Reformation Anglicanism: The Elizabethan Settlement

Reformation Anglicanism

The Elizabethan Settlement

By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

Queen of England for 44 years, Elizabeth died March 24, 1603. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the last of the five monarchs in the House of Tudor. She never married (“Virgin Queen”). Her coffin was placed on top of Queen Mary’s in Westminster Abbey with this inscription: “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep Elizabeth and Mary, sisters in hope of the Resurrection.” Her effigy on the tomb and her predominance there is more than symbolic. The two sisters represent the struggle for theological identity in the beginning days of the Church of England. 

Although Elizabeth was a very complex person and not without her faults (she habitually cursed, dabbled in astrology, and was extremely vain in her appearance with a glove collection in the thousands), she settled the church in England into the Reformation Anglicanism of the 1559/1662 Book of Common Prayer and in what are today known as the historic formularies of the Anglican Church. The 1571 Act of Uniformity ordered  clergy subscription to the church’s confession, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which is still the practice of ordinands in England and in many parts of the Anglican Communion today. Anglican theology and worship as seen in the Elizabethan Settlement is thoroughly biblical, confessionally reformed, pastorally generous, and liturgically beautiful. Anglicanism is known for its firm commitment to doctrinal essentials and liberty in nonessentials: what Oliver O’Donovan calls Anglican’s “virtue of moderation.”

According to Tudor historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Elizabeth was a Protestant of the old fashion variety, more conservative (some even say “Lutheran”) than the puritans who wanted more reform than was represented in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer. She “was an evangelical, but of a distinctive and (in the conditions of the late 1550s) an extremely old-fashion variety. She disliked the marriage of clergy and enjoyed more ceremonial and decoration in worship than her half-brother would have considered tolerable. If we want to place her beliefs, we should do so not at the court of Edward, but at the court of Henry VIII and Catherine Parr in the mid-1540s.” Although she had her own religious preferences, Elizabeth was committed to the higher value of keeping the peace between the different factions of the English Reformation in the newly formed Church of England. Her successors – and the whole history of the Church of England! – would continue to fight church identity battles, but always in dialogue with the Elizabethan Settlement that is defined by the historic Anglican formularies (The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the two books of Homilies). 

Elizabeth gave space for important theologians and leaders who firmly secured England in Reformation Anglicanism, including John Jewel, Richard Hooker, and William Perkins. Her three Archbishops of Canterbury were all devout Protestants: Edmund Grindal (short-lived radical reformer), Matthew Parker (politically-minded reformer responsible for the Elizabethan Homilies and the completed version of the Thirty-nine Articles), and John Whitgift (a moderate reformer, like Elizabeth, who battled for “the virtue of moderation” against the more radical nonconformist puritans). No queen or king encountered more conflict in their reign than did Elizabeth, from outside and from within, and yet she still managed the settlement of the Church of England into the mainstream Protestantism of the 16th century Reformation.

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