The Invention of Anglicanism

November 1998By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640.  By Anthony Milton. Cambridge University Press. 599 pages. $79.95.



This is an important scholarly work, part of the series “Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History.” The Church of England in 1600 could justly be described as regarding itself and being regarded by others (friend and foe alike) as part of the “Calvinist” family of “Reformed Christianity.” But by 1640 it saw the rise to dominance within it (thanks largely to the uncertain patronage of James I and the active support of his son Charles I) of a faction of clerical theologians whose thought is often called Arminianism (after the Dutch Reformed anti-Calvinist Jacob Arminius) and who are sometimes described as “the Laudians” (after William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1634 to 1645, who was, however, neither their founder nor their intellectual guide).

What the book describes is, in a word, the invention of Anglicanism as an “ism,” which, originally conceived of by Richard Hooker, was fostered by a group of anti-Calvinist English Protestant divines including Lancelot Andrewes, John Buckeridge, Richard Neile, John Overall, and (a latecomer) William Laud. Historians have begun to see the rise of English Arminianism as a sort of Counter-Reformation within the Church of England. Given the resentment, fear, and fury they evoked not just in discontented Puritans but also in ordinary “establishment Calvinists” in the English State Church, the Laudians — not their Puritan opponents — may have been the real religious revolutionaries in early 17th-century England.

The book has two major sections: Part I, “The Church of Rome,” and Part II, “The Reformed Churches.” Part I is essentially a revision of Milton’s Ph.D. thesis, and so it is at times a chore to read. Happily, the prologue, the introduction, the two chapters on the Continental Protestant churches, and the conclusion form a clear and crisp ensemble.

Readers not particularly interested in the “Roman” question (Part I) can still get a clear picture of how far the leadership of the Church of England traveled between 1620 and 1640 to disavow any substantial religious kinship with most European Protestants as well as to rewrite their own Church’s history by simply reading the 197 pages which remain after passing over the 349 on the Church of Rome.

Part I contains vital background, however. Take, for example, English Protestant attitudes toward the Council of Trent. That council, by rejecting the principal doctrinal affirmations of Protestantism (sola scriptura, sola fide, etc.) and reforming many practical abuses in the Catholic Church at its intermittent meetings between 1545 and 1563, signaled the beginning of the Counter-Reformation. Down to the mid-1620s, English Protestants agreed that the definitions and decrees of the Council of Trent had completed the apostasy of the Roman Church from biblical Christianity: Prior to Trent, although theological error and idolatrous worship were said to have overwhelmed most of what remained of true Christian belief in the Roman communion, repentance and conversion remained, in theory at least, possible, just as it would have been defensible for a reform-minded Christian to attempt to influence the Roman Church from within. But, with Trent, the possibility of the one and the permissibility of the other had alike ceased. That a strict pressing of this line of thought rendered Henry VIII’s breach with the papacy in 1533 and 1534 (well before Trent) not easily defended was of no consequence to these Protestants.

But the Laudians’ objections to Trent were more limited in scope, focusing on whether it had been properly summoned; whether the extent of papal authority over, and interference with, its proceedings had deprived the council of its freedom; whether the absence of bishops from the eastern patriarchates had deprived it of ecumenical status; and whether the lack of reception of its definitions and decrees in various parts of the Christian world had reduced its authority to that of (at best) a regional synod.

As to the doctrinal definitions of Trent, individual Laudians differed. Some strongly opposed a few of them (particularly Trent’s endorsement of the veneration of images and relics, but also its explicit inclusion of the Deuterocanonical works among inspired Holy Scripture, not to mention its endorsement of Transubstantiation to describe the conversion of the elements in the Eucharist); most viewed them as for the most part unobjectionable or capable of an acceptable interpretation (although not universally binding); and a few explicitly preferred many of them to the Protestant ideas which they had been formulated to repudiate.

All this was so eccentric a “take” on Trent from the perspective of traditional English Protestantism that it made plausible the widespread suspicion that Charles I and his bishops were, at best, dupes of speciously moderate Catholic theologians and diplomats or, at worst, were wittingly preparing the way for a restoration of Roman Catholicism in England. Further fuel for such fears came from their contemptuous repudiation of the almost universal Protestant notion that the papacy itself was the Antichrist foretold in the New Testament.

In short, this book (whose author describes himself as “this most unrepentant of lapsed Catholics”) illustrates with admirable erudition and detachment how, between 1620 and 1640, Anglicanism (“Catholic and Reformed”) was invented. It also shows how the ground was prepared for the subsequent conflicts over Anglican identity, which have continued to this day and which may have reached their climax with the contemporary Anglican “civil wars” over women’s ordination and homosexuality.



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