Historical Lectures and Addresses/The English Church in the Reign of Elizabeth

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from Historical Lectures and Addresses. This lecture was delivered at the request of the Parochial Church Committees in the rural deaneries of Westminster.

If I were to attempt to deal in any detail with the large subject which I have proposed to treat, it would be impossible, in the short space of an hour's lecture, to say anything that could be of use. Probably it will be best for me at once to make clear what I intend to talk about. I am not going into such points as the question of Barlow's consecration or the Nag's Head fable. My interest in history lies rather in the broad lines of human progress, and the question which I wish to consider is whether what happened in England with regard to ecclesiastical matters in the sixteenth century was progress or not. I want to consider exactly what did happen then to the Church of England, what were the varying forms which it assumed, and above all what were its relations to the Romanists and the Nonconformists.

Let me first of all explain what took place at the Reformation. A great external change came over England in the sixteenth century. That change really included three things, each of which should be considered by itself, though two of them have been signally overlooked. There was first, a great national revolution, which found expression in the resolute assertion on the part of England of its national independence. Secondly, there was a great social revolution, which altered the main facts of English life; and, thirdly, there was a great intellectual revolution consequent on the absorption of the New Learning into the national life. Each of these movements went on its own lines and should be studied by itself. The economic and social movement seen in the dissolution of the monasteries was one that had an existence of its own quite apart from the others, as is shown by the fact that Wolsey was engaged in dissolving monasteries some years before there was any breach with the Papacy. Further, the great intellectual movement which was sweeping over Europe also went on its own lines; it was only accentuated in England by being more frankly accepted there than elsewhere, and probably we should best explain the position of the Church of England if we were to call it "the Church of the New Learning".

The assertion of the national independence was, however, no new thing. The sixteenth century only gave full expression to tendencies which had always been at work in England. There never was a time in England when the papal authority was not resented, and really the final act of the repudiation of that authority followed quite naturally as the result of a long series of similar acts which had taken place from the earliest times. It is mostly in relation to that last event that the Reformation in England is judged. In itself it was a most momentous event—in itself, for it need not have taken the form which it did. Though the English Church parted company with the papal jurisdiction, it was not the fault of the English Church that the relations which have subsequently existed between it and the Papacy have become what they are. A partnership may have had to be broken up; the question is, whose fault was it if the two partners quarrelled and tried to cut one another's throats?

I wish to speak about the form which the Anglican Church assumed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The whole process of what is called the Reformation would have gone on different lines had it not been for the two reactions which marked the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. The abolition of the Roman jurisdiction in Henry VIII.'s reign was a purely political movement, affecting only the external relations of England. But side by side with it there was going on the intellectual movement of the New Learning, with all its disintegrating effects on the ideas of the time. England was the last country affected by this movement, and with the bluff common-sense that characterises them, the English proceeded immediately to apply practically the results of the criticisms made by the New Learning. "Now that we have found out," they said, "that so many of the things which we have been doing and thinking are simple nonsense, we are not going to retain them." Consequently, they simply put on one side all the outlying parts of the existing system which were no longer credible, though they were not without a certain value as belonging to the dominion of the imagination, and adopted a straightforward system of ecclesiastical organisation and worship. This form was intended to be tentative; it was impossible for it to have been otherwise. When a resolute effort is first made to recover forgotten truths, such an effort cannot be final. The ecclesiastical system was retained, no changes were made in the system of the Church. The services were only simplified, but everything necessary was kept. Men were free to discuss outlying matters, whether this or that form of ritual was more in accordance with the popular wish and sentiment, for they wished nothing to be kept in the way of ritual that had no meaning for the people.

