Adebate that began about halfway through the 16th century continues to this day. It centers on a seemingly simple question: When Henry VIII severed ties between the English Church and the See of Rome, did the Church of England join what was becoming known as Lutheranism and the various Reformed churches and become a Protestant church?

The question isn’t as simple as it might seem; hence the longevity of the debate. Orthodoxy broke with Rome in the 13th century and isn’t a Protestant Communion. The See of Utrecht severed its ties with the papacy in the 17th century and the Old Catholic churches aren’t Protestant. The complexity of the question deepens.

When Henry VIII forbade the Church of England to permit the pope to hear lawsuits or appoint English bishops and senior dignitaries, he changed no doctrines. The Church of England in the year of the old tyrant’s death was a National Catholic Church. Six years later, if the prayer book of 1552 indicates anything at all, what would become known as Calvinism, or perhaps even Zwinglianism, triumphed. Question answered? Perhaps not.

That Prayer Book was still new when the precocious, consumptive teenage king, Edward VI, expired. He was succeeded by his Roman Catholic sister Mary. The English Church submitted to Rome. Back came the altars, statues, thuribles, and vestments probably hidden away during the iconoclasm of the brief Edwardian spasm. Question answered. The English Church was Catholic. The poor had probably been nothing else. Five years is a short time in which to achieve a national conversion.


Now the question becomes more complicated. When Elizabeth Tudor recovered her legitimacy and achieved the crown after her sister’s short six-year reign, something had changed. The English were sick of change and horrified by Mary’s vicious execution of aged bishops, who were burned at the stake pour le encouragement de les autres. Of course her motive, at least in Thomas Cranmer’s case, might have been simple revenge. Cranmer, liturgical genius, was also a deeply compromised servant of a ruthless king. He had assisted Henry’s putting away his first wife, Catherine, and thereby rendered their daughter Mary illegitimate, perhaps not a necessary conclusion, but one Henry rubbed in by official decree.

Elizabeth’s restoration of her father’s church was therefore not unpopular. But was the Church of England in 1559 Protestant of Catholic? The very Protestant prayer book of 1552 was issued in that year, with a few perhaps significant revisions. An “Ornaments Rubric” was appended permitting the use of most “Catholic” vestments and other adornments. When people received Communion they were to do so kneeling and were informed that they were receiving “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

On the other hand, her new bishops had returned from exile abroad “full of Calvin.” In the year of Elizabeth’s accession, the Franco-Swiss theologian had produced the final version of his magisterial Institutes of Religion, which among other things taught Augustine shorn of that saint’s Catholic doctrine of the Church and sacraments. How did one solve the moral question of why so many baptized people are godless?” Easy. God knows everything, so he must will and purpose everything. It is not the Church as the company of the baptized, who are predestined and elected to be citizens of the New Jerusalem in the Last Days. It is the individual. Then the godless baptized and those who have never heard of Jesus are similarly predestined and elected to damnation. The only point of evangelism is to assure the chosen that they are indeed chosen. Thus, in a marvelous irony, the elect must work damned hard to demonstrate by their virtuous living that they are neither damned nor saved by their virtuous living. Only a lawyer could come up with something like that, and John Calvin was a lawyer.

So had the English Church now become Protestant? Diarmaid MacCulloch, child of the Irish Protestant Church of Ireland, suggests that the Church of England in the years between Elizabeth’s accession and the Civil War had become a Protestant Church haunted by its Catholic past. I rather like that notion, but I’m not satisfied by it.

An intrepid popularizer of British history, Lucy Worsley, suggests that a sort of fifth-column conspiracy existed during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. Musicians like John Merbecke, and the Catholics, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, wrote music to accompany the prayer book texts for the choir of the Chapels Royal, the monarch’s private chapels, where candles were lit on altars, a cross was displayed, and the royal chaplains wore elaborate copes over their chaste cassocks and surplices. Such goings on were copied by some of the cathedrals.

