How Far Can You Stretch It?

In this case, “How far, etc…?” is being asked about the English Reformation, and its formularies. The reason it is being asked is to try and give shape to the concept of ‘Confessional Anglicanism’ – an idea which has been batted around a lot over the last five years. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has been conducted without full reference to the history of the English Reformation and the many and various influences that operated on it both within and without.


The English Reformation was a slow one. Unlike the Reformation in the cities and territories of the Holy Roman Empire, which usually settled their religious orientation within a generation, it took three generations for the character of the Church of England to be established. From the Break with Rome in 1533 to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, some 78 years passed. Although the bulk of the work was done between 1547 and 1552 (then modified and reimplemented 1559-1571) it took all that period for Anglicanism to mature. The documents that need to be examined are the Articles of Religion, Nowell’s Catechism, the Book of Common Prayer, and the First and Second Book of Homilies. Ultimately, you must throw the 1604 Canons and the King James Bible into that mix too, as they mark the end of the Reformation era.

There seem to be two radically different approaches to the English Reformation. The one beloved of High Church historians after about 1870 is that myth of a unique English Reformation. This fits in with the Whig historians’ concept of the uniqueness and superiority of British institutions. The other, which is both the pre-Victorian and modern view is that the English Reformation was like the Continental Reformation, especially its German-speaking Reformed version. However, one needs to be somewhat careful about misreading ‘like’ as ‘identical,’ as the leadership of the Church of England did not feel the need to be shackled to every aspect of the Reformation in Zurich, Strassburg, or wherever.

Theologically, Anglicanism by the Formularies hovers somewhere in the range between Philippism and the moderate Reformed. This is largely because the English Reformation was not one man’s reformation in the sense of having a dominant inspirational figure such as Luther or Calvin, who spawned a generation of interpretations and the consequent “ism.” Instead, many continental Protestant theologians, including Melanchthon, Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Laski, Zanchi, and Bullinger influenced the eventual shape of the settlement. They also helped to form the minds of scholarly men such as Cranmer, Goodrich, Latimer, Ridley, Parker, Nowell, and Jewel, though they were as much influenced by their own Biblical and Patristic Studies. As a result, the Church of England did not commit itself to either Lutheran Orthodoxy or Reformed Scholasticism (though the latter was certainly present from time to time) but created an insular “compromise” which played up the Augustinian consensus amongst the Reformers, taking sides only where the English Reformers found it necessary. For example, Anglicanism tends to be more on the Lutheran side in what it has to say about ceremonies and matters adiaphora, and more on the Reformed when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. This gets the more enthusiastic supporters of the various “-isms” pulling their hair out, as evidenced by the Elizabeth controversies over Church government and vesture, but it gave Anglican theology space to develop.

I have to say, in all honesty, that I believe that all the old parties within Anglicanism – Low Church Reformed, “High Church Calvinists,” the Old High Churchmen, and the Evangelicals – all have a reasonable claim to the formularies. Each tends to play up a certain element within the formularies, so that both the Low Reformed and the High Church Calvinists exploited the openness of the formularies towards Reformed theology, the Old High Churchmen exploited the remnants of Erasmianism and Philippism present in the Articles about sanctification and predestination and election, whilst the Evangelicals that remained in the CofE usually embraced the theology of the High Church Calvinists, combining it with something of the old Puritan spirituality.

The Breaking Point

The stretch in formularies runs out with Ritualist attempts to restore Henrician Catholicism without first getting rid of the 39 Articles. Their attempts to make the Articles into a (mediaeval) Catholic formulary sound uncomfortable at best, and like tortured double-speak at worst. The English have little patience with special pleading, so there was, at least for as long as Protestantism remained the vital force in English religious life, a feeling that the extreme Anglo-Catholics were not quite honest. At the same time, they garnered praise for their pastoral work in some of the nastiest slums of England. The more moderate exponents of Anglo-Catholicism did, however, become mainstream mainly because they did not try to directly challenge the Reformation Settlement.

Unfortunately for the Ritualists and their successors, the same Oxford Senior Common Room that spawned the Tractarians also contained the first organized stirrings of liberalism in the form of the Oriel Noetics. This group, consisting of Blanco White, Richard Whateley, R. D. Hampden, and others, laid the foundations for Oxford Liberalism, and it was their pupils that were able to exploit the ambiguity created by the Tractarians to push a liberalizing agenda in the 1860s and 70s. In their case, a strict and grammatical reading of the Articles was rejected in favor of German Liberal Theology, with the result that the Church of England slowly slid into theological incoherence with neither the Anglo-Catholics nor the Liberals being whole-hearted supporters of the Articles of Religion. The Liberals did manage to loosen the terms of subscription of the Articles in 1871 in the name of liberty of conscience. However, so long as the BCP remained the liturgy of the Church, there was a core, albeit a diminished one, for folks to hang on to.

