Elizabethan Religious Settlement

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The Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which was made during the reign of Elizabeth I, was a response to the religious divisions in England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. This response, described as "The Revolution of 1559",[1] was set out in two Acts. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 re-established the Church of England's independence from Rome, with Parliament conferring on Elizabeth the title Supreme Governor of the Church of England, while the Act of Uniformity of 1559 outlined what form the English Church should take, including the re-establishment of the Book of Common Prayer.

As for the governance of the church, all but one of the Marian bishops refused to consecrate a new Archbishop of Canterbury (canon law from the 4th century required a minimum of three for consecration). Intent upon maintaining the three-fold ministry of deacon, priest and bishop in the apostolic succession, Matthew Parker, a Cambridge University don (lecturer), priest and former vice-chancellor of the university, was consecrated in December 1559 by four bishops. Two had been ordained using the 1550 Ordinal and two in the mid-1530s using the Roman Pontifical. All four had been consecrated by men in Roman Catholic orders. The church might be "reformed" in theology but there would be no break with the ancient institutional church in governance.

The Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, issued on 25 February 1570 by Pope Pius V, declared "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime" to be a heretic, released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders. The bull, written in Latin, is named from its incipit, the first three words of its text, which mean "ruling from on high" (a reference to God). Among the queen's alleged offences, it lists that "she has removed the royal Council, composed of the nobility of England, and has filled it with obscure men, being heretics."

Act of Supremacy[edit]

When Mary I died in 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne. One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth's early reign was the question of which form the state religion would take. Communion with the Roman Catholic Church had been reinstated under Mary using the instrument of Royal Supremacy. Elizabeth relied primarily on her chief advisors, Sir William Cecil, as her Secretary of State, and Sir Nicholas Bacon, as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, for direction on the matter. Many historians believe that William Cecil himself wrote the Church Settlement because it was simply the 1551–1552 version watered down.

Parliament was summoned in 1559 to consider a Reformation Bill and to recreate an independent Church of England. The drafted Reformation Bill defined Holy Communion in terms of Reformed Protestant theology, as opposed to the transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic Mass, included abuse of the Pope in the litany,[2][3] and ordered that ministers should wear the surplice only and not other Roman Catholic vestments. It allowed priests to marry, banned images from churches, and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The bill met heavy resistance in the House of Lords, as Roman Catholic bishops and lay peers opposed and voted against it. They reworked much of the bill, changed the proposed liturgy to allow for belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Communion, made allowance for the wearing of liturgical vestments, the celebration of the Communion in the customary place (altar or table against the east wall), and refused to grant Elizabeth the title of Supreme Head of the Church. Parliament was prorogued over Easter, and when it resumed, the government entered two new bills into the Houses; the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. The Black Rubric of 1552 which permitted kneeling to receive communion out of reverence and not to imply the "real and essential" presence, was repealed at the express order of the Queen. Henceforth kneeling was customary and Real Presence implied without defining it with a doctrine such as transubstantiation. In 1662 the Rubric was restored but the words were changed to "corporal" to exclude the meaning that Christ was present physically in flesh and blood.

Under Elizabeth, factionalism in the council and conflicts at court greatly diminished. The Act of Supremacy 1558 revived ten acts of Henry VIII that Mary had repealed and confirmed Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and passed without difficulty. Use of the term "Supreme Governor" instead of "Supreme Head" pacified many who were concerned about a female leader of the church. All but one of the bishops (the octogenarian Anthony Kitchin of Llandaff) lost their posts,[4] and a hundred fellows of Oxford colleges were deprived. Many dignitaries resigned rather than take the oath, and the bishops who were removed from the ecclesiastical bench were replaced by appointees who agreed to the reforms.

On the question of images, Elizabeth's initial reaction was to allow crucifixes and candlesticks and the restoration of roods, but some of the new bishops whom she had elevated protested. In 1560 Edmund Grindal, one of the Marian exiles now made Bishop of London, was allowed to enforce the demolition of rood lofts in London, and in 1561 the Queen herself ordered the demolition of all lofts, although she sometimes displayed a cross and candlesticks in her own chapel.[5] Thereafter, the determination to prevent any further restoration of "popery" was evidenced by the more thoroughgoing destruction of roods, vestments, stone altars, dooms, statues and other ornaments.

