the religious ceremony that ensured a soul could go to Heaven, the service typically only performed by priests (men), could in extreme circumstances be performed by a woman. And assuming that the mother survived giving birth, she would be expected to be purified of the taint that children leave in the mother – the sin of conception. The purification ceremony was a brief service where the woman was the focus, and thus ended female participation in the church.

While the Reformation in England was a drawn out process over twenty years or so, the Book of Common Prayer became the standard for religious services in 1549. Most scholars believe that the change in religion was a radical departure for the religious culture of England. But I disagree – there was nothing radical in how the religious leaders treated women.

There was little change in how women interacted with the Church of England. And what changes there were diminished the opportunities for women to be involved in religion. Women were still expected to teach their children the rudiments of religion, including how to read, though the focus was on the Bible as opposed to any other religious book. But women saw less of themselves in the figures put forward by the church for emulation. The large part played by the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church was cut to almost nothing in the Protestant Church.

The ways in which women were allowed to participate in church services remained somewhat the same. They were still required for the wedding ceremony, they still appeared in church for the purification ceremony after they gave birth, and they were still on occasion called upon to perform emergency baptisms (though this was strongly discouraged by religious leaders). The most significant of the religious changes was the lack of options for women outside of marriage. By eliminating the option of becoming a nun, the Church of England altered how women could be involved in the church.

The English Reformation eliminated a lifestyle allowed to women when it removed the chance for women to become nuns. In ordaining women in 1994, the Church of England finally began to redress the spiritual imbalance. And by allowing women to become bishops, the leaders of the church, the Church of England has finally, in 2015, given women a chance to show their spiritual and pastoral chops.

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