This was what men hoped to do in the reign of Henry VIII., and in this hope England was practically united. There was practically no opposition to the ecclesiastical changes that were made in the reign of Henry VIII. But at the beginning of every new movement people expect more from it than actually comes to pass. It was so specially in the sixteenth century. Men were convinced that so great was the power of intelligence and common-sense that, when once institutions had been explained and put on a common basis, they would be immediately accepted. The mistake of all reformers is that they do not sufficiently allow for the weight of traditional sentiment which lies behind old institutions. In consequence this movement did not get on as quickly as was desired. The purely intellectual and spiritual movement did not advance; it was traversed by the political movement and also by the social movement. There were great difficulties in disentangling it from the extraneous elements in which it was involved. The consequence was that there was a reaction in Edward VI.'s reign, due to foreign influence. Then some of the worst, the most incapable and the most selfish men who have ever governed England were prepared to loose the country from its old moorings and drive it into the stream of continental Protestantism. They were afraid that England, if it continued in its existing position, judging, weighing, verifying without any violence, constantly making its appeal to common-sense and to the intellect, would not be able to maintain itself against the Roman reaction. They consequently sought for it the strength which they thought might be gained by an alliance with German Protestantism. That attempt was politically disastrous; it did not correspond with the wishes of the English people. The result was the reaction under Mary. The nation was afraid of the new forms of ecclesiastical polity that might be invented, and so the very men who in Henry VIII.'s reign had been the foremost in making changes now hastened to undo their work. Gardiner, who had to do with most of these changes, was thoroughly alarmed, and thought that the only safe course was to go back to the old state of things. But he felt that this could not be done entirely; for he saw that the country, though it might be willing to accept again the old system, would never again submit to foreign interference. It is well known how his policy failed, how England was made the handmaid of Spain, and how the only way to the old state of things proved to be through persecution.

In consequence Elizabeth had to accept an exceedingly dubious and difficult heritage. Her position was entirely different from that of her two predecessors. She was welcomed by the people who looked upon her as a true heir of Henry VIII., one who, from her previous career, might be expected to carry out the policy of her father. But her task was made very difficult by the two reactions through which England had passed since Henry VIII.'s days. Let us consider some of the great difficulties which she had to face.

I do not wish to speak of the legal and technical means by which the necessary changes had to be made. Elizabeth knew very well what she meant the Church to be. But between the schemes and the dreams of the wise and their actual realisation there is a great gulf fixed, and this at once became apparent. The violent changes through which the country had passed had seriously affected the character of the clergy. Many of them had lived through the times of Henry VIII. and then had changed first in one direction under Edward VI. and again in the other direction under Mary. They were not quite sure what opinions they held on ecclesiastical questions, nor what opinions they were meant to hold. There had been so many changes that no man could feel sure of his final position. The work of establishing order and organisation becomes exceedingly difficult when the officials into whose hands the work has to be committed are themselves absolutely bewildered about what they have to do.

It will be at once seen to what a state of disorganisation the Church had been reduced at this time if we realise the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pole, had died just about the time of Queen Mary's death, and that in that same year no fewer than nine sees became vacant through death, whilst many of the other bishops had either resigned or been deprived because they refused to take the oath of the Royal Supremacy. Consequently the bench of bishops had to be entirely remanned. That of course presented a very great difficulty. The material from which the bishops had to be chosen had greatly deteriorated. The quiet scholars of the past had all disappeared; the most serious and learned men on either side had alternately been deprived and taken refuge abroad, and they invariably returned from exile as violent partisans. It was indeed fortunate that there happened to be such a man as Parker. He was one of the few who had not fled from England, and had consequently not absorbed the theology and ideas of continental Protestantism. He saw that the best had to be made of the existing situation. Many people have written about the Elizabethan bishops and gibed at them. I do not hold a brief for them. They were of all kinds as bishops are in these days. To me the interesting thing in studying their history is to observe how they were educated by events. It is perfectly true, I admit, that the great mass of them accepted Anglicanism after they had been made bishops. The truth is that the pressure of circumstances, the ideas and conceptions prevalent among the English people turned them into Anglicans almost in spite of themselves. It was so, for instance, in the case of Jewel. He was a learned theologian, strongly imbued with continental Protestantism when he returned to England, and a decided Calvinist But he grew out of his Calvinism and became one of the chief founders of Anglicanism, and one of the last things he did was to denounce the Puritans in language far stronger than any that Hooker ever used against them. So it was with most of the other bishops.

The general mass of the clergy were of course as much disorganised as the bishops by the recent changes. Cecil, when accompanying the Queen on a progress through the eastern counties, exclaimed, "Here be many slender ministers and much nakedness of religion". Here was the Church and its formularies, but either there were no clergy or there were only clergy who did not know what to do. In some places they would not conform in various ways to Church order, refusing for instance to wear surplices; the bishops did not know how to deal with heretics and schismatics; everything was at sixes and sevens. Owing to the wave of iconoclasm that had passed over the country, many churches were reduced to ruins, and the difficulty of finding men who would conduct public worship in an orderly fashion was enormous. How were things to be put straight? How were the difficulties to be met? I frankly admit that the form taken by Anglicanism largely arose from the desire to express the wishes of the English people so far as it was possible to do so. That simply and solely was the desire which prevailed. Seeing that England had succeeded in maintaining its independence, in what form could the religious expression of the conscience of the English people be best organised, compatibly with the right organisation of the Church and the full maintenance of Catholic doctrine? That was the problem which the English bishops and the English people had to solve with the inadequate material at their command.

