The Reformation in England is a massively important chapter in the history of the Christian church, and a fascinating one at that.
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor of Books At a Glance, and today we continue our brief discussions with church historians tracking and highlighting the story of the sixteenth century Reformation. Dr. Andre Gazal is with us today. He is a specialist in the English Reformation, the author of Scripture and Royal Supremacy in Tudor England: The Use of Old Testament Historical Narrative, and he is the coauthor of the forthcoming Defending the Faith: John Jewel and the Elizabethan Church. We’re very pleased to have him with us – today we begin a series of discussions with Dr. Gazal about the English Reformation.
Andre, welcome! And thanks for talking to us.
Thank you very much, Fred; it’s a pleasure to be here today.
We will ask you about specifics in subsequent discussions, but today maybe you could just give us a bird’s eye view of the English Reformation. Tell us about the major players, the leading issues, and how it all progressed. Is that a big enough question to let you fill five minutes?
Well, we’ll certainly try.
The English Reformation, generally, is the reformed movement that was taking place within the larger Church on the continent, that was also specifically taking place in England. Now, while there are striking similarities and while certainly there is considerable overlap in that, what is happening on the continent does certainly exert itself on England, theologically and practically. Yet in England there are some things which make the Reformation there somewhat distinctive.
First of all, there are many different views as to when it started. One, an older view that was propounded by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments is that it began essentially with the Lollards and Wycliff. There has been subsequent scholarship since that time, and certainly since the second half of the 20th century, which would allege that the Reformation, as we understand it in England, really took place during the reign of Henry VIII. That is when it started; and then it continues on through the reign of his son, Edward VI. Then after Edward VI there is the attempt by Mary Tudor, who was the daughter of Henry VIII and the sister of Edward, to return England to obedience to the papacy. As a side note here, she was pretty successful until she died in 1558. At which point, her sister, Elizabeth I, more or less continues what we would call the evangelical Reformation that had started under Edward VI and his evangelical regents.
With that said, I think it’s important for us to realize that the Reformation in England, being as complex as it was, consisted largely of two aspects. First of all, there’s an official Reformation, a political Reformation that is affected by the monarchy, that is affected specifically by Henry VIII, assisted by Thomas Cromwell and others in his government. It was a movement pretty much all of its own. It’s not evangelical; it’s not really Catholic, necessarily, or traditionally. So, there’s this official Reformation that’s taking place that is initiated by Henry VIII, but then at the same time, kind of on the ground, there is this evangelical Reformation that is developing parallel to the official one. Probably most representative of that aspect of the Reformation during Henry’s reign, would have been William Tyndale. Then when Henry VIII dies in 1547 and he is succeeded by his young son Edward VI, we see the official Reformation and evangelical Reformation fusing together. So that now, the official Reformation does become, indeed, an evangelical Reformation. We see this plainly evidenced in the work of Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and others, because during the reign of Edward we find evangelicals in the most influential positions of both church and state.
This goes on under Edward, from about 1547 to 1553. At which point, then, he dies as a teenager and is succeeded by his Roman Catholic sister, Mary Tudor, who is determined to return the realm of England to Roman obedience. In other words, to the obedience of the papacy, to the obedience of the Roman Catholic Church. For five years, she is, for the most part, very successful, until she dies in 1558. She is then succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, who resumes the Reformation, with the very capable help of evangelicals in her government. Those evangelicals, during the reign of Mary, in order to escape reprisals for their evangelical faith, had fled to the continent to places like Geneva, Strasburg, and Zürich. Mainly the exiled evangelicals who assisted her in implementing her agenda were those who had been exiled in Zürich and Strasburg.
During her reign, what we would call the official evangelical Reformation resumes; although it becomes a little more nuanced, because of the prevailing political situation that Elizabeth was facing with her Parliament, which at the beginning of her reign, and especially in the House of Lords, was still predominantly Catholic. Under her reign, Elizabeth and her lieutenants affected what is called The Elizabethan Settlement. This settlement is what henceforth defines the Church of England as a Protestant, evangelical, national Church, but one that has opted to retain some of the traditional ceremony of the late Middle Ages. Arguably, we could say that the Reformation in England continues beyond Elizabeth into the early Stuart period. Here we would include the reigns of James I and Charles I. I would say that the English Reformation as we think of it would most likely terminate at the beginning of the English Civil War.
The main issues would have been: the role of Scripture in relation to ecclesiastical tradition, just like on the continent. Very importantly, another major issue of the English Reformation, one of the defining issues of the English Reformation, would be the nature of magisterial ecclesiastical authority – what we call royal supremacy in this case. Other issues were, definitely, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, and how that is to be understood, practiced, and observed; and Liturgy or worship and related issues to that such as vestments. And then, finally, right at the end of the Elizabethan era, and moving into the Stuart period, probably one of the most important issues of the English Reformation to emerge is that of church government.
We’re talking to Dr. Andre Gazal about the English Reformation. He’ll be back with us again next time. Thank you, Andre.