Attack on the Mass

About the Spring of 1381 John Wycliffe issued his denunciation of the Mass, that is, the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and called for an open debate regarding the same. As he was lecturing on this subject in Oxford University, the vice-chancellor, Dr. Barton, gathered together the heads of the university to publicly condemn Wycliffe and his teachings. Though the Catholic clergy also denounced him as a heretic for trying to undermine the very foundation of their faith, no one among them appears to have had enough courage to take Wycliffe up on his challenge to debate the issues. Instead, in the typical fashion of Rome, they summoned a council to condemn both Wycliffe and all that should follow his teachings. Despite the fact that the University sought to silence him, they did at least have the honesty to examine his doctrine concerning the Eucharist.

The reformer was actually lecturing his students on the heretical nature of the Mass and what was the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper, when he was interrupted by a messenger sent by the chancellor of the University. The council had come to a decision regarding his teaching on transubstantiation, and we can assume that the Catholic clergy had influenced the outcome of their examination of his doctrine, he was to refrain from speaking about it immediately. The message went on to state that if he did not cease from condemning the Mass then he would face imprisonment and excommunication. In reality the bottom line was that if he did not comply with their demands, then he would be expelled from the University. This obviously caused Wycliffe a great deal of concern for he saw that the Church was putting a stranglehold on the University. He believed that it was not right for the heads of the University to demand that he cease from debating this, or for that matter, any subject, for Oxford prided itself in teaching students the art of disputation and debate, so why was it that this issue was to be banned from open discussion? There was very little use in Wycliffe appealing to either the Chancellor of the University or the Bishops of the Church. They might be able to silence him for the time being, but he believed that the highest court of the land, Parliament, would reverse the decision of the governing body of Oxford.

John Wycliffe had come to the understanding that Parliament was greater than any ecclesiastical court, therefore he thought that he would be heard more sympathetically and obtain much needed support for his position from it. If he had the chance to speak with the political leaders, especially in light of the fact that many of them were anti-clerical, then they would give him back his freedom to lecture again. He was unaware that the support of one of his trusted friends was diminishing. John of Gaunt, along with the vast majority in Parliament, was taken aback by Wycliffe’s denunciation of the Mass. Despite their anti-clericalism they could not reject the Mass, for like so many in Europe at that time they feared the pope’s anathema. If John of Gaunt were to uphold Wycliffe’s right to hold anti-transubstantiation views then he would be putting his own political career on the line. He could not afford the reformer to be a liability to him. This should not be seen as simply cowardice, since John of Gaunt was the leader of a small, but influential and well organised, group of anti-clerics whose aim was to disendow the bishops and enrich themselves by taking their property, rather it was an act of betrayal now that he had no further use for Wycliffe’s outspokenness. He too ordered Wycliffe to be silent about the Mass.

John Wycliffe never did find it within himself to keep quiet about important issues regarding spiritual matters, especially if they were contrary to the plain teachings of the Holy Scriptures. Therefore he refused to hold his peace on this significant subject even if it meant losing one of his protectors and friends. Wycliffe saw a number of his close friends and followers deserting him because of his rejection of the Mass. (Please see Appendix 1 for an outline of Wycliffe’s view of the Lord’s Supper and other theological positions.)

As it would be a good while before his appeal to the King could be presented to Parliament, he left the University and went to Lutterworth. His time in Lutterworth was probably well spent in study and teaching, and at least he had respite from the heat of the situation back in Oxford. The University authorities had no power to interfere with him in his own parish church, so we can imagine that Wycliffe would have earnestly taught his congregation the Biblical truth, as he saw it, about the bread and the wine. Nevertheless, this did not mean that the Catholic hierarchy would leave him alone for long. Since he attacked the very foundation of Roman dogma, they had no intention of allowing him to walk away in freedom, and would use all possible means, true or false, to bring John Wycliffe to his knees.