Protestantism & Anglican Origins

Elizabeth I by Gower Elizabeth I, who along with her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, enacted what is now known as the "Elizabethan Settlement."

The Revisionist Impact

One of the more important trends of late in anti-Anglican apologetics by Roman Catholics has been to utilise recent “revisionist” historical scholarship on the English Reformation. The immediate aim has been to show that the Church of England that emerged from the Elizabethan Settlement was utterly Protestant and not in theological continuity with either any pre-Reformation Catholicism or the Caroline Divines and the succeeding “High Church” tradition.

The overall purpose of this historical reconstruction is twofold. First, it is to cut-off any attempt to read back into the intentions of the 16th Century Reformers the Catholic interpretations of the 17th Century. That way the strong assertions of Eucharistic Sacrifice found in the latter can be entirely ignored when dealing with the former, and so the arguments of Apostolicae Curae about the sacramental (non) intention in the Ordinal can be seen as plausible.

Second, on a broader ecclesiological basis, this historiography allows a simple dismissal (as dishonest and innovative) of the traditional claim of Anglican Churches to be constituent parts of the Catholic Church possessing a continuity with the pre-Reformation Church that is distinctive among non-Roman Churches of the West.

While the revisionist histories of scholars such as Eamon Duffy have contributed greatly to our understanding of the period of the Reformation – and have simultaneously undermined some Anglo-Catholic idealisations of the early English Reformers – they do not tell the whole story. Now, was there anything in the English Reformation, especially the Elizabethan phase, which made it distinctive?

Strands of Continuity

The answer is yes. Apart from the maintenance of epsicopal organisation, we see the following features:  

  1.  A consistently griping group of “Puritans”, the dogmatic Calvinists, who complain that the Church of England is not truly Reformed due to its “Popish” ministry and liturgy and its failing to assert “TULIP” Calvinism in the 39 Articles.
  2. A Queen guiding the Church who seemed to believe in the Real Presence, liked to have a crucifix on the altar and Mass vestments, probably helped add a rubric to the Prayer Book requiring these vestments, probably was partly responsible for adding a clause to the 39 Articles that said the “the Church … hath authority in Controversies of Faith“.  Queen Elizabeth a number of times defended her Church’s catholicity to foreigners and emphasised what it held in common with the rest of the western Catholic Church. For example, she objected to the “invidious difference” made between her and other “Catholic potentates” when she was invited to the Council of Trent in the same way Protestants were, and said “Many people think we are Turks or Moors here, whereas we only differ from other Catholics in things of small importance.” She also appealed strongly to the Consensus of the Fathers in her apologetic for the Church of England to Emperor Ferdinand. Indeed, when the Queen addressed the Spanish Ambassador through Lord Cecil as intermediary in 1561, she informed him that the English would attend the Council of Trent if the Christian princes decided the place of meeting, the Pope presided as head of the Council but not as “universal Bishop”, and that dogmatic definitions should be drawn from Scripture, the consensus of doctors and the rulings of the ancient councils. She also demanded that all her English bishops be granted equal voice and vote with the other bishops in its proceedings.
  3. A 1559 Prayer Book and 39 Articles which deleted earlier outright denials of prayer for the dead, the Real Presence in the Eucharist and sacramental grace being given ex opere operato. There are also the following in the Elizabethan Injunctions (in 18, 50, & the Bidding Prayers) of 1559: Use of the word “mass” to describe the Liturgy; characterisation of being a “sacramentary”, that is, a denier of the Real Presence, as worthy of denunciation; and the statement “let us pray God for all those which are departed out of this life in the faith of Christ”. Formularies like these that were intended to be acceptable to the non-Calvinist, ‘non-Papist’ Catholics. (The earlier denials, it should be noted, were in documents that never received legal approval by the Church itself.) Also deleted was an abusive prayer in the Litany for deliverance from Papal tyranny. The authorised 1560 Latin edition of the Book of Common Prayer contained prayer for the dead in the communion service for funerals.
  4. Deliberate appointment of many moderate rather than Geneva-style reformers as bishops, some of whom we know believed in the Real Presence (e.g., Bishop Guest). Making sure all to be bishops were properly consecrated by at least three bishops. This latter condition was not always met, in those few Lutheran Churches that maintained some sort of episcopacy.
  5. Church Law which said “Let Preachers above all things be careful that they never teach aught in a sermon to be religiously held and believed by the people, except that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, and which has been collected from the same doctrine by the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops.” The Act of Supremacy makes the first four Ecumenical Councils standards for judging heresy, while the Homilies (authorised at a secondary level) and a consensus of divines re-affirmed the universal acceptance of the first six.
  6. An Ordinal and Liturgy quite different to the vast majority of Lutheran and Calvinist ones.
  7. An apologetic (e.g., Jewel’s and Hooker’s) which consistently appealed to the consensus of the Fathers and, interestingly, the example of the Eastern Churches as part of its justification of its Catholic identity despite not accepting Roman supremacy.
  8. A significant number of those loyal to the Pope nevertheless taking the Sacrament from Church of England altars up to 1570.
  9. The 1561 Calender put back into the list a number of mediaeval English saints and other commemorations of mediaeval origin, which contradicts any claim of an emphatic severance from the mediaeval Church. Then there is the statement in the BCP preface, “Of Ceremonies” which states “we condemn no other Nations” and Canon 30 of 1604 (concerning the sign of the Cross) which disclaims any intention to “forsake or reject” the Continental Catholic national Churches, but only to depart from them in “those particular points” where they had “fallen … from themselves in their ancient integrity”. Admittedly this last piece of evidence is from the reign of James I, but it is before the period generally seen as having the episcopate dominated by “High Church” types.
  10. An Archbishop of Canterbury (Parker) who said “God forbid that we should have such a reformation here as Knox hath made in Scotland.

