By Joshua Penduck
Last time we looked at how the Church of England under Elizabeth remained a Reformed Church (influenced mainly by the Swiss Reformation), but was closer to Lutherans in other aspects (especially the sacraments and predestination). But what set it apart from most of the other churches of the Reformation (except for the Scandinavian Lutheran churches) is that it maintained bishops (as well as priests and deacons). Furthermore, it also retained a lot of things from the Medieval church: Cathedrals with their deans, Cathedral choirs, other church positions such as canons and archdeacons and archbishops, the parish structure). Much of these were kept in place for pragmatic reasons, as they kept church order.
When Roman Catholic thinkers criticised the newly Reformed Church of England for not being a true and Catholic (universal) church and bringing in new and novel ideas, thinkers like John Jewel hit back: ‘We have the sacraments,’ he essentially said, ‘through which we have communion with Christ, we have the Holy Scriptures recognised by the early church fathers, we have the teachings of the Scriptures, and we keep the creeds. But what’s more, we have bishops – ones that have been legally consecrated through other bishops, going back to the Apostles, and therefore to Christ himself. We keep the ancient church orders of priest (presbyter) and deacon. In what way are we not a true, Catholic church?’ In his wonderful little book ‘Apology for the Church of England’, John Jewel keeps on emphasising that the Church of England is both Scriptural and retains all the aspects of the church from the first six centuries of Christianity. Again and again, he quotes the Church Fathers (the key figures in the church in the opening centuries) to back up his case, and makes the claim that it is not the Church of England that has introduced new and novel ideas, but rather the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England is simply restoring what the church was like before it got corrupted in the Medieval period by the Pope. Even though things are not as simple as what Jewel made out, he was (and is) still very convincing. His book became a key platform for defending the Church of England against Roman Catholics.
The problem arose with those Reformed thinkers who had been exiled in Geneva during the time of Mary I. Influenced by John Calvin, these were convinced that the correct Biblical ordering of the church was one governed by individual church pastors, or presbyters, in a council, or Presbyterianism. Bishops were a later corruption that moved away from the biblical model. Such figures were increasingly labelled, ‘Puritans’ (though not every Puritan was a Presbyterian – Williams Perkins was a famous Puritan who was happy with bishops). Now, if the Church of England had defended itself as a true and Catholic Church in continuity with the early church through having bishops, how could it change its church order to fit in with the Puritans’ view? Was it the case that the thinkers in the early church had simply got everything wrong with regards to church order? That was very dangerous ground to be stepping on: if they were wrong about church order, what else were they wrong about?
Queen Elizabeth hated the radical Puritans, and promoted figures like John Whitgift to high office to combat them. John Whitgift argued that it is reasonable to suppose that the Church Fathers knew what they were doing when they were reading the Bible, and that if we trust them on doctrinal grounds (after all, it was the Church Fathers who put together the Creeds), then we should trust them on other grounds as well. Yes, we need to reform the church on Biblical grounds, but the question is how we interpret the Bible. Like John Jewel before him, Whitgift heavily emphasised reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, not against them.
There’s a tendency within modern Evangelicalism to ask, ‘But is this New Testament Christianity?’ The idea is that the modern church should always be modelling itself on what the church looked like in the New Testament. It’s almost in modern Evangelicalism’s DNA. The problem is that it pretends that we can read the New Testament without any help, and that the answers will spring up for us if we read contextually enough or the Holy Spirit inspires us enough. This is what the early Presbytarian Puritans were saying. What figures like Whitgift would argue is that people have read the Bible before us, and the Holy Spirit has influenced them as well as us. What’s more, many of these were closer to the Apostles who wrote the New Testament. Shouldn’t we listen to them first before making our own rash decisions? You can be a perfectly Biblical church without having to try and repeat the New Testament. Maybe the Church Fathers knew better than ourselves about what the Bible meant? And anyway, the Bible doesn’t seem to believe that how we organise a church is vital for our salvation – it’s indifferent to it, in fact. And when the Bible is unclear, we should always have deference to what the Church Fathers say about the matter.
It was from these two little emphases used to combat the Presbyterian Puritans – 1) use those who’ve read the Bible before to help us understand it; 2) and where the Bible is unclear, it’s reasonable to look to the Church Fathers for advice – that Anglicanism would go on a very different journey from Lutheran and Reformed thinking. It would always remain a Protestant Church, but its form of Protestantism would be different. Those two emphases would become a kind of dogma within the Church of England: we read Scripture with the Church Tradition, and this is a reasonable thing to do. Now, don’t get me wrong – Luther, Calvin, and many Puritans would agree (a 17th Century Puritan writer like Thomas Watson endlessly quotes the Church Fathers). But it was in particular regard to how church structure should be ordered that was the Church of England’s focus here.
A final note: in the Church of England, it was Elizabeth herself who had most influence during this period. The monarch would increasingly be seen in a role similar to the ancient Roman or Byzantium Emperor in regards to the Church. The monarch was the governor of the Church of England, and therefore had the final authority. This connection between Church and Monarch would also be influential, especially when it combined with the role of ‘reasonably’ interpreting Scripture. And it was the great theologian, Richard Hooker, who would unfold a deeper understanding of the connections between the role of the monarch, reason, and tradition, in understanding Scripture.