The Emergence of Anglicanism

The Protestant Reformation that swept across much of western Europe during the sixteenth century was far from monolithic. A mass of local factors shaped the Reformation, giving rise to patterns of reform that defied the simplifications of its more uncritical supporters and opponents alike. While shared beliefs and attitudes enabled local reformations to enjoy at least a degree of unity and direction with the larger movement, each of these smaller groups also pursued its own interests, whether subtly or more emphatically, and thus the movement's fragmentation remained a constant threat.

One of the most remarkable and, owing to the happenstances of imperial history, influential forms of Protestantism emerged in England. Careful historical analysis of the origins and development of Anglicanism has been hindered to no small extent by the lingering agendas of religiously biased writers who, in attempting to perpetuate their own accounts of the English Reformation, have been primarily motivated by vested interests over what Anglicanism ought to be.1

Many nineteenth-century Anglican writers sympathetic to the High Church revival movement often known as "Tractarianism" or the "Oxford Movement" were dismissive of any suggestion that this most English form of Christianity could be considered "Protestant" and pointed to the roots of their "Anglo-Catholicism" in the early seventeenth century. It is i o6 c H R I s T I A N I T Y ' s D A N G E R o u s I D E A

certainly true that some significant conformist members of the Church of England during the reigns of James I and Charles I wished to lay a greater stress on its sacramental life than some of their contemporaries and were disinclined to be sympathetic toward the first generation of Protestant leaders in the English Reformation. Whereas for earlier conformists the Church of England was a champion of true religion against anti-Christian Rome, the later Jacobean and Caroline ecclesiastical establishment sought to extricate itself from the confessional struggles of European Protestantism, seeing these struggles as a liability rather than an asset. Under Charles I, this group began to gain the ascendancy: William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Neile became Archbishop of York. Yet such figures cannot for that reason be designated "Catholics," partly because they were generally so affirmative of their Protestant credentials, and partly because their sacramental views could easily be accommodated within the spectrum of Protestant possi-bilities.2 From a historical perspective, the English national church must be regarded as a Protestant variant—the "Protestant Episcopal Church of England and Ireland," as state and parliamentary documents regularly describe it.3

So how did this distinctive form of Protestantism come to establish itself in England? And how did its characteristic features emerge? This chapter explores these intriguing questions.

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