Things would have gone on much more rapidly had the English people been united. But the two reactions through which they had passed had left their mark upon them too, and that mark became more and more conspicuous as the new system was found not to work so well as it ought to have worked. This "slenderness of ministers and nakedness of religion" made people think that this separate Church of England, this Church which was to express the desires of the English people, could not last. Its basis seemed too narrow. If it were to last, men felt that it must be either a branch of violent, aggressive, iconoclastic Protestantism, which would break entirely with the past, or else it must be part of the old system with all its splendour and variety of traditions. It is easy to see how such ideas must have prevailed, and how inevitably the extremists on either side would tend to separate themselves off and struggle to bring about either of these results.

The Calvinistic party did not in the least believe that the Church of England was scriptural. They felt that it must be swept away. However, they were Englishmen, and claimed their right as Englishmen to be members of the English Church, though they disregarded its formularies and paid no heed to its Prayer-book, and took orders in the Church without any intention of being true to its system. They formed a very dangerous party, and were very difficult to deal with. Those of them who were ordained were exceedingly good clergy, zealous when zeal was not common, and learned at a time when learning was not easy to find. Above all they went to the universities and got hold of the young men there. They were a very formidable party, and their endeavour was to capture the Church of England entirely for themselves. The first thing to notice about this puritan party is that they were composed not of laity but of clergy, and the second is that they did not in the least desire to have tolerance for other opinions than their own. The general conception that prevails that the Puritans fought for freedom of opinion is an entire delusion. They wished to put down absolutely everything which they did not themselves believe and approve of. They demanded, not toleration for themselves within the Church of England, but that they should be allowed to transform the Church of England into the likeness of their own ideas.

The first question which the Puritans raised is one which carries us forward to the present day. It concerned vestments—it is so thoroughly English to begin with that which is on the outside. It was said then, as it is said now, what did it matter what a man wore? But the Puritans said that it did matter a great deal, that a garment must not be worn which had ever been worn by a Pope's priest, because it was like meat offered to idols, and that the moment it was commanded it ceased to be a matter of indifference. It must not, however, be supposed that it was only the surplice to which the Puritans objected; their objection extended even to college caps, which for some reason or another were particularly obnoxious to them.

The next question that arose was one of discipline. The Puritans wanted to impose their form of discipline on the Church of England, and with this end in view they adopted the simple plan of turning churchwardens and sidesmen into Presbyterian elders, with the power of exercising discipline on the parishioners and of nominating to the patron the man whom he should appoint to a living. Their next move was a bold attempt to oust the Anglican clergy. To this day there exists in many town churches an afternoon lectureship, which is the result of a separate endowment got up by the Puritans for paying a man to preach in a black gown at the conclusion of the afternoon service. The lecturer used to bring his own congregation with him, who would ostentatiously wait outside the church until the conclusion of the service, holding meanwhile an animated discussion in the churchyard, and then when the parish clergyman had disappeared the lecturer would enter the church and deliver his sermon.

Amongst the clergy, Archbishop Whitgift asserted discipline on a broad basis. He demanded of them the acceptance of three propositions: the Royal Supremacy, the acceptance of the Prayer-book, and that they should sign the Thirty-nine Articles. He summoned men before him and examined them as to these things. A great outcry was made against Whitgift, and Cecil remonstrated with him, but the Archbishop persevered in his course. Strangely enough he showed more latitude with regard to puritan doctrine, and even drew up certain extra articles in a Calvinistic sense, but fortunately the Queen refused her consent to them.