A Different Sort of Reformation

It is, one would think, reasonably clear that the English Reformation was somewhat different in character to those in Europe and Scotland. There was a greater respect for Tradition both in basic doctrinal epistemology and in actual practice. And for those who view Elizabethan Church of England as radically different in character and self-understanding to the later period of the Caroline Divines one must ask: If they were so incompatible and discontinuous, how on earth did the “more Catholic” Caroline Divines come to be? From whence did they arise? They come straight after the Elizabethan period, and some were educated by the Church of England during this time. Does it not it make more sense to posit that there were genuine Catholic qualities and Ecclesial “substance” in the post-1559 Church of England (albeit often seemingly overwhelmed by the heat of early controversy and over-reaction against Rome) just waiting to be developed and made more explicit by the Jacobite and Caroline bishops and theologians?

These are some of the reasons the revisionist attempt to deny any distinctively Catholic intention or effect to the English Reformation seems less than fair or balanced. We can happily admit that many of the early Reformers taught or held as individuals material heresy in various areas. But their errors never bound the Church of England as a whole. And, just as importantly, underlying their mixed success in understanding Holy Tradition there was at least a formal and official commitment to that Tradition as expressed in the Ecumenical Councils and Patristic consensus.

A subsidiary historical argument that has been used against the Catholicity of the Church of England is that what Elizabeth did she did entirely against the will of the Church as expressed by its hierarchy. Indeed, this was so much the case that she could only impose her will by replacing almost all the bishops, since those appointed (or reconciled with Rome) by Queen Mary resisted Elizabeth’s replacing the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome with that of the Monarch.

However, the fact that the changes made in the Church of England were not sufficiently self-directed does not prove that the changes completely broke its sacramental or ecclesial continuity. One needs to look at the nature of the changes themselves to decide this matter. Unfortunately, if the inability of a province to freely govern itself and teach without civil interference are sufficient evidence of de-Catholicising, then most European national Catholic Churches were unchurched many times in the middle ages, and long before the Reformation! A plethora of Kings before Henry VIII and outside England who interfered quite effectively with the Churches in their territories may be found in the annals of history. Whether it was to do with Episcopal appointments or even the publishing of a papal bull, earthly princes often imposed their will on Churches.

One should also note that most clergy in England eventually subscribed to the changes made by Henry and then Elizabeth. It is common to see this as mere widespread and repeated cowardice. But that assumes that most thought the changes were, not only objectionable or unnecessary, but a matter of basic principle, worth persecution or even martyrdom. Upon further thought, however, there does not seem to be much support to this premise. If Henry or Elizabeth had ordered an end to episcopacy or a denial of the authority of the Creeds, the reaction would likely have been very different. It should not be forgotten that pressure from Churchmen led to Henry accepting the ambiguous rider “as far as the law of Christ allows” as a qualification of his “Headship,” and also led to Elizabeth only claiming to be “Supreme Governor,” and adding other statements disavowing any Ministry of Word or Sacrament.

It should also not be forgotten that conflict with the Papacy over various issues had been unusually frequent in the English Church since long before the Reformation. To characterise all those conflicts with the Pope as being simply acts of the Crown against the Church is illegitimate. English clergy had often sided with the complaints of Kings and other laymen about, for example, Papal exactions and deliberately corrupt and pluralist appointments. Magna Carta is an interesting case in point. The Pope condemned it and those associated with it, declared it void and rebuked the Archbishop of Canterbury for his involvement. Yet, successive Archbishops of Canterbury ignored this and continued to use it when enthroning Kings. And it is worth remembering that Conciliarist sympathies were by no means extinguished in England in the Sixteenth Century.

So, while most in the Church would probably prefer to have been left alone by the Monarchs, the large-scale acquiescence to the English Reformation, even allowing for the reluctance in some places and downright rebellion in others, indicates that the changes were not widely seen as a catastrophic destruction of identity. And though many things were said and done amiss on our side at that time and afterward, Anglicans did not see their repudiation of Roman Supremacy as intrinsically and deliberately schismatic or heretical, given the way the Supremacy presented itself back then and the fact that one of the main Anglican criticisms was that the Pope was less Petrine than Emperor-like. They did not reject the kind of Primacy both evidenced and described in recent times in Ut Unum Sint. And so there is hope for better things in the future, and a healing of memories.