I would argue that, so long as the BCP remained in common use, the Church of England was able to maintain a viable identity, but with the introduction of the Alternative Services in the 1960s, Common Prayer slowly ceased to exist as the various parties developed their own traditions. The use of the Missals was not widespread in England once one got away from the London, Brighton, and South Coast heartland of Anglo-Catholicism. They were more heard about than heard. Unlike the Missals, which were found in perhaps 1 in 10 parishes, the Alternative Services quickly spread into most parishes eroding the liturgical identity of the Church, just as the doctrinal conflict between ‘The Rits and the Rats’ had eroded the theological.

At the end of the day, ‘Confessional’ Anglican identity must be tied back to the Bible, the Articles, the BCP, and the Homilies to maintain its theological, liturgical, and spiritual identity. If you do not do that, then you end up with a Smorgasbord. On the other hand, if you try to be narrower than the formularies – for example, attempt to make Anglicanism nothing but episcopally-governed Calvinism – you will also have problems because you are attempting to make a church that is narrower than its own formularies. At that point, you doom yourself to endless contention which brings discredit upon the Church of God. We are called to preach the Gospel, not pick lops and nits! The focus for Anglican theology is Evangelical Augustinianism, minus the extremes, not any one school of thought whether it be Philippism, Arminianism, Amyrautianism, Hypothetical Universalism, Supralapsarianism, or whatever. If we preach from the Bible, pray for the BCP, frame our theology according to the Articles, and deal with others with the love that Christ bids us demonstrate, then we will do well.

Peter D. Robinson

The Most Rev. Peter D. Robinson is the Presiding Bishop of the United Episcopal Church. He also serves as ordinary of the Missionary Diocese of the East and vicar of Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.

'How Far Can You Stretch It?' have 3 comments

  1. February 8, 2022 @ 10:26 pm Dave

    The High Church historians may have loved and spread the myth of a unique English reformation but they did not originate it, it comes from the Laudians, particularly Heylyn (and it is with Heylin also that we get something like ‘Anglican’ used in the modern way). It may be a myth but it was not a ‘Whig’ myth, but, once the parties had a political designation, a Tory one, being that they were the party of throne and altar.

    The real defining settlement for Anglicanism was not the Elizabethan settlement (was there a real Elizabethan settlement except in hindsight?) but the settlement at the Restoration. This settlement was indeed much ‘more Laud than Baxter’ and saw its post-Laudianism as -being- the true reformation settlement and as such it projected itself back onto that earlier period in a way that could be called myth-making. The real question is not how did people see the articles and formularies in 1563 or 1571 but how they were seen in 1660, how was it seen that all of this cohered in the wake of what had happened. Some myth making was inevitable.

    In retrospect, and it is remote enough that it is difficult to capture this, but ‘Anglicanism’ was the product of (and an identity born in) the long, evolving, and complex conflict with the radical reformed party. To understand it is probably more helpful to understand what the dissenters thought they were dissenting from than what Cranmer thought things meant. The process by which Anglicanism decohered was long and complex and had many moments – 1689, 1707, 1714, 1828/29/33 (‘National Apostasy’), the 1859 removal of the service for Charles the Martyr. Correctly understood Tractarianism was a reaction to this decoherence process (and not its cause) and an attempt to rescue the myth from its contradictions. They may have failed in this, but I can sympathize, and for those of us who care about the Anglicanism of 1660 (a sacramental and reformed Catholic Protestantism that stands outside of Dort and opposed to Westminster), perhaps we still have something like their task.


  2. February 9, 2022 @ 1:25 pm Ben Jefferies

    I am confident that on most Anglican issues, Bishop Robinson has forgotten more than I yet know. But there is one thesis in this essay — one well-worn by anti-Tractarians — that I take umbridge with, and wish would stop being repeated (or — wish that evidence could be marshalled that actually supported it). Namely:

    “it was their pupils [the liberal theologians] that were able to exploit the ambiguity created by the Tractarians to push a liberalizing agenda in the 1860s and 70s. ”

    As best as I can see it, this is exactly the opposite of what happened.
    It was the *liberals* who gained ground first. Starting in earnest with the election of R. Hampden in 1836 to Regius professor of Divinity.
    A movement that was parralleled by the “lowering” of the low-church in the general acquiescence of the national church in the Gorham controversy of 1850, and which exploded into the mainstream with 1863’s Essays & Reviews, which was never censured. In that same time window (1835-1865): Pusey is barred from preaching (1843) , Denison is prohibited for his eucharistic doctrine (1853) and priests are put in *jail* in the 1870s for wearing chasubles! The name of Pusey (not to mention Newman!) was odious and rank across the country well into the 1850s, while ultra-low doctrinal views and straight up unbelieving liberalism is acquiring power, benefices, and position throughout the country.

    What I mean is: the main and first story-line is the influx of liberalism in the 19th century C of E. A minor thread in that story is the emergence of Anglo-Catholic thought to try and fight it. Pusey and Keble were ardent subscribers of the Thirty-Nine Articles to their deaths. It is simply not the case that the early Tractarians opened up a liberality that was later walked through by Rationalism.


    • March 10, 2022 @ 7:17 am Rhonda Merrick

      Thank you for this comment, Fr. Jeffries. For decades now I have been praying for unity between Anglo-Catholics and other faithful Anglicans. One minor correction: the correct spelling is “umbrage.”


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