The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I

Reformation and Identity, c 1520-1662

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Anthony Milton
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     544 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I: Reformation and Identity, c 1520-1662, editor Anthony Milton has assembled a remarkable collection of essays on the religious identity of the Church of England. Scholars of early modern religious history, particularly the Reformation and Church of England, will profit from the careful and persuasive scholarship of the contributors and from Milton’s command of ongoing disagreements about what is essential and what is accidental in Anglican history and practice.

To understand controversies surrounding religious identity in the Church of England, one need look no further than the term “Anglican” in the title. Milton argues that the term “Anglican” is an anachronism; it did not exist at the time of the Church’s origins in the 16th century (as this volume demonstrates). Nor was the term invented by John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement in the 1830s. Insofar as the Church of England became a church for persons of English descent worldwide, but who were no longer British citizens, the appellation also fails to suit. Include discontinuities in the Church’s formal structures and cultural dimensions, varying de facto or de jure practice among the devoted faithful, clergy and hierarchy, and those in charge of legal establishment, and one understands why Anglican identity is contested. One is reminded of John Knox’s opinion of Elizabeth, no doubt summative of many opinions of the Church of England as well: “neither good Protestant nor yet resolute Papist.”

Milton appropriately calls tensions in Anglican identity “creative but also divisive.” He gives the lie to the notion that inconsistency is a deliberate or salutary character trait of the Church—let alone the fruit of a deliberate “via media” principle. Though Anglican identity is “contested and evolving” or “disputed and developing,” neither Milton nor his contributors engage in anachronism and pick sides—though the resulting arguments in this volume certainly give credibility to an Evangelical (or Protestant) understanding of the Church.

First, there is the question of influence and theological foundations. Diarmaid MacCulloch demonstrates the decisive influence of continental reformers (whether in England or by correspondence) and especially Heinrich Bullinger—tracing Bullinger’s influence even in the supposedly innovative “via media” of Richard Hooker. Stephen Hampton makes a similar argument for the influence of Zurich in the Thirty-Nine Articles, arguing that the Articles do indeed constitute a confession, and everyone at the time perceived them as such. Similarly, Chad van Dixhoorn advocates revisiting moderate changes to the Articles made by the Westminster Assembly. He also joins Gerald Bray in calling for favorable reconsideration of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Furthermore, Jean-Louis Quantin argues that Anglican reverence for the patristics resembles the hermeneutic of the continental Reformed and William Sheils demonstrates that John Foxe’s comparatively Protestant account of martyrdom, while in tension with Archbishop Parker’s argument for institutional continuity, nevertheless enjoyed appreciation and patronage. Though this intellectual genealogy supports the Church’s “Protestant” character, it also limits any supposed “Calvinist” influence.

Though many of these points implicitly challenge Anglo-Catholicism, they hardly constitute or endorse puritanism. Nevertheless, puritans are given their due. Michael Winship presents the New World experience, a puritan experience in New England though not in Virginia, as a case study in parish-based government without episcopal supervision. Winship and Peter Lake explain how puritans helped define the boundaries of orthodoxy even when dissenting—given they dissented within the Church (sometimes with episcopal support) rather than simply subverting it from without.

Therefore, what of the Church of England’s reverence for the past? Was not the existence of canon law, church courts, and episcopacy, for example, evidence of a larger-C catholicity? Gerald Bray argues that these institutions owed more to inertia and Tudor peculiarities than to deliberate principle. Furthermore, Andrew Foster argues that medieval administrative structures existed more by accident than by design. Such arguments suggest that puritan upheavals in the 1640s did not constitute an attack on longstanding establishment so much as another round of innovation. Kenneth Fincham and Stephen Taylor go so far as to challenge the idea of the Restoration Church as a “restoration.” After all, many dissenting ideas survived the Civil War, and controversy has surrounded the ceremonialism and adiaphorism of Lancelot Andrews, John Whitgift, or Richard Hooker since the 1590s. Ian Atherton and Peter McCullough explore these controversies further in chapters addressing what Peter Lake has elsewhere called “avant-garde conformity.” As for seeking an established Anglican identity in the liturgy, Bryan Spinks rightly asks, “Which one?” If there was indeed clear agreement about Anglican identity in the liturgy, would it not have been preserved against experimentation?

Diversity in practice existed at all tiers of the Church and, as Julia Merritt argues, was evident at the parish level. As Felicity Heal demonstrates, such diversity included disagreement about iconoclasm, church music, and decoration. While we might think of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible as Anglican—certainly insofar as it deliberately replaced the Geneva Bible preferred by puritans—Lori Anne Ferrell addresses how the KJV did not even satisfy some Laudian divines. Jacqueline Rose explains how such variety and inconsistency can be traced to the leadership of the Church; conflicting interpretations of royal supremacy prevented precise boundaries of authority among the monarch, Convocation, Parliament, and episcopacy. The fortunes of secular or ecclesiastical powers ebbed and flowed, but no period under examination represented a normative or established position within Anglicanism.

The conservative character of Anglicanism makes this first volume essential for understanding the foundation of the Church. Its contributors have asked important and provocative questions, and Milton situates them appropriately. The conclusions drawn by many authors oblige that we take a Protestant or Evangelical interpretation of the Church of England seriously, but nothing in this volume is partisan or polemical. Of course, one cannot dismiss the Oxford movement based on what happened in the 16th or early 17th centuries; Newman and his disciples would not articulate their principles until after several generations had passed. Though additional volumes take up the later history of the Church of England, they do not appear as sensitive to this particular question of Anglican identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science & Philosophy at Northwood University.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Milton is professor of history at the University of Sheffield. His publications include Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Laudian and royalist polemic in seventeenth-century England: The career and writings of Peter Heylyn (Manchester University Press, 2007).



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