Reinventing the English Reformation

In twenty years’ time, Anglican enthusiasts will mark the bicentennials of three nineteenth-century libraries: the Wycliffe Society Library, the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, and the Parker Society Library.[1] The first is now predominantly associated with dissent, and therefore may not generate much interest among Anglicans, at least in North America.[2] But the latter two collections, both initiated in 1840 and inaugurated by publications of the following year, will doubtless receive more attention, for both continue to emblematize two rival and arguably incompatible expressions of Anglican theological identity. It is at least possible, therefore, that 2041 may represent a high watermark in post-realignment debate over the meaning of Anglican theological identity and self-understanding.

If the hand-sized cloud on the horizon is the brewing storm that I think it is—only time will tell!—then I would like to propose, in advance, an alternative way of memorializing these two libraries.

As is well known, both the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology and the Parker Society Library originated as partisan attempts to write, indeed to reinvent, the history of the English Reformation. Both attempted, in other words, to “spin” the history of English Protestantism in certain ways, for certain ends. The result, unsurprisingly in hindsight, was not solidarity, but fragmentation. As Gareth Atkins explains,

First Evangelicals, and then Tractarians too used the past to claim that they were the authentic Anglican voice, and to shift the centre ground accordingly. Instead of shaping consensus, however, these debates were part of a process of internal sectarianization. By the middle of the nineteenth century several distinct Anglican brands were on offer, each with different theological and ecclesiological priorities and each with its own version of the past to fall back on. The effects are still being felt today.[3]

Two points in this précis are worth underlining.

First, it is worth pointing out that the view expressed here by Atkins does not represent a minority perspective in the scholarship. Few historians are willing to defend the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology against the assertion that it sought to homogenize doctrinally and historically incompatible sources into a patchwork representing a tradition of Christianity neither Roman nor Reformed, called “Anglicanism.”[4]

This is not a moral judgment. It is not being suggested, that is, that the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology was conceived or intended to function as bait for Tractarian ideals. On the contrary, the Library was envisioned as a device for promoting one model of traditional, pre-Tractarian high-church principles and not specifically Oxonian ideas—which is ostensibly why Keble, Newman, and Pusey never fully supported the project.[5]

Nor is it being suggested that the Parker Society Library necessarily represented a less prejudiced project, or that it managed to distill, in a more purely descriptive fashion, the collective mind of the Tudor reformers. The Parker Society Library was itself a patchwork, both inasmuch as it embraced authors as distinct as John Hooper and John Whitgift, but also inasmuch as the churchmen who participated in its conception and execution came from both evangelical and high-church camps.[6]

At this point, one ought to pause. For the fact that the Parker Society Library arose as a joint expression of evangelical and high-church interests suggests that we have in it something more than three hurrahs for low church Anglicanism.

This leads to a second point worth considering—namely, that what Atkins calls the “distinct Anglican brand” associated with the Parker Society Library was by no means synonymous with low-church evangelicalism. Indeed, as Peter Toon demonstrated, its twenty-four editors represented “an important phase of cooperation between certain Evangelicals and one branch of the old type [i.e., pre-Tractarian] of High-Churchmen.”[7] Here was a “phase” in which staunch evangelicals like Hastings Robinson and William Goode worked shoulder-to-shoulder with pre-Tractarian high-churchmen like Charles Hartshorne and William Nicholson. This partnership, clearly memorialized in the world of text, was mirrored, moreover, in the world of built memorials, most notably in the Oxford Martyrs’ Memorial, as Andrew Atherstone has shown.[8]

What we are dealing with here is what has been characterized as the Victorian “reinvention(s)” of the Reformation. And what we are coming to see is that this moment of reinvention may have operated quite differently than we have been led to assume.

The Victorian “reinvention” of the Reformation was not a harmonious event. But it did enable churchmen to circumnavigate older debates that had long since divided churchmen over the nature of the English Church’s relationship to the foreign reformed churches. In part, this work-around can be regarded as the result of a more pronounced emphasis during the period upon the indigenous character of the English Reformation.

