Church tankEver since the Reformation, there has been a battle between the Anglo-Protestant and Anglo-Catholic parties for control of the history of Anglicanism. Orwell said ‘who controls the past, controls the present’ (or words to that effect), and the parties in Anglicanism have written their histories with all the passion of those who know that to be true.

It began as early as John Foxe, who by 1563 had noticed that Queen Elizabeth was not as horrified by the continuing presence of closet papists in the church as a Protestant queen ought to be, and wrote his Actes and Monuments of These Later Perilous Days to remind the public, if not Elizabeth, of the treatment Protestants had so recently received at Catholic hands—and what might still be in store if standards were relaxed.

Foxe’s work was second only to the Bible in popularity and influence—most English churches had their own copy that parishioners were encouraged to read. Under Elizabeth and her successor James I, the Protestant nature of the church was never challenged, although attempts to continue the Reformation by those in power in the church were always side-stepped by those in power in the state.

A century later, when Thomas Fuller wrote The Church History of Britain (1655), bringing the story up to the year 1648, the catholic element in the Church of England had undergone a revival, and there were plenty in the church who did not want to be reminded of the full-blooded Protestantism that had once characterised the Church of England. Even though the attempts by James’s successor Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury to undo some of the Reformation had caused a revolution in England, and the temporary abolition of both monarchy and episcopacy, one of the new breed of high churchmen, Peter Heylyn, published his own version of Anglican history, Ecclesia Restaurata, in 1662, portraying Evangelicals as dangerous radicals who could never obey their superiors for long.

By 1679, the high churchmen were so dominant that many Protestants began to fear that they were a fifth column for Rome, and Gilbert Burnet wrote a new history, concentrating on the Reformation period, in order to be able to devote as much space as possible to the absolutist tendencies of the catholic element and the essentially Reformed nature of the English church. Parliament (unlike the king, Charles II, who declared his catholicism on his death-bed) publicly thanked him, and his History of the Reformation of the Church of England set public opinion on a firm foundation.

Under Queen Anne early in the 18th century, the high church was again in the ascendant, and when George I, a Lutheran, became king, Burnet (now Bishop of Salisbury) published a third volume of his history, adding more evidence in favor of the Protestant nature of the Anglican reformation and urging the new king to complete the Reformation. A non-juring high churchman, Jeremy Collier, replied with his Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain in 1714, but for most of the 18th century Burnet’s expanded history was the standard account.

With the Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th century, the Protestant history of the Church of England was once again attacked, most famously in R. W. Dixon’s History of the Church of England from the Abolition of the Roman Jurisdiction. For most of the 20th century the Anglo-Catholic view of Anglican origins has predominated. This began to change with the work of A G Dickens and Patrick Collinson, and a revised view became dominant in academic circles since Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Cranmer in 1996. Since then MacCulloch has been hammering the point home in book after book, restoring Reformed Protestantism to the history of the Church of England, and therefore Anglicanism—although I’ve not heard that this has percolated down to the seminaries yet.

It should be noted that whatever may have first motivated MacCulloch to explore this issue, he cannot be accused of being driven by an agenda of his own; he no longer considers himself a Christian, but simply a historian.

In his most recent article,* MacCulloch takes the gloves off, referring to ‘downright misrepresentation’, ‘strenuous and elaborate efforts to avoid the truth’, ‘wholly misleading citations’, and ‘Anglo-Catholic myth-making’. In short, whatever Anglicanism may be now, if anything, what was settled under Elizabeth was ‘a Reformed Protestant church, to set alongside the churches of Scotland, Geneva, the Northern Netherlands, Hungary or Poland… This was the dirty little secret which high church Anglicans had been trying to hide since the time of Peter Heylyn.’

Now that the secret is out, may those in Anglican churches who still believe the Reformation improved the church find new energy not only to keep what was gained, but to complete the work.

* ‘Changing Perspectives on the English Reformation’, in The Church on Its Past, edited by Peter Clark and Charlotte Methuen, published by Boydell and Brewer for the Ecclesiastical History Society in 2013.