Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Dinner with Bishop Stephen Gardiner

Well, when I say dinner with Bishop Gardiner I mean that on Friday evening I was entertained to dinner here in Oxford by mutual friends to meet Dr Glyn Redworth, of Manchester University and author of, amongst other works, In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner which was published in 1990 by Blackwells. Unfortunately it is now out of print, but is immensely well worth reading if you can find a copy. Not only is it a wonderful biography and full of insights into the life and times of the Bishop, but for me it is important as if helped me in my process of conversion to find full peace and communion as a Catholic. Yes, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, through his amanuensis Dr Redworth, helped me to become a Catholic.

Portrait of Stephen Gardinerat Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
Bishop Stephen Gardiner

Image from Luminarium

Anti-Catholic satire depicting Bishop Stephen Gardiner 1556

Image from Luminarium

I read the biography in the early part of 2004, and doing so as an example of an episcopal biography of the type I was (and am) attempting to write of Bishop Richard Fleming. Hitherto I had accepted the text-book view of Gardiner as the arch-conservative Henrician bishop of the 1540s, and admired him as a (proto) Anglo-Catholic who ebentually returned to the Roman fold. Nonetheless his seeming acceptance of the Henrician church settlement legitimised to some extent its Anglo-Catholic credentials

Dr Redworth provided a remarkable breath of fresh air. Gardiner emerges first of all as the humanist scholar he undoubtedly was, but not as the steriotypical reactionary of usual versions, but rather the very reluctant man who felt compelled through the 1530s and 1540s under King Henry VIII to go along with changes he did not really agree with. by 1548 he realised he could go no further and making his position clear ended up in the Tower of London and was deprived of his bishopric. Restored by Queen Mary I he accepted reunion with the Holy See as the only guarentee of the Catholic faith, and said so in his great sermon preached at Paul's Cross in the days after the reconciliation on St Andrew's day in 1554. This is not "Wily Winchester" or the arch-conservative of so many accounts, rather it is, to use modern phraseology, Gardiner the frightened conservative, or even, the dodgy liberal.

The sense of a historic Anglo-Catholic patrimony being conveyed by him was eroded. The career of Gardiner did not legitimise the Henrician experiment, rather, it showed its weakness and idiosyncracy.

This really proved a revelation to me, even if it did not lead to immediate submission. However I am sure it was working away in my mind until the evening a few months later when I realised, and said, that for me the future was with the One, Holy, Catholic and Roman Church.

As it happened we did not get round to really talking about this last night, but the conversation ranged wide and deep over history and literature - notably The Forsyte Saga - and the whole evening was most enjoyable and convivial. Maybe on a future occasion I can recount this story to Dr Redworth. Meanwhile I feel a renewed wish to read other of his books, and would urge anyone interested in the English reformation and the origins of Anglicanism to read his life of Bishop Gardiner.

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