Did the Reformer now rest? He was old and sickly, and needed repose. His day had been a stormy one; sweet it were at its even-tide to taste a little quiet. But no. He panted, if it were possible and if God were willing, to see his country's emancipation completed, and England a reformed land, before closing his eyes and descending into his grave.
It was, he felt, a day of visitation. He had already come ere this to be of opinion that the system of Rome's doctrines, and the ceremonies of her worship, were anti-Christian . Rome brought a "new religion, founded of sinful men" and opposed to "the rule of Jesus Christ given by Him to His apostles".
From the beginning of this new battle he selected one particular dogma, as the object of attack. That dogma was Transubstantiation. It is here that the superstition of Rome culminates: it is in this more than in any other dogma that we find the sources of her prodigious authority, and the springs of her vast influence.
In making his blow to fall here, Wicliffe knew that the stroke would have ten-fold more effect than if directed against a less vital part of the system. If he could abolish the sacrifice of the priest, he would bring back the sacrifice of Christ, which alone is the Gospel, because through it is the "remission of sins," and the "life everlasting."
Transubstantiation, as we have already shown, was invented by the monk Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century. It came into England in the train of William the Conqueror and his Anglo-Norman priests and was zealously preached by Lanfranc, a Benedictine monk and Abbot of St. Stephen of Caen in Normandy who in time was raised to the See of Canterbury under William. And from the era of Lanfranc to the days of Wicliffe this evil doctrine was received by the Anglo-Norman clergy of England. It was hardly to be expected that they would very narrowly or critically examine the foundations of a doctrine which contributed so greatly to their power; and as regards the laity of those days, it was enough for them if they had the word of the Church that this doctrine was true. So in the spring of 1381, Wicliffe posted up at Oxford twelve propositions denying the dogma of transubstantiation, and challenging all of the contrary opinion to debate the matter with him.
Bread is bread
The first of these propositions was,
"The consecrated Host, which we see upon the altar, is neither Christ nor any part of Him, but an efficacious sign of Him". He admitted that the words of consecration invest the elements with a mysterious and venerable character, but that they do in nowise change their substance. The bread and wine are as really bread and wine after as before their consecration. Christ, he reasoned is very man and very God, without any commingling of the two natures. Hence "bread" is "bread" really, and "Christ's body" figuratively and spiritually.
Great commotion at Oxford
Great was the commotion at Oxford. All shouted heresy as one. The chancellor of the university, William de Barton, summoned a council of twelve comprising four secular doctors and eight monks. The council unanimously condemned Wicliffe's opinion as heretical, and threatened divers heavy penalties against any one who should teach it in the university, or listen to the teaching of it.
The council apparently met in comparative secrecy, for Wicliffe knew nothing of what was going on. He was in his classroom, expounding to his students the true nature of the Eucharist, when the door opened, and a delegate from the council made his appearance in the hall. He held in his hand the sentence of the doctors, which he proceeded to read. It enjoined silence on Wicliffe as regarded his opinions on transubstantiation, under pain of imprisonment, suspension from all scholastic functions, and the greater excommunication. This was tantamount to his expulsion from the university. Wicliffe countered, "You ought first to have shown me that I am in error" but the only response was to be reminded of the sentence of the court. "Then", said Wicliffe, "I appeal to the king and the Parliament".
But before Wicliffe could prosecute his appeal in Parliament, an insurrection broke out in England. Wat Tyler, and a priest of the name of John Ball, traversed England, rousing the passions of the populace in the Peasants Revolt. There was no stimulus to such ebullitions of popular wrath in any of Wicliffe's writings yet it suited his enemies to lay them at his door. "See what comes of permitting these strange and demoralizing doctrines to be taught" they cried.
Mob beheads Archbishop
The mob apprehended Sudbury the primate, and beheaded him but Courtenay, the bitter enemy of Wicliffe, was installed in the vacant see. Yet God, by what seemed an oversight at Rome, shielded the venerable Reformer. The bull appointing Courtenay to the primacy arrived, but the pall did not come with it preventing him assuming office.
Wicliffe shot another bolt - the Wicket. At last the pall arrived. The primate, in possession of the mysterious and potent symbol, could now exercise the full powers of his great office. He immediately convoked a synod to try the Rector of Lutterworth.
The court met on the 17th of May, 1382, in the Monastery of his severest opponents, Blackfriars, London. The judges were assembled, including eight prelates, fourteen doctors of the canon and of the civil law, six bachelors of divinity, four monks, and fifteen Mendicant friars. They had taken their seats, and were proceeding to business, when an ominous sound filled the air, and the building in which they were assembled began to rock. The city of London had been shaken by an earthquake. But superstitious Courtenay emboldened by his pall delivered a short homily on the mystic meanings of earthquakes explaining "This earthquake portends the purging of the kingdom from heresies. For as there are shut up in the bowels of the earth many noxious spirits, which are expelled in an earthquake, and so the earth is cleansed, but not without great violence: so there are many heresies shut up in the hearts of reprobate men, but by the condemnation of them the kingdom is to be cleansed, but not without irksomeness and great commotion".
The trial continued. Wicliffe was confronted with twenty-six propositions from his writings. The court sat three days in "good deliberation" over them. Ten were condemned as heretical, and the remainder as erroneous. Those touching transubstantiation, the temporal emoluments of the hierarchy, and the supremacy of the Pope came in for special censure. The sentence of the court was sent to the Bishop of London, the diocese of Canterbury and the Bishop of Lincoln, Wicliffe's diocesan. Courtenay "Primate of all England" ruled none of these pestiferous doctrines were to be taught in their dioceses.
This ‘venemous serpent'
Oxford university was also singled out as a hotbed of heresy. Among the professors and students were many who had imbibed the sentiments of Wicliffe, and needed to be warned against this "venomous serpent" to whose seductions they had already begun to listen. When the primate saw the reluctance of the University to implement his strictures he approached the young king, Richard II. "If we permit this heretic" said he "to appeal continually to the passions of the people, our destruction is inevitable; we must silence these lollards". The king was gained over. He gave authority "to confine in the prisons of the State any who should maintain the condemned propositions".
Wicliffe alone but undismayed
The Reformation was advancing but at this point the Reformer appeared on the verge of being crushed. He had many friends, but they lacked courage, and remained in the background. His lectures at Oxford had planted the Gospel in the schools, the Bible which he had translated was planting it in the homes of England. But if the disciples of the Reformation multiplied, so too did the foes of the Reformer. The persecuting hierarchy was now joined by the mailed hand of the king. John of Gaunt had earlier deserted him. This prince stood stoutly by Wicliffe so long as the Reformer occupied himself in simply repelling encroachments of the hierarchy but when Wicliffe began to deny the Sacrament the valiant prince was alarmed and hastily drew off. Others too, of whom better things might have been expected, quailed before the gathering storm, and stood aloof from the Reformer. Dr. Nicholas Hereford, who had aided him in translating the Old Testament, and John Ashton, the most eloquent of those preachers whom Wicliffe had sent forth to traverse England, consulted their own safety rather than the defence of their leader. However Wicliffe was not dismayed and continued his attack upon the papacy.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis