THE distinguished historian Anthony Milton’s latest book, England’s Second Reformation, is subtitled The battle for the Church of England. Without his chronological framing of “1625-1662”, readers of the Church Times might assume that this was another foray into English Anglicanism’s current conflicts and struggles — battles indeed — over women and sexuality. It is not. Rather, in this deeply scholarly book, Milton provides a significant reframing of our own “origin myths” and places the violent events of the mid-17th century as much, if not more, at the centre of a historical understanding of the nature of the Church of England as those of the mid-16th century.
He is, as he is happy to admit, not the first historian to draw our attention in this direction, but, in England’s Second Reformation, Milton has provided us with what will surely be the definitive study of the Church of England in this period for a long time to come.
The 1640s and 1650s are often presented in Anglican origin stories as an aberration — or even a refiner’s fire — out of which the Church of England emerged in the 1660s purged of those pesky puritans who never really were “one of us”, and a posthumous victory for the reforming agenda of Archbishop Laud and Charles I — both martyrs to its cause. As important as the religious changes of the mid-Tudor period were in shaping Christian identities in this country, Milton shows us that the mid-Stuart period was more critical in shaping Anglican identities.
Though it may seem odd to non-specialists of the period, it was historians such as Milton’s own doctoral supervisor, John Morrill, who, in the 1980s, helped put religion (not just radical religion) back into the narrative of the civil wars and Interregnum. From the Victorians onwards, the English Revolution had been seen as a constitutional struggle, or class warfare, or localism v. an overweening centre — a deadly conflict driven by anything but religion.
On the contrary, in the 1640s England finally caught up with its Continental neighbours and had a proper, bloody “war of religion” all of its own. Unlike the wars on the Continent, however, this was not between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between Protestants. This is crucial to Milton’s argument: it was not a “battle between the Church of England and its puritan opponents”, but a “battle for the Church of England and for her identity between different religious groups”. The mid-17th century brought “the climax of the Church of England’s early history, rather than a strange lacuna in it”.
The Elizabethan Settlement, in fact, settled very little. None the less, Elizabethan and Jacobean bishops managed to keep the ecclesiastical show on the road by a pragmatic amount of winking at nonconformity to the Prayer Book and canons. This kept most people in the Church of England tent, because, whatever one’s views on wearing a surplice or making the sign of cross in baptism (hot-button issues for the self-identified godly), bishops and puritans had a shared soteriology: a predestinarianism with such expansive edges that at every Prayer Book funeral service the deceased could be declared as among the elect.
church timesTrial of Archbishop Laud, from a painting by Alexander Johnston
With the rise of William Laud and his supporters, the 1630s brought not only a new rigour about conformity, but conformity to what for many were ceremonial innovations at variance with Prayer Book Protestantism. Laudians were also suspected of believing that free will played some part in a person’s salvation. If that was not bad enough, Milton’s first book, Catholic and Reformed (1995), made the persuasive case that the abandonment by the Laudians of the belief that the Pope was Antichrist — the glue that had kept diverse European Protestants from unchurching one another — was another nail in the coffin of the Jacobean Consensus.
Milton maps out for the reader the process of de-Laudianisation of the Church of England. A key player was Laud’s long-time enemy, the newly promoted Archbishop of York, John Williams. As with anti-Romanism, anti-Laudianism provided some unifying glue, but the fix was short-lived. Of particular interest is Milton’s subtle depiction of the range of views among Episcopalians, including some of the old-guard Laudians, but embracing a much wider group.
In the 1640s, the Westminster Parliament suppressed the Prayer Book, episcopal polity, deans and chapters, and the Church’s calendar, and yet, at the same, Episcopalians were allowed the opportunity for liturgical experimentation. As in England’s First Reformation, the majority of parish clergy kept their livings and found ways to navigate religious change imposed by the centre. Recent scholarship has shown that some English and Irish bishops conducted semi-secret ordinations of more than 2000 men in the 1640-50s. These men did not form an underground Church, but largely continued to serve in parish ministry.
The case for the scholarly importance of England’s Second Reformation is without doubt, but it is not a book for beginners. Nevertheless, the non-specialist reader who has an interest in the period and, perhaps more importantly, wants a profounder understanding of our “origin myths” as Anglicans will be rewarded.
Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford.
England’s Second Reformation: The battle for the Church of England 1625-1662
Cambridge University Press £34.99
Church Times Bookshop £31.50