John was a member of the Wyclif family of Richmond in Yorkshire and was born in about the year 1330. He was a fellow of Merton College Oxford, and Master of Balliol, but his expulsion from the Wardenship of Canterbury Hall (later incorporated into Christ Church) in favour of a monastic foundation led to a lawsuit and a life-long hatred of things monastic. He was much in favour with members of the royal family and, when disputes arose owing to his attacks on the clergy of the day, he was protected by them from the otherwise inevitable consequence of deprivation of his posts. However, he went on to deny the Church’s teaching of the presence of Christ at the Eucharist, the doctrine known as transubstantiation, and it was this that lost him his royal protection. His opinions were formally condemned in 1381 and he was forced out of office by the university the following year. John had already moved to Lutterworth in 1380 and from there he gave his support to such projects as the translation of the Bible into contemporary English. The anniversary of his death, in 1384 whilst at Mass, falls tomorrow.
Ecclesiasticus 44. 1–15
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valour; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people's lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes- all these were honoured in their generations, and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation. The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.
The author of these verses, Ben Sira the Scribe, distinguishes two categories of ‘godly people’ from the past. There are those who made a name for themselves, who were honoured in their time and still praised for their achievements. He goes on to list them in later chapters (44:16-49:16). But there are also those other pious, godly people who for whatever reason fell below the radar. Ben Sira blesses them and sings their praises. The wisdom of these ‘forgotten’ heroes of faith lives on in their descendants. In all the celebrations that have taken place this year to mark the work of Luther and Calvin, it is easy to overlook one distinguished grandfather of the Reformation – John Wycliffe. He upset the Church Establishment by his revolt against clericalism and by his insistence that the Word of God should be available to all. He was posthumously declared a heretic by the Council of Constance on 4 May 1415 and his bones and his books were burned in an attempt to destroy his memory. Yet, in revealing the Bible’s explosive power, he lives on in his descendants down to the present day and the Church today continues to bring Scripture alive for an age that desperately needs it.
Gracious God, We praise you for all those faithful men and women who have opened our eyes to the truth, inspired us by their witness, and strengthened us by their devotion. And today as we remember John Wycliffe, we remember all those who seek to bring the Bible alive for every man, woman and child, in the knowledge that it can change the world for good. Grant us understanding minds, faithful hearts, and voices to sing your praises, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.