The account of a controversy between the Dean of Durham and one of his canons about the dean’s introduction of ‘papist” ornaments, ceremonial, and music during this period still makes amusing reading. Archbishop William Laud and his friends tried to enforce these antics on the parish churches. Richard Hooker’s works, largely ignored in his lifetime, became the textbook of Laudian reform. Some of the best brains in the church began to produce Divine theology and contributed to the decapitation of King Charles I and their church’s demise. But music, ornaments, and ceremonial do not a Catholic make. Lutheranism preserved similar customs and remained firmly within the Protestant camp.

Alec Ryrie, in his new romp of a book, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, comes up with a neat answer to our original question. He suggests that in 1662, “the Established Church became something new: Anglicanism, the largest of the new sects, albeit with a residual ambition to be a comprehensive national church.” Elsewhere he describes the restored English Church as “ceremonialist.”

I have long argued that the shaping of the English church, and thus of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, into what would later be described as Anglicanism began with the dissolution of the monasteries and the rejection of papal authority under Henry VIII and was completed when Charles II ejected clergy who would not conform to the very cautiously revised prayer book of 1662. Anglicanism rose from the corpse of the Elizabethan Compromise, but as with all revolutions, it claimed to inherit that which it rejected.

Until the middle of the 19th century, Anglicans, ordained or lay, would have answered our question with a resounding “We are Protestants.” Most households displayed in the parlor, to impress the parson, the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Foxe’s masterful anti-Catholic polemic, The Book of the Martyrs. This book described in lurid detail the martyrdoms of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and others by Mary Tudor. It reminded loyal Anglicans of the perils of allowing a Roman Catholic monarch and leaders. As late as 1689 James II had been sent packing because he was a Roman Catholic and his wife had produced a Catholic heir.

In the early part of the 19th century, when Keble, Newman, Pusey, and Froude began their campaign to revive Anglicanism’s hidden Catholicism, the result was quite a stir. Yet their thesis seemed plausible, if occasionally naively eccentric. They pointed out that Anglicanism preserved episcopacy, bishops in succession to those of the pre-Reformation Church, even if the consecration of Elizabeth I’s first two bishops was highly irregular. The structure of the Medieval Church had been retained, with its territorial provinces, dioceses and parishes. The ancient cathedrals were preserved, together with deans and canons, daily sung Matins and Evensong, organs, choirs, and processions. The Church’s liturgy permitted ornaments and vestments of a type used by the Medieval Church, and that became the fun obsession of what became known as Anglo-Catholicism.

The prayer book preserved all of the sacraments except unction. So there was MacCullough’s “Catholic ghost,” returned to haunt a startled and sometimes fearful parishioner. Newman’s last piece of writing, Tract 90, even suggested that the 39 Articles of Religion could be squared with the decisions of the Council of Trent. Poor naive Newman was startled and overthrown by the vehemence of the reaction to this suggestion, not least from the bishops he had Catholicized. He packed it all in and became a Roman Catholic.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Do the terms Catholic and Protestant serve any useful purpose? They are so loaded with polemic freight, as to be a liability in our discussion. Why not simply use the title of the ecclesial body we have been describing? The Mother Church of the Anglican Communion is called the Church of England. Most of the other provinces give themselves a territorial name, except the Episcopal Church.

Is Anglicanism merely the church in a particular nation or region? It retains the structure, liturgical heritage, sacramental system, and episcopal, diocesan, and parochial system. With the exception of the Australian Diocese of Sydney and its appendages — the news of Edward VI’s demise is yet to reach them — the provinces of the Communion and their Mother Church have gone through various periods of theological enthusiasm, some of which have predominated for a while and left behind associations of clergy and laity who associate themselves with these dogmatic spasms. These enthusiasms have copied, often without attribution, trends in overseas Protestantism and Catholicism. Open an Anglican hymnal and be confronted by hymns and tunes from all sorts and conditions of external sources. To this date, none have stuck for very long and none define the church.

Is Anglicanism Protestant or Catholic? Some answer with a choice, others, in typically Anglican fashion, say both. My answer is that Anglicanism is the Church in a particular place. Place has perhaps always been more important to us than a theological label. In a divided Christendom, we merely claim to be the Church in mission, praying that one day labels will cease and the Church’s unity restored.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Tony Clavier is a retired bishop, now serving two missions in the Diocese of Springfield. He is co-editor of The Anglican Digest and an occasional blogger.

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