No Golden Age of Anglicanism

The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume 1
Reformation and Identity, c.1520-1662
Edited by Anthony Milton
Oxford University Press. Pp. 544. $135

Review by Calvin Lane

The word identity in the subtitle for this first volume in The Oxford History of Anglicanism is remarkably appropriate. For generations, Anglicans have looked back to the 1520s through the 1660s for the contours of authentic Anglicanism and hoisted up classical patriarchs: Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes. The picture that emerges becomes the bar by which contemporary Anglicanism is judged.

The rigorous essays here highlight how problematic such attempts are. Not only was there an unsettled messiness to the Church of England before the Restoration; there may not have been a mainstream center at all. But this pluriform condition was anything but an intentionally tolerant via media.

This volume involved 24 scholars, and they make a variety of often related arguments: King Henry’s Reformation projects that featured clear evangelical aspirations ought not be described as “popeless Catholicism”; the Edwardian Reformation linked England with Zurich and that connection did not dissipate for another century; the Elizabethan Settlement was hardly settled in 1559; and those within and without the Church of England at the end of the 16th century regarded the Thirty-Nine Articles as having serious bearing on the life of the established church.

But the consensus here is not merely that the pre-1662 Church of England was Reformed. While the Reformed character of the established church seems beyond debate, we cannot isolate an unambiguous high point for Anglican orthodoxy before the 1660s by which every other trend or event among English Protestant Christians must be judged.

Such contenders for the high point have included Cranmer’s second Book of Common Prayer in 1552, Elizabeth’s nuanced retrieval of the Edwardian project in 1559, the avant-garde conformity of Hooker and others in the 1590s, and the Laudians’ campaign for the beauty of holiness in the 1630s. Many Anglicans have wrongly picked one of these moments and declared, “Here is authentic Anglicanism.”

These scholars doubt that there was any coherent mainstream. Instead they soberly observe the competing claims for normativity that required the creation of plastic identities like Puritan, Anglican, radical, and Arminian, among others. Presbyterians, for example, are very much part of the story, and not simply as the wicked foil or other.

As editor Anthony Milton puts it, the association of Anglicanism with particular emphases, such as moderation, an aversion to confessionalism, and a taste for chaste ritual, represents the victory of certain trends at the Restoration and should not be read back into 16th and early 17th centuries.

While it should be obvious that the persistent via media paradigm must be laid to rest, the bigger claim is that any attempt to define Anglicanism by highlighting a single voice, event, or text before the Restoration is a false start.

The articles here are rich and cover a wide array of topics, including bishops, the godly magistrate, art and iconoclasm, canon law, cathedrals, perceptions of Christian antiquity, and relationships with other Christian bodies. Although these essays are strong and most welcome, they are not (for the most part) new. Rather, they represent the thinking of a cadre of revisionist and post-revisionist scholars at work since the 1970s.

Indeed, the essays even center on several related articles and books that have appeared in the past 30 years: Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “The Myth of the English Reformation” (Journal of British Studies, 1991), Anthony Milton’s Catholic and Reformed (Cambridge University Press, 1995), and Peter Lake’s Anglicans and Puritans? (Unwin Hyman, 1988). A glance through the work even reveals a canon, perhaps with Patrick Collinson as patriarch.

While I heartily agree with these presentations and highly recommend the book, I found the conversation at times insular (pun intended) and the essays almost Goldberg Variations on each other. Peter McCullough’s high praise for Peter Lake’s coinage of “avant-garde conformity” as “pure gold,” while completely accurate and delightful, seemed indicative of the closed circle.

Many of these scholars have demonstrated a suspicion of practicing Anglicans doing research in this period. Such fears are not entirely unfounded, given that the stone keeps rolling away from the via media paradigm’s tomb. There is a certain disconnect between this scholarship and what is repeated over and again among Anglicans.

Episcopal seminarians, for example, will know Hooker, but “avant-garde conformity” will likely be quite foreign, and that is a pity. I wonder if it would have been wise to include a few more obviously Anglican historians in the conversation, as one finds more clearly in the other volumes of this series, in order for this rich scholarship to seep into the living tradition. This book will be a wonderful resource for historians; I hope, likewise, that it will be of service to Anglicans.

The Rev. Calvin Lane is affiliate professor of Church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and associate rector of St. George’s Church in Dayton, Ohio.


Online Archives