14 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (8) The Elizabethan Settlement

When Elizabeth I was crowned, England, far from enjoying the strength and stability of her father Henry VIII, was a weak and divided nation. It is difficult to determine precisely where Elizabeth’s deepest sympathies lay. Certainly she oversaw the re-introduction of the Book of Common Prayer to the English Church. Yet she herself was known to persist in a number of practices decried as “Catholic” at the time. No doubt she recognized that Mary’s disastrous reign had succeeded only in making England irreversibly Protestant.

One issue that had to be dealt with early in Elizabeth’s reign was the Prayer Book. There were still many who were not satisfied with Cranmer’s work. On one side there were those who would have wished for something more “Catholic”, more in line with the traditional practice of the church as they knew it. On the other were those who would become known as Puritans, who longed for a book that gave full expression to the doctrines of the Continental Reformation as many of them had experienced it during their years of exile.

The result was a compromise, a book that differed in few (but significant) respects from Cranmer’s work of 1552. Once again we might look at the words of administration of holy communion to perceive the flavor of the new book. This time the words of 1549 (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you…”) were attached to those of 1552 (“Take and eat this in remembrance…”). The result was a set of words which, though cumbersome, gave expression to both God’s gracious initiative and our faithful response.

A measure of what had happened in Elizabeth’s reign can also be found in what we know as the “Thirty-Nine Articles” of Religion. During the reign of Edward VI Thomas Cranmer had formulated forty-two such articles, setting forth the position of the Church of England both as in continuity with the most ancient practices of the church and as a thoroughly Reformed body. These articles were edited and revised, seven of them removed entirely and four added. The result is a carefully worded document, showing the Church of England to have chosen a “middle way” between the perceived excesses of the mediƦval Roman Church on the one hand and the “left wing” of the Reformation, or Anabaptists, on the other. While there is much in the Articles that relates to the debates of a former century, they emphasize Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross, the centrality of faith and the supreme authority of holy Scripture in all matters of faith and life.

Neither the Prayer Book nor the Thirty-Nine Articles satisfied everyone in the Church of England. Yet, if only for the moment, a measure of stability had been achieved and the groundwork had been laid for its development. We could not close our discussion of Elizabeth’s reign without the mention of two significant figures. The first of these is John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury. It may have been he who first used the term “Anglican” in its modern sense, in the title of his publication Apologia pro Ecclesia Anglicana. Taking his cue from the Elizabethan settlement, Jewel used his extensive scholarship and careful reasoning to defend the Anglican Church against the attacks of Roman Catholics on the one side and Puritans on the other.

One of his students was Richard Hooker, who was one of the most able apologists in the history of Anglicanism. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he blended measured argument and biblical reasoning to defend the Church of England against the attacks of both Puritans and the Roman Church. Both Hooker and Jewel before him lay the groundwork for that irenical faith which carefully and sympathetically seeks to see an argument from both sides, measures it against the standard of Scripture (properly understood) and seeks to arrive at a middle way, avoiding legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other—an approach which represents all that I believe is best in Anglicanism.


Anonymous said...

In Elizabeth's time the Church of England was thought of by all other Protestant Churches as one of them. Nobody at the time thought of it as a via media. Recent scholarship attributes the small amendments to the 1552 BCP as an attempt to conciliate Lutherans.

notworthyofthename said...

Agreed. Certainly the Church of England never saw itself as a via media between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but between Roman Catholics (or perhaps even Lutherans) and radical reformers such as the Anabaptists. This becomes quite clear when you read the Thirty-Nine Articles.