October 30 – John Wyclif, Priest and Prophetic Witness, 1384

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Portrait of John Wycliffe originally published in Bale’s Scriptor Majoris Britanniae (1584)

About this commemoration

John Wyclif is remembered as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

Born in Yorkshire, England, around 1330, Wyclif was educated at Oxford. Although he served as a parish priest, he spent most of his vocation teaching theology and philosophy at Oxford and was celebrated for his academic achievements.

In 1374, Wyclif defended the position of the Crown during a dispute with the papacy over finances. Because of this newfound notoriety, Wyclif gathered around him a group of powerful patrons who were able to provide a reasonable level of safe haven and security for him. This meant that Wyclif could begin to test some of his theological views that were at odds with and critical of the positions of the medieval church. Without the support of such powerful allies, Wyclif, a priest and university professor, could never have withstood the discipline that would have come his way.

A number of Wyclif’s radical ideas got worked out in the centuries that followed as the movement toward reformation gained momentum. Wyclif believed that believers could have a direct, unmediated relationship with God, not requiring the intervention of the church or its priesthood. He held that a national church could be fully and completely the church and not have to tolerate the interference and abuse of international, i.e. papal, authority. Believing that the Scriptures should be available to all who could read them, and not mediated through the instruction of the church, Wyclif translated the Vulgate—the Latin edition of the Bible—into English.

The tables turned dramatically when Wyclif questioned the eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation. He believed that the underlying philosophy was problematic and that the popular piety flowing from it led inevitable to superstitious behaviors. He was condemned for his eucharistic views in 1381. Although Wyclif had nothing to do with inciting the Peasants’ Revolt of the same year, he was an easy target for blame. He retired, left Oxford, and died three years later in Leicestershire.

Later reformers, John Hus (July 6) and Martin Luther (February 18) acknowledged their debt to Wyclif.


I  O God, whose justice continually challenges thy Church to live according to its calling: Grant us who now remember the work of John Wyclif contrition for the wounds which our sins inflict on thy Church, and such love for Christ that we may seek to heal the divisions which afflict his Body; through the same Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

II  O God, your justice continually challenges your Church to live according to its calling: Grant us who now remember the work of John Wyclif contrition for the wounds which our sins inflict on your Church, and such love for Christ that we may seek to heal the divisions which afflict his Body; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Psalm 33:4-11

Lessons:  Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 43:26–33, Hebrews 4:12–16, and Mark 4:13–20

Preface of God the Holy Spirit

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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5 thoughts on “October 30 – John Wyclif, Priest and Prophetic Witness, 1384

  1. Collect: The phrase ‘who now remember the work …” is awkward. ‘Who now’ sounds like something you might yell when confronted by serial intruders. Maybe just drop the word ‘now’?

    Bio. In the bio for Miles Coverdale Yorkshire was not identified as Yorkshire, England. Here it is. Both should agree. And sometimes England is followed by a comma, and sometimes it is not in various bios. Of course the style sheet should agree every time.

    2nd paragraph: ‘Because of his newfound notoriety …’ Newfound is a word (meaning newly found). I agree. But it seems arcane here.

    5th paragraph, last sentence: I suggest adding the date ‘… and died three years later in Leicestershire in 1384.’ In order to get the date I had to do the math. Better to give the date, IMO.

  2. Wyclif is best known for his translations: the subheading should be modified to reflect this. I suggest “Priest, Prophetic Witness, and Translator of the Scriptures”.

    Line 2 of the first paragraph: I suggest adding a new sentence: ‘His name is also spelled “Wycliffe” or “Wycliff”.

    Line 5 of the first paragraph: After “Oxford,” insert “(now part of Oriel College)”.

    Line 3 of the second paragraph: substitute “career” for “vocation”. I don’t think one can “spend” a vocation.

    Line 2 of the third paragraph: substitute “fame” for “notoriety”. Although in the US “Notoriety” is often used in other than a pejorative sense, its use here is ambiguous, and best avoided.

    Line 1 of the fourth paragraph: substitute “were” for the ugly, lazy word “got”.

    Line 3 of the fourth paragraph: substitute “held” for “believed” to avoid the awkward phrase “believed that believers”.

    Last line of the fourth paragraph: add a new sentence: ‘The work of Wyclif and his associates resulted in the widely-circulated works known as “Lollard Bibles”‘.

    Line 4 of the fifth paragraph: substitute “inevitably” for “inevitable”.

  3. Wyclif was important in so many respects that it is very difficult to write a reasonable biography in as few words as are necessary for HWHM, and there will always be differences about which aspects of his life were most important, but this bio leaves out too many things for which he is widely, and in some cases passionately admired, at least by Evangelical Episcopalians.

    The description ‘Prophetic Witness’ may not be inaccurate, but ‘Theologian’ and ‘Reformer’ get much closer to the nature of his work. Given his description of the relationship between clergy and laity, he would have thought ‘Priest’ to be entirely too minor a point to be worth mentioning. ‘Translator’ would be misleading; it’s not clear that he contributed anything to the English translation called the Wycliffite Bible, but he was the driving force behind it because of his belief first in the authority of Scripture and second in the importance of the laity in the church, and both points could be made much more strongly, especially the former. His criticisms of contemporary church practices and beliefs were all made on the grounds that they had no support in Scripture, and his views on the role of the laity tended not just towards equality with clergy in the priesthood of all believers, but authority over them, at least in regard to financial and political matters.

    It’s also important to stress that these matters were not, at least in the minds of the laity who took his teaching seriously, merely academic points. The (mostly) lay movement that arose as a result of his work found something in his teaching for which they were willing to die, and lay people were still being put to death for their association with him when Luther’s distillation of his teaching began to interest English clergy.

    In terms of making the bio memorable, which is essential if a commemoration is to encourage those participating to apply its lessons to their lives, it seems a pity to leave out the well-known description ‘morning star of the Reformation’, or the near-contemporary title ‘Doctor Evangelicus’.

    The collect tries to incorporate too many ideas, some of them having no reference to anything mentioned in the bio, and appears to give the church a degree of importance which Wyclif challenged. What was closest to his heart was the faith of the typical Christian and the necessity of Scripture for strengthening it. May the Episcopal Church continue to give these things the priority that Wyclif did.

  4. Wyclif remains a controversial figue in Church history. The collect does a good a job as I think can be done to give a rationale for the celebratiion, but I’m sure some people will simly refuse to celebrate it.

  5. Nigel – I agree about ‘notoriety.’ In correct American usage, it indeed is pejoritive. I treasure a thank you note from a bonehead university administrator thanking me for a conference presentation that “increased the notoriety of” our school.

    You can edit my writing any old time!

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