16 July 2017

The Reformation after 500 years:
2, The Anglican Reformation

In the second of three features on the Reformation, Patrick Comerford asks about the influence of Martin Luther on the Anglican Reformation.

The Martyrs’ Memorial near Baliol College, Oxford, where Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake in 1555 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Anglicanism has no one single founding figure, so that there is no single Reforming authority for Anglicans, in the way that Martin Luther has a defining role for Lutherans, or John Calvin for Calvinists and Presbyterians.

Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer are seen as the founding martyrs of Anglicanism; Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker are the key figures in drafting the foundational documents of Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles; and the Elizabethan and Jacobean theologians Richard Hooker, John Jewel and Lancelot Andrewes, and the Caroline Divines, including Bishop Jeremy Taylor, presented Anglican theology in its first articulate and systematic ways in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Anglican theological position has always been explained in terms of the middle way or via media. Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity is regarded as the classic depiction of this Anglican via media, based on scripture, reason and tradition, although he does not use the actual term via media in his works, which stand alongside John Jewel’s Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae.

So, from an Anglican perspective, when did the Reformation begin?

In England, from the mid-14th century, the Lollards were demanding Reform under the leadership of John Wycliffe. He was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, an early champion of women’s voices in the Church. Although she lived and wrote a century before Luther and Calvin, she may be seen as an early forerunner of the Anglican Reformation.

William Tyndale, who worked on an early translation of the Bible, was executed before the Anglican Reformation began. His prominence in Protestant folklore sometimes eclipses the influence of Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus remained a Roman Catholic priest, but through his work on the Greek New Testament in Cambridge while he was Professor of Divinity, he made the Bible accessible to the Anglican Reformers and he helped to stimulate an interest in Luther’s work.

Cambridge became the nursery of the English Reformation, and the White Horse Inn, on a site that is now part of King’s College, became the meeting place of critical scholars, including Thomas Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, William Tyndale, John Bale (later Bishop of Ossory) and Hugh Latimer.

The Anglican Reformation found another springboard in the thinking of Henry VIII, not because of his demands for a divorce but in his theological intellect, first expressed in a critique of Luther that earned him Papal recognition as ‘Defender of the Faith.’ Indeed, the royal request for a divorce was strongly criticised by Luther, and Cranmer found favour with the king by offering an alternative course of action.

For Anglicans, the classical Reformation did not end with the deaths of the martyrs in Oxford in 1555 during the reign of Mary I. By the time the 39 Articles received their final form in 1571, the Puritans were a critical wing on the margins of Anglicanism, so that Calvinism had become a force opposing the via media that would define Anglicanism from the 1570s on.

A plaque at King’s College, Cambridge – site of the White House Inn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Elizabeth I often defended her Church’s catholicity to foreigners and emphasised what it held in common with the rest of the western Catholic Church. A canon of 1571 demands that clergy in their preaching ‘see that they never teach ought in a sermon, to be religiously held and believed by the people, except what is agreeable to the Old and New Testaments, and what the Catholic Fathers and ancient bishops have collected from the same doctrine.’

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, declared in the early 17th century: ‘I will never refuse to embrace any opinion in divinity necessary to salvation which the whole Catholic Church with a unanime [i.e. unanimous] consent have constantly taught and believed ...’

The Cromwellian era (1649-1660) threatened but failed to mark the triumph of Puritanism and the end of the Anglican Reformation, if not Anglicanism itself.

Perhaps the classical Anglican Reformation ends not with the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, but in the reign of Charles II, with the Act of Uniformity and Great Ejection of Puritans in 1662, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which upholds the ‘established doctrine, or laudable practice … of the whole Catholick Church of Christ.’ This gives a Catholic hue to Anglicanism, and so Anglicanism was defined not by Luther, Calvin or Cranmer, but by the Caroline settlement, the Caroline Divines (including Bishop Jeremy Taylor and Archbishop John Bramhall of Armagh) and the rejection of Puritanism.

Next: Luther and ecumenism today.

Thomas Cranmer's memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This full-page feature is published in the July/August 2017 edition of ‘Newslink,’ the Magazine of the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe (p. 19).

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