This point is more readily grasped in view of the relationship of Reformation-minded churchmen with their dissenting contemporaries. During the Victorian period, John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments—ever a sign of English Protestant vigor—acquired renewed relevance as a litmus test for all trustworthy English Protestantism.[9] Yet dissenters found in Foxe a powerful advocate for continental paradigms over against those of the established Church—much to the embarrassment of evangelical churchmen. As Anthony Milton reminds us, “Foxe’s sprawling work encompassed a heterogeneous range of materials that could be (and were) used to criticize many features of the Elizabethan settlement.”[10]

This is perhaps one reason that Alexandra Walsham can write that the “Victorian reinvention of the Reformation entailed forgetting the influence exerted by foreign reformers in favour of dwelling upon its indigenous character.”[11] That “forgetting” served to mute older debates over the relation of the Church of England’s Protestantism and her commitment to episcopacy and apostolicity.[12]

Later rifts between evangelicals and high-churchmen would, of course, be precipitated by debates over ritualism. But it is important to remember that these were not foregone conclusions. The admittedly tense bonds of fellowship by which evangelicals and high-churchmen anchored their theological inheritance in the fundamental teachings of the Reformation had not yet been strained to the breaking point. Many pre-Tractarian high-churchmen adhered as vigorously as any evangelical to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, or indeed to any of the reformational doctrines articulated most influentially in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. It is no accident, therefore, that the period which has left us with the Parker Society Library has also left us with editions of the works of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century irenic conformists like Robert Sanderson, Joseph Hall, and Daniel Waterland.

Where does all this leave us? It leaves us, I suggest, with a keen awareness of two worlds, vying for mastery of Anglican theological self-understanding. In his essay, “Putting the English Reformation on the Map,” Diarmaid MacCulloch concluded,

The Church of England has never decisively settled the question of who owns its history, and therefore of what its colour might be on the world map of Christianity. Within it remain two worlds: one, the sacramental world of theologians like Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, the world that still values real presence, bishops and beauty, and the other, the world of the Elizabethan Reformation, which rejects shrines and images, which rejects real presence, which values law and moral regulation based on both Old and New Testament precept. These two worlds contend for mastery within English tradition, and they have created that fascinating dialogue about the sacred which the world calls Anglicanism. Long may the fight continue. It will be better for the sanity of the Anglican tradition if neither side manages to win.[13]

One may wish to dispute MacCulloch’s characterization of the Anglican tradition, or insist that a less fractious road will sooner lead to its flourishing. But it is beyond dispute that the “two worlds” generated by the historic channels of what we might call evangelical and avant-garde conformity remain realities within the Anglican tradition.

And this is precisely why the Parker Society Library remains of vital importance for contemporary Anglicans. In twenty years’ time, the temptation will arise to seize on a narrative that characterizes the Parker Society Library as the representative of one of two rival “worlds.” That story will have curbside appeal, because it provides a self-contained unit—for some, the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology; for others, the Parker Society Library—to cast as “the man in the black hat.”

But this narrative will be misguided. The Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology undoubtedly boasts its own doctrinal diversity. Its inclusion of impeccably Reformed divines like William Beveridge and John Pearson alongside racier dons of avant-garde conformity like John Overall, Lancelot Andrewes, and John Cosin, conveys the impression that it sought to produce a synthesis of jostling Anglican voices. The problem is that the compilers were by no means attempting synthesis, but aiming, rather, to claim seventeenth-century avant-garde conformists—without respect to their actual doctrinal teachings—as Anglo-Catholics avant la lettre.

