Next to "the power of the keys", Wicliffe was most concerned with the property of the Church.
What is given to the Church, said the canon law, is given to God and could not be recovered. It was the Church's sole, absolute, and eternal inheritance. Further these vast possessions were exempt from taxes and public burdens allowing foreign clergy to prey on the land, a situation the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils progressively strengthened.
Here was "a kingdom of priests" the owners of half the soil, every inch of which was enclosed within a sacred rail and sacrosanct except the Pontiff himself declare otherwise. Wicliffe discerned the nation beggared and the Government`s revenues dried up. "Prelates and priests," said he, "cry aloud and write that the king hath no jurisdiction or power over the persons and goods of Holy Church. And when the king and the secular Lords, perceiving that their ancestors' alms are wasted in pomp and pride, gluttony and other vanities, wish to take again the superfluity of temporal goods, and to help the land and themselves and their tenants, these worldly clerks bawl loudly that they ought to be cursed for intromitting with the goods of Holy Church, as if secular Lords and Commons were no part of Holy Church".
The duties of prelates and priests
Wicliffe argued legally that the Church is but the administrator of this property; the nation is the real proprietor, and the nation is bound through the king and Parliament and its representatives, to see that the Church devotes this wealth to the objects for which it was given to her. Immoral use should negate the Pope‘s title.
The baron might feast, hunt, and ride out attended by ever so many men-at-arms but the bishop must eschew these delights and worldly vanities and devote himself to the ministry. The Sovereign however had the right to tax both equally. And of tithes Wicliffe wrote, "True men say that prelates are more bound to preach truly the Gospel than their subjects are to pay them dymes [tithes]; for God chargeth that more, and it is more profitable to both parties. Prelates, therefore, are more accursed who cease from their preaching than are their subjects who cease to pay tithes, even while their prelates do their office well."
These were novel and startling opinions in the age of Wicliffe. It required no ordinary independence of mind to embrace such views. He was opposing opinions on which Churches and States had acted for a thousand years; and they went to the razing of the whole ecclesiastical settlement of Christendom. If they were to be applied, all existing religious institutions must be remodelled. But if true, why should they not be carried out? Wicliffe did not shrink from even this responsibility.
Wicliffe's plan for reforming the Church
Wicliffe earnestly pleaded with the king and Parliament, that the whole ecclesiastical estate should be reformed in accordance with the principles he had enunciated. Let the Church surrender all her possessions - her broad acres, her palatial buildings, her tithes, her multiform dues - and return to the simplicity of her early days, and depend only on the free-will offerings of the people, as did the apostles and first preachers of the Gospel. Such was the plan of Reform that Wicliffe laid before the men of the fourteenth century. We may well imagine the amazement with which he was listened to. He did not aim at carrying out this revolution by a stroke. All great changes, he knew, must proceed gradually. What he proposed was that as benefices fell vacant, the new appointments should convey no right to the temporalities, and thus in a short time, without injury or hardship to any one, the whole face of England would be changed.
"It is well known"` says he, "that the King of England, in virtue of his regalia, on the death of a bishop or abbot, or any one possessing large endowments, takes possession of these endowments as the sovereign, and that a new election is not entered upon without a new assent; nor will the temporalities in such a case pass from their last occupant to his successor without that assent. Let the king, therefore, refuse to continue what has been the great delinquency of his predecessors, and in a short time the whole kingdom will be freed from the mischiefs which have flowed from this source".
He likens this delinquency of Rome to a market, where the cure of souls was openly sold, and where the man who offered the highest price got the fattest benefice. In that market, virtue, piety, learning were nought. The only coin current was gold. But the men who trafficked there, and came back invested with a spiritual office, he thus describes: "As much, therefore, as God's Word, and the bliss of heaven is lost in the withdrawal of the great debt of holy teaching (this act becomes worse than that) of thieves; more accursedly sacrilegious than ordinary plunderers, who break into churches, and steal thence chalices, and vestments, and never so much gold".
About twenty-four years after the Reformer's death, a great measure of Church reform, based on the views of Wicliffe, was proposed by the Commons. The plan took shape in a petition which Parliament presented to the king, and which was to the following effect: - That the crown should take possession of all the property of the Church; that it should appoint a body of clergy, fifteen thousand in number, for the religious service of the kingdom; that it should assign an annual stipend to each; and that the surplus of the ecclesiastical property should be devoted to a variety of State purposes, of which the building and support of almshouses was one. Even Popish governments began to recognise the wisdom of Wicliffe's words, and began to act upon his plan. In Germany, under the treaty of Westphalia, in Holland as well as in our own country, many of the richest benefices were secularised.
Wicliffe stands alone
In these events we contemplate the march of England out of the house of her bondage. Wicliffe is the one and only leader in this glorious exodus. No Aaron marches by the side of this Moses. But the nation follows its heroic guide, and steadfastly pursues the sublime path of its emancipation. Every year places a greater distance between it and the slavery it is leaving, and brings it nearer the liberty that lies before it. What a change since the days of King John! Then Innocent III. stood with his heel on the country. England was his humble vassal, fain to buy off his interdicts and curses with its gold, and to bow down even to the dust before his legates; but now, thanks to John Wicliffe, England stands erect, and meets the haughty Pontiff on at least equal terms.
The papal taskmaster
Wicliffe had moved with great logic. The first step was to cast off papacy‘s political vassalage, the second was to vindicate the independence of its Church against her who haughtily styles herself the "Mother and Mistress of all Churches", the third was to make good the sole and unchallenged use of its own property, by forbidding the gold of the nation to be carried across the sea for the use of the country's foes.
And now another step forward is taken. A proposal is heard to abate the power of superstition within the realm, by curtailing its overgrown resources, heedless of the cry of sacrilege, the only weapon by which the Church attempted to protect the wealth that had been acquired by means not the most honourable, and which was now devoted to ends not the most useful. England is the first of the European communities to flee from that prison-house in which the Crowned Priest of the Seven Hills had shut up the nations.
That cruel (papal) taskmaster had decreed an utter and eternal extinction of all national independence and of all human rights. But He who "openeth the eyes of the blind" and "raiseth them that are bowed down" had pity on those whom their oppressor had destined to endless captivity, and opened their prison-doors. We celebrate in the songs of the Exodus and magnify the strength of that Arm which broke the power of Pharaoh when we contemplate our Exodus and when we think of the bitterness and baseness of the slavery which England left behind her.
Psalm 107 vs 14,15. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder. Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis