Elizabeth And The Invention Of Anglicanism

In 1555 the Religious Peace of Augsburg brought at least some degree of stability to a fractured Germany. Regional rulers could choose, and then enforce, their preferred religion. Yet their choice was limited to two options—Lutheranism and Catholicism. Elizabeth failed to see why she should be limited in this way. She would choose, and then enforce, her own religious option—the reformed episcopal faith now known as Anglicanism.

The style of Protestantism that crystallized in the late Elizabethan era thus had a distinctive, even unusual identity. The form of Protestantism that began to be spread throughout the world as England expanded its naval capacity and its colonial ambitions was a distant cousin of its continental neighbors. Elizabeth desired to create a sustainable form of Protestantism, adapted to the realities of the English situation, which would represent a "middle way" between the religious extremes of her day. Although this via media is often described as an intermediary between Protestantism and Catholicism, a closer examination of the political and religious dynamics of the Elizabethan period suggests a desire to develop a form of Protestantism that was not identical to, but had clear points of contact with, Lutheranism and Calvinism.

Although the term "Anglican" dates from a later era, it describes this distinct form of Protestantism remarkably well. It reflects the religious instability of England as a result of the aggressive yet ultimately shortlived policies of Edward VI and Mary Tudor. Like a ship tossed about in a storm, England had first lurched sharply toward Protestantism, then equally violently toward Catholicism. Elizabeth sought to bring stability to her nation, partly through deferred promises, partly through adaptation, but above all through an insistence on her own sovereign authority in matters of religion. Anglicanism would be defined by the place of the monarch as the ground and guarantor of its religious identity and stability.

Elizabeth adopted a religion that included all the cardinal beliefs and practices of Protestantism, including the rejection of papal authority, the insistence that preaching and all public worship should be in the vernacular, the insistence upon communion in both kinds for the laity, the affirmation of the clergy's right to marry, and a set of official pronouncements of faith—the "homilies," the "Thirty-nine Articles of Faith," and the prayer book—that affirmed core Protestant beliefs (such as the sufficiency of scripture, justification by faith, and the rejection of purgatory).

It is important to judge Elizabethan Protestantism for what it actually was rather than impose the ideals of a later age upon it. Some have seen Richard Hooker (1554-1600) as reflecting the theology and ecclesiastical polity of Anglicanism at this time. Hooker's attempt to replace the "word-centered" piety characteristic of this age with one that was more "sacrament-centered" was not typical of the era, and it reflected Hooker's aspirations for the future rather than the actual situation on the ground.36 Some Anglo-Catholic apologists of the nineteenth century tried to portray Elizabeth as constructing a reformed Catholicism at this time, but this is simply historical nonsense. By every criterion of her age, Elizabeth implanted a form of Protestantism in England—and was universally recognized at the time as having done so.

The outcome was a form of Protestantism that sought to stress its continuity with the Christian and English past, retaining a remarkable amount of organization, custom, and tradition from the pre-Reformation era. Much to the irritation of radical Protestants who had been schooled at Geneva and Zurich, Elizabeth retained bishops and insisted on dis tinctive clergy dress. The traditional ecclesiastical structuring of dioceses with their bishops and parishes with their parish priests continued to function. An ordered and uniform liturgy was prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. The contrast with the more Genevan form of Protestantism then emerging in Scotland was obvious.

The critical role of the monarch in determining and then sustaining the character of the Church of England made a change in monarch unsettling. When Elizabeth died in 1603, there was genuine uncertainty over who would succeed her. Which way would the wind blow? When it was announced that James VI, King of Scotland, would succeed Elizabeth, the Puritan party in England was electrified. A surge of reforming anticipation swept through the movement. Would not a Scottish king reform the Church of England and create a properly Reformed church based on his own Scottish church?

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment