THE Parliament met on the 19th November 1382. Wicliffe could now prosecute his appeal to the king against the sentence of the university court condemning his twelve propositions. But the prelates had been beforehand to fortify the state against all questioning of the tremendous mystery of transubstantiation.
May they burn him tomorrow, he lives today, and Parliament stands open. Wicliffe boldly entered to bring his appeal and complaint. The hierarchy's accusations to the king were secret. Wicliffe arraigns his opponents openly with four main grievances.
Four pronged attack
Firstly he attacked the monastic orders, especially their vow. "Since Jesus Christ shed His blood to free His Church, I demand its freedom. I demand that every one may leave these gloomy walls within which a tyrannical law prevails, and embrace a simple and peaceful life under the open vault of heaven."
Secondly the temporalities of the Church came under fire. Wicliffe contested the corruption and inefficiency of the clergy, rooted in their enormous wealth. The King should declare both priests and their property under the jurisdiction of the king. "Magistracy is God's ordinance just as the Apostle Paul who putteth all men in subjection to kings, taketh out never a one."
Thirdly tithes and offerings were censured. "Let these be on a scale which shall be amply sufficient for the support of the recipients in the discharge of their sacred duties, but not such as to minister to their luxury and pride; and if a priest shall be found to be indolent or vicious, let neither tithe nor offering be given him. 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 the means of satisfying his ostentation, his gluttony and his licentiousness - of buying a showy horse, costly saddles, bridles with tinkling bells, rich garments and soft furs, while they see the wives and children of their neighbours dying of hunger."
Fourthly Wicliffe went to the heart of the Romish system - transubstantiation. He craved liberty to have the true doctrine of the Eucharist, as given by Christ and His apostles, taught throughout England. His Trialogus composed about this time exposed the dogma of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation was mischievous and far-extending in its effects enfeebling the understanding, shaking confidence in the testimony of the senses, and worse opening the mind to any further absurdity or error by opposing reason and common sense. The "real presence" of Christ in the wafer he declares to be the offspring of Satan. "Should I once so far beguile the faithful of the Church, by the aid of Antichrist my vicegerent, as to persuade them to deny that this Sacrament is bread, and to induce them to regard it as merely an accident, there will be nothing then which I will not bring them to receive, since there can be nothing more opposite to the Scriptures, or to common discernment. Let the life of a 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 no such 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, inasmuch as he is known by the name Most Holy Father, he is of course free from sin."
His enemies confounded
His enemies were confounded. Wicliffe surely must yield. Hereford, Repingdon, Ashton - all his friends, one after the other, had reconciled themselves to the hierarchy. The priests were only waiting for Wicliffe to come forward in chains and be lead away signifying the defeat of Reform. Yet he comes forward stout of heart and unapologetic. He boldly reiterates his charges to the whole nation. His condemnation of Rome's corruption, tyranny, and error finds an echo in the Commons. Parliament immediately repealed the persecuting edict, which the priests and the king had surreptitiously passed, giving Wicliffe victory.
Baffled Archbishop Courtney turned to the Convocation expecting a ready subservience. Courtenay had carefully assembled many priests to give the proceedings éclat as the opposing spectators awaited victory. Six bishops, many doctors in divinity, and a host of inferior clergy stood with Courtenay. The concourse was swelled with dignitaries and the youth of Oxford. It was now forty years since Wicliffe had entered Oxford as a scholar. Its halls had witnessed the toils of his youth and the later renown of his erudition which largely constituted the glory of his university. But today he came to be tried, perchance to be condemned; and, if his judges were able, to be delivered over to the civil power and punished as a heretic. Oxford which had formerly borrowed lustre from Wicliffe's name, might now be lit by the flames of his martyrdom.
The indictment turned upon transubstantiation. Did he affirm or deny that cardinal doctrine of the Church? The Reformer raised his venerable head in presence of the vast assembly. His eyes sought out Courtenay on whom he fixed a steady and searching gaze before proceeding. In this, his last address before any court, he retracts nothing; he modifies nothing; he simply reiterates and confirms the whole teaching of his life upon the question of the Eucharist. His address abounded in distinctions after the manner of that scholastic age, but it extorted praise for its unrivalled acuteness even from his dissenters. Wicliffe unmistakably affirmed that the bread still continues bread, that there is no fleshly presence of Christ in the Sacrament, nor other presence save a sacramental and spiritual one.
‘Like the priests of Baal'
His opposers were smitten in their consciences and riveted to their seats whilst the bold Reformer's words sank as burning arrows to their heart. "They were heretics who affirmed that the Sacrament was an accident without a subject. Why did they propagate such errors? Why, because, like the priests of Baal, they wanted to vend their masses. With whom, think you are ye contending? - with an old man on the brink of the grave? No! with Truth - Truth which is stronger than you, and will overcome you". The Reformer left Oxford and returned to Lutterworth unhindered.
Calls Pope to repentance
But this was not the end. Providentially the voice of this great witness was to speak from the Seven Hills of Rome before finally falling silent. One day about this time a summons from the Pontiff Urban VI to repair to Rome arrived at the rectory in Lutterworth.. He must answer for his heresy before the Papal See. But God's hand had already arrested him. Having suffered a stroke, travel was impossible but the Lord if not Urban, would yet be served. The Pontiff and his conclave and all Christendom were about to have another warning - another call to repentance - addressed to them ere the Reformer should leave this world.
Letter to Urban
John Wicliffe wrote earnestly to Urban. The epistle of the humble Rector of Lutterworth to the Pontiff of all Christendom though necessarily satirical was thoroughly Christian in spirit. Wicliffe wrote taking Urban to be who he claimed. How could he not joyfully appear before Christ's Vicar? No-one else could more revere Christ's law or love Christ's Gospel than such a one. No tribunal could be more equitable than this. If he had erred from the Gospel where better that the path of truth be pointed out. The Vicar of Christ, he quietly assumes, does not affect the greatness of this world. Nay, he leaves its pomps and vanities to worldly men, contenting himself with the lowly estate of Him who while on earth had not where to lay His head. Such a one surely seeks no glory save resembling his Master. Urban's worldly lordship is surely an unwelcome burden he longs to be relieved of. And surely all the priests of Christendom simply desire his example to so humbly feed the Bread of Life the flocks committed to their care. The Reformer closes by reiterating his willingness, if in aught he had erred, "to be meekly amended, if needs be, by death".
We well imagine the scowling faces that read the letter in the Vatican. This was no vituperative attack. They simply found themselves standing at the bar of the Reformer. With severe and truthful hand Wicliffe drew the portrait of Him whose servants Urban and his cardinals professed to be and simply held it up to them as a mirror. "Is this your likeness? Is this the poverty in which you live? Is this the humility you cultivate?" With their proud monuments, palaces, estates, gay robes, magnificent equipages and luxurious tables on every hand such became the scourge of their lives and the scandal of Christendom. How could they say "This is our likeness"? It was not Wicliffe but Christ who condemned them. By summoning Wicliffe before him Urban had simply erected a pulpit for the English Reformer on the Seven Hills in the very heart of Rome. From here Wicliffe spoke and proclaimed in the hearing of all the nations of Europe, that Rome was the Antichrist.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis