Wycliffe Presents His Case Before Parliament

On 19th November 1383 John Wycliffe was given his only opportunity to present his case before Parliament. The reforms, which he called for, would affect both Church and State, yet, as always he was more concerned with spiritual matters. He called upon the government to revoke the vows made by those who had put themselves under the dominion of the monastic orders. He told the leaders that “since Jesus Christ shed his blood to free His Church, I demand freedom, I demand that everyone may leave these gloomy walls within which a tyrannical law prevails and embrace a simple and peaceful life under the vaults of heaven.”

Alongside this he dealt with the immoral and therefore illegal possessions of the Church. He believed that the Church had corrupted itself because she loved and served money, riches, and treasure, rather than the Lord Jesus Christ. He asked that Parliament would remove all of the wealth, including the buildings, from the Church and bring it all under the power of the Crown. Knowing that even the parish priest was more concerned about personal gain rather than the people, he said, “If every parish had a saintly rector there would not be so much arable land lying fallow, or so great dearth of cattle. The realm would possess an abundance of every sort of wealth.” To his mind an unworthy prelate should not receive any support in the form of tithes and gifts from his parishioners, “I demand that the poor inhabitants of our towns and villages be not constrained to furnish a worldly priest, often a vicious man and a heretic, with means of satisfying his ostentation, his gluttony and his licentiousness, by buying a showy horse, costly saddles, bridles with dangling bells, rich garments and soft furs, while they see the wives and children of their neighbours dying with hunger.” He titled the Church of Rome as the “Religion of fat cows.”

He also took the opportunity to put forward his views on the subject of transubstantiation once again. As we have seen, Wycliffe regarded this element of Roman Catholic dogma to be the most blasphemous, but now he was bold enough to state that the Mass was the very reasoning of Satan himself. He puts in the devil’s mouth the following words, “Should I once so far beguile the faithful of the Church, by the aid of Antichrist my vice-regent, as to persuade them to deny that this sacrament is bread, but merely looks like it, there will be nothing then which I will not bring them to receive, since there can be nothing more opposite to the Scriptures, or the common discernment. Let the life of the prelate be then what it may, let him be guilty of luxury, simony or murder, the people may be led to believe that he is really not a bad man – nay, they may then be persuaded to admit that the pope is infallible, at least with respect to matters of Christian faith; and that, insomuch as he is known by the name Most Holy Father, he is of course free from sin.” It is very interesting to note in these words the subject of papal infallibility, but it would be another five hundred years before the issue would be accepted as Canon Law in the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wycliffe saw that nothing short of an all-out assault on the unscriptural doctrines and practices of the Church would accomplish the reforms which he envisioned. He believed that every man and woman had the God-given right to study and interpret the Holy Scriptures for himself or herself. To the astonishment of all concerned his presentation of these logical arguments actually won the day. Though everything seemed to be going against him at the first, by the wisdom of God he was able to overturn the Royal Edict that had been recently passed against him. It was not he, but his enemies who were confounded.

Archbishop Courtenay, greatly overcome with anger at this turn of events, would not let the matter rest there. He gathered together six bishops and as many doctors of divinity and other clergy that could be persuaded to attend yet another convocation in Oxford. The topic under investigation would again be Wycliffe’s supposed heretical views on transubstantiation. He, present at the trial, would not budge from his position, but responded to the suggestion that he should recant by saying, “With whom do you think you are contending? With an old man on the brink of the grave? No, with the truth. Truth which is stronger than you and will overcome you.” He plainly told them that he considered that the priest of Rome is no different from the priest of Baal and just as heretical and void of the Spirit of God. The mystery of the Mass was nothing less than demonic falsehood in his eyes. At which point Wycliffe left the room while his accusers sat there dumbfounded.

Nevertheless, John Wycliffe did leave University life, and no doubt for some time the Archbishop thought he had succeeded. The reformer was indeed out of Oxford and coming to his closing years of life, but God had even greater work for him to accomplish. Wycliffe’s return to his parish church in Lutterworth would be the beginning of the final phase of the work of God through the reformer.