1559, Elizabeth, and Parker: The Beginnings of a Middle Way

A colleague of mine recently sent me a very nice summary article from the New Yorker on the abiding impact of the Book of Common prayer on our culture. If you have no idea who Thomas Cranmer is, and why he is one of the most formative influences of the English language, you should read it. Right now. Before you read the rest of this essay!

Now, while I do not want to take anything away from that fine article, I would like to add a few notes of both historical and cultural interest. The author missed a rather important revision of the Prayer Book: The 1559 version. Why is this important?

The 1559 BCP was made to correct several problems introduced by the 1552 BCP. The 1552 version was a severely Calvinist version of the BCP that introduced some rigidly Protestant ideas of salvation and atonement, as well as diminishing the nature and need for the sacraments (such as Eucharist and ordination). It represented a pendulum swing away from strident Roman Catholicism toward an equally strident form of Reformed Protestantism (i.e. those forms of Protestantism originating from Calvin and Zwingli). In other words, the 1552 alienated many of the more moderate Catholics and moderate Protestants in England, and helped lead to the national instability that ushered in Queen Mary (i.e. "Bloody Mary") and her efforts to swing the cultural/political pendulum back to Rome.

In 1558, after Mary's demise, the unmarried Queen Elizabeth took the throne, and in 1559 installed her favored archbishop Matthew Parker. Elizabeth and Parker agreed with Cranmer in this: The way to reform the religion of a nation was primarily through shared prayer and liturgy (a common prayer book). But they differed with Cranmer on what type of religion best brings about the security, health, and godliness of the realm. Cranmer sought to install a severely reformed religion, followed immediately by Mary's attempts to install a severely papal religion. Both extremes almost ruined the commonwealth.

Elizabeth and Parker wanted a national religion that offered a type of "middle way" (via media) that avoided extreme versions of both Catholicism and Protestantism (such as extreme Calvinists and Lutherans, and Radicals who wanted to abolish all of the above). Yet they also desired a "moderate religion" that allowed for what was comforting and wholesome in those traditions, which led to the good order of society.

As a result, they crafted the 1559 BCP, which edited out what was most egregious and extreme from the 1552 BCP, added back in wholesome portions of the 1549 BCP, and tweaked many other things to make it both more usable, and more representative of their via media. They strengthened the liturgies of both Eucharist and ordination to better reflect their nature and necessity in the common life of the Church. It was this BCP that was the immediate forerunner of the 1662 BCP (which is still in use to this day in England). While the 1662 BCP represents an updating of the language and lectionary (table of readings) used in the 1559, the theological and sociological concerns are substantially the same as the 1559: To maintain a moderate religion of "Reformed Catholicism", which avoids egregious extremes, and thus is suitable to the health and vitality of the English Commonwealth.

In addition, Elizabeth and Parker ensured that every parish in England had a copy of the Bible in the English vernacular. This Bible, called "The Bishop's Bible", was again an attempt to bring about a moderate approach to religion that avoided the extremes of the Reformation. For instance, many reformation era Bible translations (such as the Calvinist "Geneva Bible") had interpreted the text and added marginal "notes", in such a way so as to exaggerate theological issues (such as the relationship between predestination, faith, faithfulness, and works in salvation) as well as leadership issues (such as how to understand St. Paul's instructions to elders/priests and overseers/bishops). The Bishop's Bible, like the 1559 BCP, was intended to interpret the Scriptures in such a way that there was a latitude for forms of  moderate religious belief. However, it was a bit clunky as a vernacular translation, and was replaced in 1611 by the famed "King James" or "Authorized" Bible of the English Church. The "King James Bible" was translated with the Bishop's Bible as a pattern, and it adhered to the moderate, balanced aims of the Bishop's Bible. The main difference is that the literary quality of the King James far excelled the Bishop's Bible, and indeed any other English translation, for centuries.

Finally, as part of the project represented by the 1559 BCP and the Bishop's Bible, Elizabeth and Parker instituted the "39 Articles" as an outline, or confession, of the beliefs of the English Church. When read today, the text appears very rigid and overly defined, perhaps even declaring things we may find partisan (there are specific portions directed against Roman Catholic beliefs) or exclusionary (there are portions that affirm God's predestination of only the elect to salvation). However, at the time it was written, it was an attempt to, again, find a "middle way" which included a wide variety of Protestants. The precise wording of the 39 articles, when inspected deeper, actually lends itself to multiple interpretations. For this reason, the 39 articles was the greatest "flop" of the reforming efforts of Elizabeth and Parker. Through history, no section of the Church has ever been truly happy with these articles. For some, they are overly anti-Catholic, for others, they are too Catholic; For some, they are too Reformed, and for others, not Reformed enough.

As a historical side note: One of the traditional robes worn by English clergy is the Black Cassock. Many of these Cassocks, through history, have had 39 buttons going up the front. It has been traditional for some Anglican clergy to leave unbuttoned the buttons which correspond to the articles they do not agree with!

Back to the point: I write this to highlight the role of Queen Elizabeth and Matthew Parker in the English Reformation, and their enduring legacy in the Church. When people discuss the English Reformation and the history of the Anglican Church, the conversation often centers around King Henry and his insatiable lust for wives and power. More thoughtful folks may move the conversation to Thomas Cranmer and the first and second BCPs (1549 and 1552). This is certainly what happened in the New Yorker article.

But, among the Reformers of the 1500's, perhaps the greatest enduring impact on English speaking Christianity actually comes from an unmarried Queen and her choice of archbishop. It is actually Elizabeth and Parker that we have to thank for the ethos of Anglicanism (and its American child the Episcopal Church) as a "middle way" or "bridge church" between various forms of Protestantism, and between Protestantism and Catholicism. And that "middle way" finds its supreme textual embodiment in the 1559 BCP, which led to the 1662 BCP, which in turn led by a series of steps to the 1979 American BCP, which we use portions of in chapel every day.

And for those who are concerned to find strong female Church leaders in eras when "women's ordination" was out of the question, we need not look any further than Elizabeth herself. Not only was she one of the most skilled politicians of her day, but she was also a talented lay theologian, whose wise policies have led to a religious movement that has survived 500 years, and stretches across the globe, to include around 80 million members today. Granted, it took four centuries of theologians, clergy, and lay leaders to build on her legacy to get where we are today. But, more than Henry, and probably even more than Cranmer himself, we have Elizabeth and Parker to thank for laying the foundation for that growth.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.