The queen also appointed a new Privy Council, removing many Roman Catholic counsellors by doing so. Amidst all the politics and danger (her accession was not wildly popular) it is not so easy to parse out what she wanted initially: an unmarried clergy; the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist without a theory of definition; Mass vestments; a holy table covered by a fair linen or throw against the wall with candlesticks theron - "The Prayer Book communion would not be a mass, but at least it would look like a mass", Haight, ibid. p. 241. With the exception of the Real Presence, she did not succeed. But she stopped any further movement in a radical direction dead in its tracks by actively opposing the abolition of episcopacy; the tradition three-fold orders of deacon, priest and bishop; and the importance of sets liturgies. The medieval canons which governed the Church were kept intact. Liturgical music was encouraged. Indeed the greater part of the clergy successfully resisted any attempt to change the Settlement and gathered strength from the 1570s to do so as the Ecclesiastical Courts and Church Commissioners went after Recusants (Roman Catholics) and Radicals (Dissenters) alike. At her accession she inherited a Church 95% of whose clergy had been ordained in the Roman Rite and whose numbers did not completely disappear until the beginning of the 17th century. This fact, her long reign and her stubborn defense of the Settlement more than anything else set the Church of England on the path it would eventually take as the Via Media brand of Christianity of the great majority of the English people.

Queen Elizabeth I of England reached a moderate religious settlement which became controversial after her death.


The Settlement is often seen as a terminal point of the English Reformation and the Victorian tractarians introduced the idea that it provided what came to be called a "via media", a concept central to Anglicanism. This has two aspects: a refusal to adopt any doctrine to which could be attached a label such as Reformed or Lutheran or Roman Catholic and an avoidance of doctrinal details which was characteristic of Continental Protestantism and Catholicism. The base line and litmus test of catholicity was conformity to the teachings of the Church Fathers and Catholic bishops as stated in the Injunctions of 1571, i.e. the formularies of first five centuries of the Christian Church as seen in the Four Ecumenical Councils through 451 as the minima for setting the standard. Instead of celebrating a Reformation emphasis was on continuity with the Pre-Reformation Church as seen in the unbroken life of the Institution, Diarmid MacCullough, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603, 2001, p. 85 ISNB 0-333-69331-0.

As a moderate Protestant she wanted her version of the Catholic Faith to be the one for the entire Kingdom. She was opposed to Catholicism but not to Catholics as long as they kept quiet. The Catholic Faith handed down from the Church Fathers was mixed with mildly Calvinistic viewpoints. She vigorously opposed a stricter Calvinism as proposed by such men as William Strickland in 1571. He proposed in Parliament that confirmation, priestly vestments and kneeling to receive communion be abolished. She blocked him. She was furious when Archbishop Whitgift in 1595 tried to introduce in Parliament the strict Calvinist Lambeth Articles on Predestination and Salvation: she demanded they be withdrawn which they were. However it would be wrong to identify her position as the Via Media formally as this notion shows up very early in the reign of Charles I 1625-1649: it would be better to see her reign as a period without a "brand name" but with all the basic elements that made for the Via Media in place.

The Catholic heritage which the Puritans and Radicals wanted to get rid of - in doctrine, in practice and institutionally as seen in the three-fold apostolic ministry and canon law - was the "cuckoo in the nest" that the Queen and the conservative reformers refused to let go of and which eventually prevailed as later generations took an interest in and gave more emphasis to the Pre-Reformation roots and doctrinal foundation of the Church. Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity defended this settlement (although he is called the father of the via media, he actually provided the basis for it in a formal way). No matter how much the reformers and active laity of a more radical nature and strict Calvinist doctrine pushed, "they could not proceed to move the structure any further from its idiosyncratic anchorage in the medieval past," p. 142.

