Life after Death? the Survival of the Church of England in the Seventeenth Century. (Talking Points)
Morrill, John, History Review
John Morrill re-examines a stormy period of religious history
Between 1643 and 1647 the Church of England was destroyed. Its system of government by `archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons etc.' (as a canon of 1640 expressed it) was scrapped; the Book of Common Prayer was proscribed and its use made a criminal offence; the celebration of the major Christian festivals -- Christmas, Easter, Whit etc. -- was also prohibited. The leaders of the church were all dead, in prison, in exile, or in hiding; the universities were ruthlessly purged; between a quarter and a third of the parish clergy were ejected from their homes and positions. Dioceses were replaced by county-wide ecclesiastical co-operatives, and cathedral churches were converted into prisons, shopping precincts, or large parish churches; and churchwardens and others were directed to remove all the `monuments of idolatry and superstition' (stained glass, statues, carvings on fonts and other furnishings) which had survived the first reformation of images in the mid sixteenth century. The lands and revenues of the Bishops and of the Cathedral chapters were handed over to the creditors of the state.
Little remained of the old system; and a new `presbyterian' system of government, a new Directory of Worship (not a prayer book but a manual for the construction of improvised worship), a new catechism and a new confession of faith were introduced. The rigidities of the new structures and the freeing of minds and of the presses led to clamours for liberty for tender consciences outside these new structures, for those convinced of the advantages of the `New England Way' or committed to the gathering of the godly into exclusive Christian communities. Mutual recriminations within a fractured and disintegrating puritan movement were only partly arrested by the conservative measures introduced by Cromwell at the end of his life.
The restoration of the Church of England in 1660 was as complete and almost as rapid as the restoration of the monarchy. Bishops and their officers, their courts and their cathedrals and their closes, their lands, their pomp, were all back in place by 1662. The Prayer Book was soon in use in every English and Welsh parish and rather more vicars and rectors were wearing surplices than in the days before proscription; and there were more men and women receiving holy communion in most parishes than ever before, and, while many attended church irregularly, the number who abstained wholly from the worship of the Church of England was little different from the numbers before 1640. But euphoria did not last long; and the unbendingness of the bishops in the 1660s and 1670s was to cost them clear in and after 1688. Yet the existence in 1700 of a Church of England with so many trappings of the Elizabethan Church was as unthinkable in 1650 as its abolition would have been in 1600.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that fundamental continuities of the early and late Stuart Church is that the `trappings of the Elizabethan church' were so muddled. The Elizabethan Church was a sort of ecclesiastical vinaigrette, a mixture of naturally non-miscible Catholic oil and Protestant vinegar that separated out if not continuously shaken. The Elizabethan church had a system of government and discipline which owed everything to the medieval church and nothing to the Reformation: it was Catholicism without the pope. It had a theology of God, Man and Salvation which combined elements of different continental Reformed traditions, but was ambiguous between types of Protestantism, not between Protestantism and Catholicism. And it had a form of worship that was pure fudge: it looked Catholic and sounded Protestant as Conrad Russell recently put it. At the very heart of the holy communion service, for example, the 1559 prayer combined the words of the 1549 prayer book, in which Cranmer had wished to assert the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, followed by the words of the 1552 prayer book in which he wished to deny it--asserting rather that those gathered around the table were recalling an act of salvation completed by Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross and subsequent resurrection (`take, eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee . …