THE Reformation of the 16th century did not create Anglicanism or an Anglican Church. The players in that drama would undoubtedly be mystified — and very probably horrified — if they could be transported forward in time to sample the contemporary Church of England.
To previous generations of historians, as perhaps to many Anglican clergy and lay people today, this denial of historical parentage might seem perverse. Media commentators typically name Henry VIII as the founder of Anglicanism, usually with some sneering joke about his sex life. But Anglicans have always known that Henry’s strange blend of old-fashioned Catholicism and self-interested “reform” is not really the tap-root of their tradition.
Nor is it located in the short reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, when gimlet-eyed commissioners toured the country, burning statues of saints.
No, Anglicanism’s Pentecost had to wait for Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I. Her parliamentary settlement of 1559 stabilised the position of the monarch as “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England, and introduced the use of the Book of Common Prayer that (in modified form) has regulated and sanctified the everyday experience of Anglican worship until recent times. A few years later, Parliament ratified the Thirty-Nine Articles — for centuries, the most authoritative statement of Anglican doctrine.
Not just institutionally, but culturally and emotionally, Anglicanism has looked back to the Elizabethan Settlement. At a time of widening divisions across Europe, it seemed to represent a via media, a middle way between the extremes of Calvinistic Protestantism and Romanistic Catholicism.
And in rejecting these alternatives, it was able to pick creatively from both to create a Church at once Catholic and Reformed.
It has always been tempting to discern here the expression of a quintessentially English character, moderate and pragmatic, keeping its head while all about are losing theirs.
ALL this, however, is a projection on to the past, a version of events which the people involved would not have recognised. The Elizabethan Settlement — coming after the Catholic revival and violent repression of Mary I — was no emollient middle way, but an explicit assertion of victorious Protestantism, reinstating the full-blooded reformism of Edward’s reign.
The Queen’s title of “Supreme Governor” (rather than her father’s “Supreme Head”) was a sop to the theological (and sexist) sensibilities of zealous Protestants, not a watering down of the royal supremacy to appease papalists.
On the most fraught doctrinal question of the age — the meaning of the eucharist — Prayer Book and Articles hinted at spiritual “presence” (Calvin’s view), but offered cold comfort to traditional believers in transubstantiation.
Almost to a man, the bishops and theologians of Elizabeth’s Church regarded themselves as members of a wider Protestant movement: they were remainers, not leavers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with coreligionists in Zurich and Geneva against the threat of resurgent Rome.
If all this is so, where does the notion of Anglicanism as a distinct synthesis come from, and why, in modern times, might many Anglicans demur, or at least pause, before describing themselves as Protestants? Does it have much to do with the Reformation at all? Or was it a later form of theologically creative accountancy, cooked up in 19th-century Oxford?
THE answer points back to the Church of England’s first Supreme Governor. Elizabeth was not an Anglican, but she was, to coin a phrase, a bloody difficult woman. In 1559, royal advisers and bishops universally considered the Settlement to be a staging-post for an ongoing journey. Some wanted to travel faster than others, but the “Reformation” of the Church of England was undoubtedly a work in progress.
From the outset, the Queen did not view it in this way. Matters widely seen as genuinely open for negotiation — clerical vestments, the rituals of the Prayer Book, episcopacy, even — Elizabeth regarded as fixed and unchangeable.
Her stubbornness drove her bishops to distraction, but over time she replaced them. Ceremonies and rituals originally retained on utilitarian grounds began to be invested with real spiritual significance. Perhaps bishops were not just a sensible way of governing the Church, but part of God’s will for it.
By the end of the century, a few daring theologians (notably, Richard Hooker) were starting to emphasise continuity as well as rupture with the medieval Catholic Church.
All this was deeply disturbing to large swaths of Protestant (or Puritan) opinion, which saw lethargy at best, and popish backsliding at worst. The Elizabethan age was not one of “Anglican” consensus, but of continuous controversy and instability.
The civil wars of the following century were a kind of violent referendum on what sort of Protestantism the Church of England should espouse. The question remained unsettled, even after large numbers from the (eventually) losing side hived off to form their own Nonconformist Churches.
Anglicanism, then, is not so much the creation of the Reformation as part of the fallout from the Reformation — of the inability of any side to impose a compelling vision of past and future. The Church of England, an institutionalised continuation of the 16th century’s unresolved quarrels, is an associative reminder that the business of the past is never finally over and done with.
That, if an outsider is permitted to say so, might be considered both its burden and its blessing.
Dr Peter Marshall is Professor of History at Warwick University. His Heretics and Believers: A history of the English Reformation is published by Yale University Press at £30 (£27).