Ever since the Protestant Church was set up in England, they and the Catholic Church have both claimed to be the upholders of Tradition and labelled the other as dissenters. The Protestants saw themselves as upholders of English traditions whereas Catholics were the establishment religious for many years until the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.
The creation of the Protestant Church in England in the sixteenth century was due to the Pope’s refusal to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This meant that initially the Protestant Church resembled the Catholic Church as the primary driver was to allow Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn rather than any religious differences. However, this did start to change once the Protestant Church had been created and it gathered pace after the death of Henry VIII.
The root of the differences was that the Protestant Church stressed personal faith rather than the Catholic Church’s view that the rituals and traditions of the church were most important. This pre-eminence of the Bible and spiritual faith above the hierarchy and structure of the church meant that Protestant churches and religious robes were plainer than Catholic churches and robes. Protestant services were much simpler and in English rather than Latin, with fewer rituals to be observed. They focused more on preaching and Bible study rather than physical paraphernalia and rituals.
Protestants believed that no human, even a great artist, could adequately portray God and they saw the more ornate Catholic churches and rituals as an unnecessary distraction. Protestants also introduced the Book of Common Prayer, which set out prayers and services in English. Grindal’s Injunctions given by the most reverend father in Christ to churchwardens in 1571 summed up the changes such as “That the Churchwardens shall see that in their churches and chapels, all Altars be utterly taken down and clear removed even unto the foundation” .
The Protestant Church also took a different view of death. They rejected the idea of purgatory and believed that there was only heaven and hell. This meant that they did not see the point in prayers and indulgences for the dead as their fate had already been sealed by their actions.
The Protestants saw themselves as returning the church to an English tradition and moving away from the foreign influence of the Catholic Church. Many of the changes made by the Protestant Church involved moving from Latin to English so that it would be more suitable for England. This view was given weight by perceived European Catholic attacks on England in the sixteenth century such as the attempted invasion in 1588 by the Spanish Armada and the Pope’s attacks on Elizabeth I. Catholic rulers of England after Henry VIII were also easier to categorize as ‘unEnglish’; Mary I was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and married a Spaniard and James II, a Scottish Catholic, was deposed in 1688 and replaced by his Protestant daughter. Protestants continued to view Catholics as ‘unEnglish’ as the revival in the nineteenth century was driven by Irish immigrants. The emergence of the term ‘Anglicanism’ shows how the Protestants were associated with England. By viewing themselves as English traditionalists, the Protestants were able to portray the Catholics as dissenters against the nation.
By focusing on the Bible, the Protestants were moving back to the core text of the religion instead of the church rituals and traditions that the Catholics focussed on. In this way, they were able to portray themselves as returning the church to its original traditions by undoing the changes that the Catholics had made and making the period of Catholic supremacy appear to have been a period of dissent.
In contrast the Catholics saw themselves as the older, established church that was replaced by the Protestant dissenters in the sixteenth century. For them, they were trying to uphold the long established traditions that had been removed by the Protestants. For example, in 1850 Pope Pius IX created a structure of bishoprics in England, restoring the system that had been in place prior to the Reformation. Whilst this was dissenting from the establishment church, it was also upholding the tradition that had been in place for many years in the past.
The building of new churches demonstrated the way that both Catholics and Protestants tried to show themselves to be upholders of tradition. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both built churches that harked back to bygone eras. In Birmingham the Protestants built six churches between 1749 and 1833 in classical styles whilst Catholics used original ornaments that had been hidden and protected after the Dissolution of the Monasteries to decorate new churches. Pugin’s desire to see a Catholic revival saw him design churches in a Gothic style, the predominant architectural style during the period of Catholic dominance in England. St Chad’s cathedral demonstrated his commitment to these ideals.
When considering how both Catholics and Protestants tried to show themselves to be upholders of tradition it is important to look beyond these religions. It could be argued that both were upholders of tradition compared to the more radical dissent of the Puritans, who wanted a greater break from the recent past. For example, in Scotland religion after the Reformation was a more radical departure from the past. However, they also laid claim to tradition by portraying themselves as upholders of much older traditions that had been abandoned by both Catholics and mainstream Protestants.
As well as claims that they were preserving an older tradition, as time passed after the Reformation, the position of the Protestant Church changed relative to the Catholic Church. What was seen as new gradually became the norm as it remained in place for a period of time and became the only establishment church that younger generations had ever known. As the Protestant Church became the establishment church, challenges by the Catholic Church to its authority could be portrayed as dissent in the sense that they were dissenting and rebelling against the establishment.
The passage of time also meant that a Protestant tradition was built up to counter the existing Catholic tradition. In this way both could claim to be upholding tradition, albeit different traditions, whilst accusing the other of dissent for opposing their version of tradition. The idea of one upholding tradition and the other dissenting is based on the incorrect premise that there is only one tradition. This was not the case so both claims to uphold tradition were valid and both claims that the other was dissenting were invalid.
Both the Catholic and Protestant Churches were able to claim to be the upholders of tradition by firstly harking back to ever older traditions and secondly by each claiming ownership of a different tradition. Their claims that the other was dissenting owed more to treating dissent as the opposite of tradition rather than genuine dissent. The reality was that both followed a different tradition but that each tradition was equally valid.