Where do you find feminist religious inspiration when you need it? Sometimes the answer is hidden in plain sight. So it was for me at school. For I was involved with a number of social transformations at my local secondary school, including being part of the first year of the historic admission of females. This not only seemed a self-evident justice to me, but it was also a personal saving grace. Indeed, in my final two years, I was part of otherwise all-female classes for most of my subjects, bar one other male assigned student (in religious studies). Also, to the initial chagrin of some, our 19th century grammar school (founded in 1863 out of the medieval charity created by Thomas De Aston, a 13th century monk) two years later finally fully joined the modern world as a 'comprehensive' school: merging with the local 'secondary modern' school, whose pupils were traditionally divided from us by the selective examination known as the '11 plus'. At which point school 'houses' suddenly appeared, under the names of the well-known local Lincolnshire worthies Tennyson and Wesley; the explorers (Joseph) Banks and (Matthew) Flinders (actually much better known in Australia than in their homeland); the fearsome Hereward (famed indigenous resistance fighter against the Normans), and, more mysteriously, (Anne) Askew. Happily I was placed in her house, but who was this, to us, unknown woman? Sadly, I never really found out then. On asking, apart from guessing that she was the 'token' woman in the list, we were told she was martyred at the Reformation. 'Great', said most of the boys: 'not only do we not get to be associated with a fighter like Hereward, or at least an intrepid explorer like Flinders, but we get landed with a woman, and one whose claim to fame is being slaughtered.' Even the girls had sympathy with the latter affirmation. Yet, had we been given a richer explanation, we might have had a very different viewpoint. For, of all the Lincolnshire icons, it is arguable that Anne Askew was the greatest of all. She was not just a type of freedom fighter (like Hereward), an intrepid adventurer of the new (like Flinders and Banks), a poet (like Tennyson), or a model of renewing spirituality and freedom (like (the) Wesley(s)). She was all these in one, and she did it all as a woman to boot...
It is puzzling occasionally to hear the idea that ‘Henry VIII created the Anglican Church’ (albeit far more outside England than within it). It Like much else that is Anglican, the reality is both less dramatic and also far more complex. Henry VIII did indeed have a significant role in one stage in the development of what, much later, became known as Anglicanism. However the formative factors are so much broader: some much older and some much later. No one figure or aspect has ever been wholly dominant in the origins and character of Anglicanism. It is rather a particular way in which many different people have shared the love of God as Christians, at different times and in different places. Like all healthy Christian traditions, it is also always ‘a work in progress’: an invitation by God to become more fully the Body of Christ on earth.
Here are a few key thoughts on Anglican historical development which may place Henry VIII and the Anglican Church in context...
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Pope’s horses and all the Pope’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
For good and ill, the era we know as the Reformation has hugely shaped us. It involved immense fragmentation: both a breaking down and a breaking open. Like Humpty Dumpty, that which went before had ‘a great fall’ and could not be put together again as it had been. Especially within Christian life, it has thus bequeathed so many features we simply take for granted. Some have lasting value. Others are much more questionable. This includes the very existence of different Christian traditions, in what, from the 19th century, we have termed denominations. This was not, of course, an intended outcome. Indeed, it would have seemed anathema to any Reformer, as well as to the Church of Rome. Yet it is part of our Reformation inheritance. So what do we make of this, for God’s continuing mission? What is worth keeping? How might we move on together?
This reflection is not a traditional potted history. Nor does it seek to draw us into comparisons of our different Christian traditions, never mind reassemble past dynamics and rhetoric. Instead, it outlines briefly both vital differences and also important similarities between that age and our own. In doing so, it identifies a number of negative features which often mar our churches and world. It also suggests a number of positive features which can heal and take us forward. Hopefully, in the contemporary spirit of ‘receptive ecumenism’, these may then provide a basis for assessing which Reformation gifts we will own together and which we will leave behind. What else, we might then ask, do we need for our journey onwards today?...
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.