Elizabeth herself had an intuitive perception of what the English people were thinking and feeling which, in spite of her whims and her caprice, made her one of the most remarkable people of her age. She thoroughly understood the position of the English Church, as was to be seen in her action in regard to the Royal Supremacy. She did not attempt to revive Henry VIII.'s claim; she only took to herself the Royal Supremacy in the sense of a supreme jurisdiction within her realm. She told the Spanish Ambassador that all she meant by the proclamation of the Royal Supremacy was to make it clear that the Pope was not to be allowed to interfere in English affairs and rob the English people of their money. When the Pope proposed in 1561 to send a Nuncio to consult her about the part that England should take in the Council of Trent, she answered through Cecil that she would not refuse to allow the Pope the presidency of the Council, provided that he did not claim to be above the Council, but only its head. She demanded, however, that the English bishops, having been Apostolically ordained, should be admitted to the Council as equals with the other bishops. This gives Elizabeth's view of the Church of England. People speak of the Laudian and Tractarian movements as if they brought up new views; but here we have the plain language of Elizabeth. Up to these conceptions she completely acted. A little while ago I was struck by a great authority on ecclesiastical law writing a letter to The Times newspaper to denounce the bishops. He ended his denunciation with the words, "O for an hour of Queen Elizabeth to deal with bishops like these". I read his words with a gasp of surprise, for Queen Elizabeth would have had his head off in less than an hour, for the notion that he should write thus to the public press would have been in her eyes the most monstrous thing imaginable. She would not allow ecclesiastical matters to be discussed in Parliament, but reserved them for episcopal cognisance, and nothing could be done till the bishops were agreed on the course to be pursued. Elizabeth was continually telling Archbishop Parker to rule by his own authority, and she disliked giving State sanction to ecclesiastical matters. So far from Elizabeth interfering in ecclesiastical matters and treating the bishops with contumely, there was no class in the community whom she treated with so much respect as the bishops. That she could be outspoken was true enough, but the records show that she was much more outspoken to other ministers and to courtiers than she ever was to her bishops. There is no story of her treatment of her bishops that has been so often repeated as a letter to the Bishop of Ely beginning, "Proud Prelate," and ending, "I will unfrock you". But this supposed letter of Queen Elizabeth is an eighteenth-century forgery, which first appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine. There was no such letter; it is a simple hoax which has succeeded in passing into serious history as a true fact.

I have spoken about Queen Elizabeth's influence upon the Church of England, and about the way in which it grew into consciousness, through opposition to the Puritans; but that growth was also assisted by the equally necessary opposition to the Romanists. As against them also the position of the Church of England was extremely difficult. At first the Romanists were willing to take part in the English services, but after a time the Jesuits ordered them not to do so, and this course subjected them to persecution. The persecutions both of Puritans and Romanists under Elizabeth are greatly to be deplored, but her special difficulties must be remembered. The successor to the Crown was Mary Queen of Scots, who would without doubt have restored the old Church, brought in the powerful influence of the Guises, and involved England in continental politics. In behalf of Mary the Romanists were willing to take any steps whatever. But in speaking of the English Romanists I must draw a distinction. There were the Romanists who lived in England, a quiet, orderly and loyal people; but there were also the Romanists who lived abroad, and who were desperate intriguers. The deterioration of the English character under foreign influences and when it became cosmopolitan was quite remarkable. It seemed as if an Englishman could not be taken from his native soil and transplanted elsewhere without deteriorating. The moral obliquity of the body of English plotters abroad, with whom the whole body of English Romanists are generally most unfairly confounded, was something quite shocking. They did not care to what lengths they went, provided only the old religion could be restored. It cannot be doubted that, with the connivance of the Pope himself, they were engaged in a series of schemes for the assassination of the Queen. What could be done when a papal invasion of England was planned, led by Campion and Parsons? Campion no doubt had a most beautiful character, and it was Parsons who did the intriguing. Parsons escaped, but Campion was caught and perished on the scaffold, and then the country rang with denunciations of the persecution of the Romanists. It was a cruel dilemma for the Government. These priests went about the country preaching that the Queen was excommunicated and that her subjects owed her no allegiance. What was to be done? It was also a cruel dilemma for the English Romanists, created for them by the papal policy. The actual effect of the relations between England and Rome was to create in the English mind the prejudice that a Roman was a born intriguer and one who had but a slight regard for truth, that the Roman system was anti- English, absolutely averse to English modes of thought, and destructive of English liberties. This is the conception which popular Protestantism has retained ever since.

I have thus rapidly sketched the many difficulties which beset the Church of England, and which led it to take its present form through a genuine desire to combine on the largest possible basis all the religious aspirations of the English people, and to give expression to all that was highest and best in the national life.