The Elizabethan Settlement: What is Anglicanism (Part 4)

By Joshua Penduck 

Last time I talked about Anglicanism, I talked about the six identities the Church of England had during the 16th Century. (Well, I actually talked about five as I ran over my word limit, and so had to make number six its own entry). And here is the sixth identity: the Elizabethan settlement.

When Elizabeth I came to the English throne in 1558, she faced a divided country, especially between the traditionalists (who favoured a return to Catholic practices, if not reunion with Rome), and the Evangelicals (or Protestants, who themselves were divided between those influenced by the German Reformation (the Lutherans), and those influenced by the Swiss Reformation (the Reformed). Furthermore, there had been many Protestants who had gone into exile during the reign of the Roman Catholic monarch Mary I, and had found shelter in Switzerland, in particular Geneva. Whereas Oxford and Cambridge had been the centre of continental Reformed thinking in the reign of Edward VI, due to the reign of Mary, this centre had shifted to Geneva where the brilliant theologian John Calvin taught.

John Calvin

Calvin had brought his vast learning and acute intellect to think about most aspects of Christian life, whether that be thinking about God, all the way to writing huge commentaries on the Bible. Almost everyone who had been influenced by the Swiss Reformation was in turn influenced by him. This included most of the Reformed bishops in the Church of England (who stayed undercover during Mary I’s reign), those who had gone into exile in other European but Protestant cities, and especially those who had gone into exile in Geneva. When these returned to Protestant England, they had hoped that the Reformation there would be modelled on Genevan lines, in particular how Calvin viewed church structure. This Genevan model of organising the church was implemented by John Knox in Scotland and would eventually become Presbyterianism, in which local church pastors ran the national church instead of bishops; the exiles from Geneva wanted the same in the Church of England. The problem was that the Queen herself was not that up for it.

Queen Elizabeth was a devout but nevertheless politically astute woman. She recognised the problems many people had with having a woman as the ‘Head’ of the Church of England (as her father, Henry VIII, and brother, Edward VI, had been before her). Instead, she became ‘governor’ of the CofE – which was much more acceptable. She also recognised that bishops were a foundational part of English society, and so didn’t feel the need to replace them with any Presbyterian model. The fact that she was herself quite conservative in religion (though a Protestant, her personal chapel had quite a few Catholic mementos) also added into the equation.

Because of this, the Church of England kept the traditional threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as the Book of Common Prayer put together by Archbishop Cranmer in Edward VI’s reign. There were a few changes, but these were mainly making the liturgy book more Catholic (but only slightly so). For instance, in the older prayer book, when you received the bread and wine at communion you’d hear these words:

Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

Notice that it’s not saying that the bread or wine is in any way Jesus’ real body and blood? Instead, the bread and wine help us to remember Jesus’ saving death on the Cross. But the minor revisions in the Prayer Book added something quite important before these lines when you received the bread and wine:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

In short, even though the second part about remembering and faith was retained, the understanding about how Jesus was present in the bread and wine moved away from the old Swiss understanding influenced by Ulrich Zwingli, and went even more Catholic than John Calvin’s understanding.

Archbishop Matthew Parker

Elizabeth’s Archbishop, Matthew Parker, added a new set of sermons to the Book of Homilies (originally put together by Archbishop Cranmer), and helped put together a new set of ‘Articles’ of belief (which were an adaptation of the Forty Two Articles commissioned by Edward VI that were never put into practice). These ‘Thirty-Nine Articles’ became one of the centre pieces of Anglicanism until well into the 19th Century. These new articles were heavily influenced by John Calvin (as well as other Reformers such as Martin Luther and others), especially Articles 9-18, which marked out the Church of England as certainly a Reformed Church. But there were subtle differences – after all, Elizabeth was a pragmatic, and wanted to be as inclusive as possible for all ranges of opinion in the Protestant world. An example is Article 17, which is about Predestination (the idea that God has decided before the beginning of time that some people would be chosen to go to heaven). This was a big controversy at the time between Lutherans and Calvinists, in that Calvin (…and actually Martin Luther before him, though Lutherans conveniently ignored that…) believed that God doesn’t just predestine some people to heaven, but also predestines others to go to hell. Article 17 simply ignores Calvin on this one – one kind of predestination is good enough.

The Church of England was certainly Reformed, but it wasn’t exactly Calvinist. And in many ways, it was quite unCalvinist, especially with regard to church order, or the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons. This would become increasingly controversial, as we will see next week.


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