This distinctly polemical project was an attempt to reinvent the reformation, but not to the end—as was the case of the Parker Society Library—of maintaining the Church of England’s long-held consensual “orthodoxy”, as rooted in the English Reformation and the Church of England’s formularies, a goal to which both evangelicals and pre-Tractarian high churchmen aspired. The Tractarians, no less than traditional high-churchmen and evangelicals, sought to come to terms with the Reformation. Indeed, this was a signal theme in their writings. The problem, as Paul Avis blisteringly puts it, is that the Tractarians’ “deployment of historical sources was selective and tendentious…[they] vowed to ‘unprotestantise’ the Church of England, but they worked in a fog of ignorance compounded by prejudice.”[14]

When the commemorations of 2041 arrive, I suggest, it will be vital to recall that the paradigmatic interaction between what MacCulloch calls the “two worlds” vying for supremacy of Anglican theological self-understanding is not to be sought in a clash between two nineteenth-century libraries, of which the Parker Society Library is the whiggish, evangelical dinosaur. The contest between the historic channels of evangelical and avant-garde conformities echoes within the Parker volumes themselves. If therefore one is looking for a window into that “fascinating dialogue about the sacred which the world calls Anglicanism,” one could do worse than to immerse oneself[15] in the works of the Parker Society Library, where the two vying “worlds” within Anglicanism still make their home.

  1. Commemoration of the Wycliffe Society will, in fact, have to wait til 2045; the first volume published was Robert Vaughan (ed.), Tracts and treatises of John de Wycliffe, D.D. (London, 1845).
  2. Among the Society’s comparatively few publications were works of David Clarkson (1622–1686), a nonconformist and erstwhile tutor of a young John Tillotson at Clare Hall, Cambridge.
  3. Gareth Atkins, “‘True Churchmen’? Anglican Evangelicals and History, 1770–1850,” Theology 15 (2012), 1–8 (author’s original version), 8.
  4. Nicholas Tyacke, “Lancelot Andrewes and the Myth of Anglicanism,” in Peter Lake and Michael Questier (eds.), Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, c.1560–1660 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2000), 5–33.
  5. James Pereiro, “The Oxford movement and Anglo-Catholicism,” in Rowan Strong (ed.), The Oxford History of Anglicanism Volume III: Partisan Anglicanism and Its Global Expansion, 1829–c.1914 (Oxford, 2017), 194–95. Cf. Peter Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context: Anglican High Churchmanship, 1760-1857 (Cambridge, 1994), 128: for the Tractarians, “when judged by antiquity, much seventeenth-century divinity could be deemed wanting.”
  6. Andrew Cinnamond, “The Reformed Treasures of the Parker Society,” Churchman 122.3 (2008), 221–42, at 221.
  7. Peter Toon, “The Parker Society,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 46.3 (Sept. 1977), 323–32.
  8. Andrew Atherstone, “The Martyr’s Memorial at Oxford,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 54.2 (2003), 278–301. The Oxford memorial’s “contentious description” (Peter Sherlock, “Monuments and the Reformation,” in Alexandra Walsham et al (eds.), Memory and the English Reformation (Cambridge, 2020), 182) must therefore be seen as more than—though not less than—a rallying cry for evangelical fidelity over against contemporaneous Anglo-Catholicism.
  9. Peter Nockles, “The Reformation Revised? The Contested Reception of the English Reformation in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 90.1 (Spring 2014), 233.
  10. Anthony Milton, England’s Second Reformation: The Battle for the Church of England, 1625–1662 (Cambridge, 2021), 17.
  11. Alexandra Walsham, “Remembering Reformation and Forgetting Luther,” Council of Lutheran Churches: Reformation 500, 4.
  12. Tony Claydon, “The Church of England and the churches of Europe, 1660–1714,” in Grant Tapsell (ed.), The Later Stuart Church, 1660–1714 (Manchester, 2012), 173–92.
  13. Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Putting the English Reformation on the Map: The Prothero Lecture,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (2005), 95.
  14. Paul Avis, “Towards a Richer Appreciation of the Oxford Movement,”Ecclesiology 16 (2020), 249–50.
  15. Beginning on Reformation Day, October 31, the present author will be joined by two fellow historians of the early modern Church of England, Alice Soulieux-Evans (Church Society, Ecclesiastical History Society) and Jake Griesel (George Whitefield College), for a monthly podcast conversation on key texts in the Parker Society Library, a sub-series provided by The Ridley Institute Podcast. Join the conversation here.


Sam Fornecker (PhD, Cambridge University) is Associate Rector at St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant, SC, where he also serves as Instructor and Director of Seminary Programs at The Ridley Institute. He lives in Charleston.

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