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The establishment of the via media

30 June 2017

Richard Chartres considers the legacy of the Reformation in the Church of England

Anthony Nettle/Alamy

“Such a candle as. . . shall never be put out”: the Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford

“Such a candle as. . . shall never be put out”: the Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford

EARLIER this month, the Compan­ions of Honour gathered in solemn assembly for the first time in their new spiritual home, the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court. It was a good place to contemplate the ambig­­uous legacy of the Reforma­tion in the Church of England.

Henry VIII sumptuously redecor­ated the chapel in prepara­tion for the baptism of his son, Edward. Under the magnificent Tudor ceiling, from which gilded angels playing a variety of instru­ments appear to be floating gently to earth, a surpliced choir sang the office of evensong in the presence of the Queen, while the clergy processed in richly embroidered copes. It was not the vision of reformed worship that John Knox — a priest of the Chapel Royal under Edward VI — worked hard to realise.

Edward’s brief reign permitted a virtual cultural revolution. Much of the treasury of medieval English art was destroyed, and, when the King died in July 1553, plans had been made for the general confiscation of parochial valuables. Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, commented at the close of the Edwardian campaign: “For the most part they were never persuaded in their hearts, but from the teeth forward and for the King’s sake, in the truth of God’s word.”


DESPITE efforts to prevent the accession of the devoutly Roman Catholic Mary, the daughter of Henry’s discarded Queen Katharine, the princess came to the throne amid general rejoicing, and set about re­­versing the legislation of her brother’s reign, and reconciling England to the Roman obedience.

Mary’s counter-revolution, how­­ever, was not given sufficient time to embed itself, and, after she died in 1558, her sister, Elizabeth, presided over a cautious and defensive re­­­version to the Edwardian Prayer Book tradition. This disappointed a growing Puritan party, reinforced by exiles who were returning from more thoroughly reformed Churches, notably in Switzerland. The “settle­ment” of 1559 was, for them, a com­promise that had come too soon, but, by the accident of the Queen’s long reign, was given the chance to consolidate itself.


ONE of the noteworthy things about Elizabeth’s interim arrangements was the survival, unique in Europe, of cathedrals with their choral establishments, which — together with the Chapels Royal and, most especially, Westminster Abbey — continued to produce and perform church music of the most ravishing quality.

The Prayer Book, in a way that would most certainly have been censured by Cranmer, became the vehicle for a dignified and musical liturgical tradition that gained converts under the long incumbency of Gabriel Goodman, Dean of West­minster from 1561 to 1601. It was Westminster that shaped the piety of Lancelot Andrewes, later Bishop of Winchester and concurrently Dean of the Chapel Royal; and then of Richard Neile, who, as Bishop of Rochester, brought to prominence as his chaplain the young Oxford scholar William Laud.

The liturgy and polity of the Elizabethan Church remained virtu­ally intact. This gave a vital breathing space for the development of that tradition in the Church of England so closely associated with Lancelot Andrewes and his spiritual heirs; a tradition that was concerned with mystery, manners, music, and the golden mean.


BUT the critics were not silenced, and, with the attempts of Archbishop Laud — abetted by Charles I — to enforce a ceremonious uniformity, the Puritan onslaught became even more intense.

In 1641, as the royal government and the apparatus of censorship broke down, John Milton published his blistering Of Reformation in England and the causes that hitherto have hindered it. He identifies two main obstacles that “have still hindered our uniform consent to the rest of the churches abroad”: the retention of vestiges of the old world in symbols and ceremonies (”gew­gaws fetched from Aaron’s old wardrobe or the Flamin’s vestry”); and, above all, episcopacy.

By 1645, the Archbishop of Can­­ter­­­bury had been beheaded, bishops abolished, and the Book of Common Prayer proscribed. The passions of the Civil War, however, in which a greater proportion of the male pop­ulation of England perished than was killed in the First World War, created martyrs, and — most signi­fic­­antly — a royal martyr for the Church of England, which could no longer be dismissed as a creature of time-servers and sycophants.


AT THE Restoration in 1660, the Chapel Royal (with music supplied by Henry Purcell) revived, and there was an attempt to entrench the Anglican establishment.

The early 19th century, however, meant the end of the confessional state in England, with the repeal of the Test Act in 1828, and Catholic emancipation the following year. These developments led to a renewed crisis of Anglican identity. It was inevitable that the Reformation era should be interrogated again by different parties in search of answers to the problem of identity. The epi­centre of the debate was this time Oxford, culminating in the growth of the Tractarian movement, and the response from the Parker Society, which published the works of the Reformation Anglicans.


WHERE are we now as the quin­centenary approaches? It was the Reformation era that made the holy scriptures available in the ver­­­nacular, and released the power of the word to transform the lives of individuals and societies. But there are other, less positive aspects of the legacy of the Reformation era: notably, a tendency to over-define mystery in the interests of polemics.

Is the Reformation ended? Differ­ences of view remain, but have been relativised by ecumenical pro­gress. Samuel Johnson said: “For my part, Sir, I think that all Chris­­tians whether Papists or Protestants agree in the essential articles and that their differences are trivial and rather political than religious.” The es­­sential articles are surely faith in the Trinity; the incarnation; the author­ity of scripture read in the com­munity of the Church of all the ages and different cultures; and the reality of the Holy Spirit.

Cranmer and Ridley, with their ac­­cent on frequent communion, were concerned to replace the theat­ricality of medieval religion with a more profound experience of Chris­tian community.

Christianity is not so much an ideology but first and foremost a shared way of life, with the accent on participation rather than on proposi­tions, on the sacraments rather than scholarship, on mutuality and inter­dependence rather than individual­ism.


O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; Mercifully grant, that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Collect for the 19th Sunday after Trinity)


The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal.

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