Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Conservative Reformation - Part I

There has been a pretty concerted attempt over the last 175 years by one party within the Anglican Church to deny the Protestant heritage of orthodox Episcopalianism. This has generally taken the form of either a deliberate misreading of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, (for example J. H. Newman's "Tract XC") or, more recently, an outright denial that they have any relevance to the modern Church. Whilst I would strongly disagree with the arguments contained in Tract XC, it is true to say, that you have to put the Articles into their historical context in order to fully appreciate what Archbishop Matthew Parker and the Convocations of Canterbury and York were trying to do back in 1563.

Theologically, the Protestant Reformers brake down into three groups. For the sake of argument let us call them conservative Biblicists, moderate Biblicists, and radical Biblicists. The Conservative Biblists were headed by Luther, and include other big names such as Melancthon, Bugenhagen, Olaus Petri, and most of the earlier English reformers - Barnes, Tyndale, etc.. The Reformers consist of the moderate Swiss and Rhineland reformers such as Calvin, Bucer, Oecelampadius, Peter Martyr, and Bullinger. The radical camp consists of people like Carlstadt and Michael Servetus who ultimately started rethinking the Creeds. The radical camp eventually painted themselves into a corner and survive only in radical Biblicist groups like the Amish, and the Mennonites. They have a distant mainstream cousin in the form of the various Baptist Churches, but on the whole their tradition has ended up being pretty marginal. On the other hand, the conservative and moderate Biblicists were to form the mainstream of the European Reformation.

The reason for this is that the various State Churches fell broadly into two groups. The Conservative Biblicists conducted their own form of the Reformation in North Germany and Scandanavia giving those countries a Evangelical Lutheran heritage. The Swiss soon abandoned some of the more extreme positions of Zwingli and conducted a moderate "Bible exclusively" Reformation in the Swiss Cantons, spreading it to Strassbourg, various Rhineland States, the Northern Netherlands, and Scotland. The English Church went its own way somewhere in between the two camps, giving some truth to MacCauley's old jibe about the Church of England. To modify MacCuley in the interests of accuracy it would be fair to say that Anglicanism ended up with "a Catholic hierarchy; Bucerian Articles; and a Lutheran Liturgy." Why was this?

In the 1530s and early 1540s it looked as though England was eventually going to embrace a conservative form of Lutheranism, akin to that of Sweden. Archbishop Cranmer was a Lutheran, and so were most of the Reform minded folks with influence. However, about 1545, Reformed ideas, mainly coming from Strassbourg and the Rhineland rather than directly from Geneva and Zurich, began to gain ground. Nicholas Ridley (1500-55), the "bright young thing" of the reforming movement seems to have embraced the Reformed Eucharistic theology after reading a ninth century tract by a monk called Ratramnus. He eventually convinced Latimer and Cranmer that the Lutheran position on the Eucharist was incorrect, and the stage was set for the Edwardian Reformation to proceed along moderate Reformed, rather than Lutheran lines.

Inspite of its conservativism, and favour with modern Anglo-Catholics, the 1549 BCP was carefully framed within a Reformed theological framework. However, Cranmer, who was a believer in gradualism, framed the service in such a way that Henrician Catholics would not be overly shocked by it, and that the Lutheran mainstream of the Reforming party could accept it whole-heartedly. By all accounts he did the job a bit too well, resulting in a lengthy debate with the Henrician Catholic bishop Stephen Gardner (1500-55), who believed that the 1549 Eucharist was capable of Catholic interpretation, and on the other front it was heavily criticized by Martin Bucer, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, who produced his "Censura" of the First BCP in 1550. Cranmer, who increasingly identified with the Reformed camp, went back to the drawing board, heavily modified the Communion service, and stripped away much of the ceremonial left in 1549.

The 1552 BCP marked the high water mark of Reformed thinking when it came to the liturgy of the Church of England. Edward VI died within a year, and the Accession of Mary Tudor (1516-58) made it dangerous to be a Protestant as she formally returned the country to the Roman obedience. However, Mary's ill-advised policy of burning prominent Protestants like Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, Taylor, and various other important members of Edward's hierarchy did not play well with the general population. If she had lived longer Queen Mary would probably have been successful in returning England to the Catholic fold, or more likely, have pitched the country into Religious War, but as it was she died in November 1558 leaving a country stuck between the Old and New Religions.

Her successor, her half-sister Elizabeth (1533-1603) had been educated by John Cheke, and had had Matthew Parker as her chaplain at one stage. She therefore lent towards Protestantism, but was relatively uninfluenced by Continental trends being a partisan of neither Lutheranism or Calvinism. Matthew Parker (c.1504-1575), her choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, was also a proponant of the insular version of Protestantism and relatively uninfluenced by foreign disputes, whilst being full aware of all the issues. Sir William Cecil, her chief advisor, was also no fan of foreign fads, though perhaps a little more inclined to Calvinism than the Queen. With these three in charge of policy the stage was set for a moderate, "pan-Protestant" religious settlement, reflecting the government's need to bring all three streams of English Protestantism within the national Church. Elizabeth, Cecil, and Parker therefore set out to comprehend Lutherans, Bucerians, and Calvinists within one National Church. Paradoxically, what started off as a matter of political expediency ended up producing what John Wesley described as the "best reformed Church in Christendom."

In the next article we are going to look at how this was brought about and why it is so important for Continuing Anglicans to preserve their Reformed Catholic heritage.


  1. An excellent article your grace..Im looking forward to the next installment.
    Fr Ron

  2. Hi, +PD!

    That's an excellent article indeed!

    I run a blog on Reformed Liturgy, and would be honoured if you'd be so nice as to let me translate it (and the sequels) to Portuguese! Due credits and links to the originals would be in order, of course.

    Let me know your mind on it, and keep up the outstanding job!

    Eduardo (a.k.a. Brazilian Episcoterian)

  3. The best reformed church produced the Arminians, the Anglo-Catholics and the high church Carolingians? And how about the ECUSA homosexuals?

  4. The English Church tired for a middle way between Lutheranism and Calvinism, so if your paradigm for reform s that of John Calvin, then you are in for some major league frustration. I suspect that Wesley's remark was partly inspired by the fact that the Church of England did not hitch its waggon to a specific school of Protestant theology. However, until the 19th century most of the Church was firmly rooted in the Bible and the Early Fathers according to the Elizabethan Settlement. Remember that the Caroline Divines were not Romanizers, unlike many of their modern apologists. BTW, English Arminianism does not share the same theological basis as Dutch Arminianism.

    As for the rest...

    Unfortunately ecclesiastical discipline broke down after about 1855, and the terms of subscription to the 39 Articles were loosed in 1871 (big mistake!) allowing various forms of Liberalism to flourish. Since then it has been pretty steadily downhill - hence the need for Continuing Anglicanism. However, some of those have big problems too!

  5. Bishop Robinson: Good rosponse to the comment about Anglicanism. Both Presbyterianism and the CRC in this country have difficulties too. Agree with Calvin's theology, but hitched to the Prayerbook!

  6. When Newman asserted in Tract 90 that churchmen are obligated to read the Articles in the most "catholic" sense possible, I would be able to agree with him had he had in mind the catholicism of the dogmatic consensus of the ancient and undivided Church -- not Tridentine Roman Catholic, which is the sense of catholic he intended and why the Tract is indeed special pleading.