The result called the Via Media which emerged in the early decades of the 17th century would be characterized by a belief in reason, an "esteem for continuity over the Reformation divide, and a hospitality towards sacramental modes of thought." It was not so much a statement of what it was rather than what it was not. It was characterized by a stout refusal to speculate or even define itself as Protestant or Catholic, ibid. It was anti-Confessional, MacCullough, op. cit. p. 127. The only documents approximating a 'Confession' were the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith which were not used in Liturgy. Instead the yardstick of Catholicity was the Nicene and Apostles' Creed recited liturgically recited by the members of a Church whose devotional practice came to be centered on a monastic round of Biblical readings and structured prayer in the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer supplemented by the celebration of the Holy Communion.

Almost nothing original in doctrinal formulation came out of Anglicanism (MacCulloch, Diarmid, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603 p. 55) because the reforms were about liturgy and the institution. At the time the melange was believed to have established a Protestant church.[6] The Church of England would in time refuse to commit itself as either Protestant or Catholic or else say it was both.

Although Elizabeth "cannot be credited with a prophetic latitudinarian policy which foresaw the rich diversity of Anglicanism", her preferences made it possible.[7]. To some it can be said to represent a compromise in wording and practice between the first Book of Common Prayer of Edward VI (1549) and the Second Prayer Book (1552). For example, when Thomas Cranmer wrote the 1549 Prayer Book the Words of Administration of Communion read, "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life" which suggests the Real Presence. The 1552 edition of the Book, which was never implemented, replaces these words with "Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving." The 1559 Prayer Book combines the two to shape a doctrine of Real Receptionism - Real Presence or Virtual Presence (take your pick) and Subjective Faith. However, some liturgical scholars such as Gregory Dix, Ratcliff, and Couratin would say that both prayer books taught the same eucharistic doctrine, virtualism, the Reformed doctrine that although Christ is really present He is by the power of the Holy Spirit and partaking of Him is as spiritual food eschewing notions of a corporal presence, albeit more cautiously in the first book.[nb 1] The Act which authorised the second book spoke of it as explaining and making "fully perfect" the first book.[8] Finally, the 1559 book, published under Matthew Parker during the reign of Elizabeth, includes both phrases.[9].

The Church of England in the Settlement rejected the Sacrifice of the Mass whereby the celebrant and congregation offered the sacrifice of Christ to God in a sacrament: this had been the teaching of the Church East and West since the 3rd century. Instead notions of sacrifice were transferred from the Eucharistic Prayer to an optional Prayer of Thanksgiving (and Self-Oblation) said by the congregation after communion.

It is something of a mystery why Cranmer rejected a doctrine he knew was the Church's for centuries - namely that eucharist was the Church's sacrifice to God, a gift to God offered back. Eventually most Anglicans would reject his rejection but not until the 20th century as a result of the influence of the Oxford Movement. Cranmer's semi-Calvinist position was that that reception was the most important action. The 17th century English Divines and the Scottish Episcopal Church in the 18th reopened the question. The latter produced a eucharistic canon based on Cranmer's First Book. He had written after the Words of the Institution, "... we do make and celebrate with these thy Holy Gifts"..."the memorial that Son has wylleth to make." The Scots inserted the words, "which we now offer unto thee" after "Gifts." The addition of these five words essentially undid Cranmer's rejection of the Sacrifice of the Mass. However the Virtualist Doctrine of the Real Presence (derived from Saint Augustine; cf. St. John of Damascus's "the bread and wine are symbols of a spiritual reality") was kept although the straight forward and sometimes vivid language in reference to the Body and Blood of Christ suggested Real Presence (as in the Prayer of Humble Access). Also kept was Cranmer's self-oblation of the congregation in a Thanksgiving Prayer at the end of the Service. The result was to move the Church of England more closely to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox positions of the sacrifice of the Mass while keeping elements of the Reformed theology in reference to the Presence and the emphasis on the congregants' status and personal faith. Indeed the Eucharistic Prayer of the Scottish Book reflects this mix of Catholic, Orthodox and Calvinist theology so characteristic of Anglicanism to this day though with some modifications in the newer prayers which strive to avoid partisan approaches in favor of universally accepted opinions.

J. E. Neale's "Puritan Choir" thesis claimed that a small bloc of radical Protestant representatives struggled for a more aggressive reform, and had a major influence on Elizabethan politics. This theory has been challenged, however, by Christopher Haigh and others. The prevailing view amongst historians today is that Elizabeth accepted from the Lords a more Catholic settlement than she desired as the Lords only passed the changes by a vote of 21 to 18 after threats and bribes. The Queen could push, but only so far. The perceived alternative was having Puritan reforms forced on her by Marian exiles.

By the time of Elizabeth's death, there had emerged a new party, "perfectly hostile" to Puritans, but not adherent to Rome. The Anglicans, as they came to be called later in the century,[10] preferred the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1559, from which had been removed some of the matters offensive to Catholics.[11] A new dispute was between the Puritans, who wished to see an end of the prayer book and episcopacy and the Anglicans, the considerable body of people who looked kindly on the Elizabethan Settlement, who rejected "prophesyings", whose spirituality had been nourished by the Prayer Book and who preferred the governance of bishops.[12] It was between these two groups that, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, a new, more savage episode of the English Reformation was in the process of gestation, "The events of the English Reformation show that the established Protestantism could not agree on what it was supposed to be," MacCulloch, op. cit. p. 53. The Restoration of 1660 would determine it and it would be essentially Elizabethan with the pillar of episcopacy and the Prayer Book as the sine qua non.

Road to the Civil War[edit]

During the reigns of the first two Stuart kings of England, James I and Charles I, the battle lines were to become more defined, leading ultimately to the English Civil War, the first on English soil to engulf parts of the civilian population. The war was only partly about religion, but the abolition of prayer book and episcopacy by a Puritan Parliament was an element in the causes of the conflict. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted, the legacy of these tumultuous events can be recognised, throughout the Commonwealth (1649–1660) and the Restoration which followed it and beyond. Anglicans were to become the core of the restored Church of England, but at the price of further division. At the Restoration in 1660, the congregations of the Church of England were no longer to be the only Protestant congregations in England but they far outnumbered the others in membership. The Restoration restored the Elizabethan Settlement and the 1559 Book of Common Prayer (1662) which remains in force although seldom used due to liturgical reforms introduced in 1929. Among the changes these introduced a Eucharistic Prayer close to the Scottish Canon. Subsequent Prayer Books from the 1960s moved away from Cranmer in favor of a general Catholic style. In the intervening years the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church introduced many Roman Catholic liturgical elements into the Prayer Book called the Anglican Missal and at the same time the Church of England slowly adopted the Pre-Reformation vestments that the Queen had valued as the norm and vested choirs in what has been described as a much belated Counter-Reformation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For an extended treatment, see Ratcliff, E. C. (1980). "Reflections on Liturgical Revision". Grove Books: 12–17.  discussing The Communion Service of the Prayer Book: Its intention, Interpretation and Revision, and also Dix, Gregory (1948). Dixit Cranmer Et Non Timuit. Dacre. 
  1. ^ Dickens 1967, p. 401
  2. ^ Moynahan, Brian (2003-10-21). "chapter 19". The Faith. Random House of Canada. p. 816. ISBN 9780385491150. 
  3. ^ England, Church of; William Keeling (B.D.) (1842). Liturgiae Britannicae. William Pickering. p. 426. 
  4. ^ Doran, Susan (1994). Elizabeth 1 and Religion. Routledge. p. 13. 
  5. ^ Haigh 1993, p. 244
  6. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2005). "Putting the English Reformation on the Map". Trans. RHistS. CUP. XV: 75–95. 
  7. ^ Dickens1967, p. 403
  8. ^ Tanner, J. R. (1948). Tudor Constitutional Documents. CUP. p. 19. 
  9. ^ Chadwick, Owen (1964). "The Reformation". Harmondsworth: Penguin: 121. 
  10. ^ Maltby 1998, p. 235
  11. ^ Proctor F. and Frere W. H., A New History of the Book of Common Prayer (Macmillan 1965) p. 91ff.
  12. ^ Maltby 1998
  • Dickens, A. G. (1967). "The English Reformation". Fontana. 
  • Haigh, Cristopher (1993). "English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors". Oxford University Press. 
  • Maltby, Judith (1998). "Prayer book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England". Cambridge. 

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