The Mad Nun of Kent

The Mad Nun of Kent

By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

“God Told Me …”

“God told me…” is a sure way to get what you want anyway and a tool for manipulating people from time immemorial. Who can argue against God? 

Elizabeth Barton, known as the “Mad Nun of Kent,” was executed on April 20, 1534 – the same year that the Church of England broke its connection with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. She was a 16th century ecclesiastical rockstar and visionary. Barton was a servant girl in the small village of Aldington in Kent when, in 1525, she became ill and began to see visions. She was fanatical Roman Catholic who despised all things reformational, and especially Martin Luther. One unsympathetic observer at the time (Richard Morison) said that she eventually “confessed all, and uttered the very truth, which is this: that she never had visions in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise” (see more in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer).

At first Elizabeth was well received but she eventually ran into trouble with the highest authorities for her visions and sermons announcing that King Henry VIII would die soon if he divorced Katherine of Aragon (a Roman Catholic) and married Anne Boleyn (a convinced Protestant). In fact, Henry lived another fifteen years after his annulment and remarriage. Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell reportedly played the good-cop-bad-cop interrogating her, Cranmer the listener and Cromwell the “unsympathetic interrogator.” When Hugh Latimer joined in the interrogations it became clear that the Barton affair was intimately connected with the church’s breach with Rome and that her time on earth was short. Elizabeth Barton brought disgrace on the old Medieval Catholic establishment and helped paved the way for Archbishop Warham’s replacement (Thomas Cranmer), and eventually the English Reformation.

Protestants soon populated the Church of England, and in 1538 orders were given that an English Bible be placed “in some convenient place” in every church in England. God, of course, speaks in many ways and in any way he wishes, but the Bible is the means he chose to specially communicate with his people. In the Bible we hear more than the stinking puddles of people’s traditions (First Homily): we hear the path we will take that leads to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life (Cranmer’s prayer for the 2nd Sunday of Advent). In it contains everything necessary for salvation and it’s message is abbreviated in the historic creeds (Thirty-nine Articles 6 and 8). The main theme of the Bible in both testaments is Jesus Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Article 7). Holy Scripture (sola Scriptura) is the highest authority in the Anglican tradition over which all other authorities are judged – including “God told me.”

Phillip Cary was right, I believe: “I have good news for you: the voices in your heart are all your own. So you don’t have to get all anxious about figuring out which ones of your voices is God. None of them is. The revelation of God comes in another way, through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart” (Good News for Anxious Christians).

The Revd Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism: