A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Darryl Hart
Can you tell the history of the English Reformation in one hundred pages? Even harder, can you tell the history of six English reformations in one hundred pages? Hardest of all, can you write such historical narratives for a Christian publisher whose mission is “to inspire individual Christians to grow in their faith and to feel confident in talking to other people about Christ”? The short answer to each question is, “yes,” as long as the one responding is Alec Ryrie. This book from Durham University’s professor of history is a fascinating sprint through the rise and triumph of Protestantism in a kingdom that, thanks to its later imperial successes, took the singular configurations of British Christians around the world (with some assistance from its Anglo-American nephew in North America).
To comprehend the unique set of circumstances that Protestants and Roman Catholics experienced between 1520 and 1660 is to begin to understand the reasons why Anglicans, Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers (for starters) worship God the way they do. Whether this sort of historical awareness will inspire Christians to trust Christ or witness to others is another question altogether since Ryrie’s narrative is anything but neat, tidy, or rosy.
The author plausibly divides the terrain among six different but overlapping reformations, the first among Roman Catholics before Protestantism emerged, a second that involved changes civil magistrates around King Henry VIII brought to church-like, a third that produced political reforms required by religious change, a fourth set of reforms that developed before an Anglican consensus, a fifth that witnessed the arrival at a settled understanding of Protestantism for the Church of England, and a last reform that left radical Protestants on the fringes of ecclesiastical and political life (Baptists and Quakers).
If the first three of these reformations (Roman Catholic and administrative changes in the state) look like they have less to do with the last three (different forms of Protestant reform), that appearance is deceptive. The nature of the Reformation anywhere in Europe involved significant adjustments in law, politics, and civic administration. Ryrie encapsulates this side of the Reformation with amazing subtlety in such a short book and reminds modern Protestants how uneven, unlikely, and even sordid at times the cause of reclaiming the gospel and reforming worship was everywhere in Christendom.
Arguably, the most intriguing chapter is Ryrie’s explanation of the “Catholic Reformation.” He acknowledges that the English church was hungry for reform and that it had personnel to undertake it. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus called for more priests and especially ones who were holy. They also had a figure in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who could implement an educational program to produce an adequate supply of serious priests. These efforts amounted to little once Henry VIII renounced Rome’s jurisdiction, executed More for treason, and set a course for Protestantism. But for the brief span of years that Mary Tudor reigned (1553-1546), a reformed Catholicism became a possibility for the English church.
With Reginald Pole as her archbishop in Canterbury, Mary restored some of the monasteries that her father had dissolved and supplied priests with books of homilies and liturgical resources to help the church’s ministry. Of course, as her nickname, “Bloody,” indicates, she also tried to reform the church through coercion (which forced some Protestants into exile and led to the execution of others). According to Ryrie, the English church under the Catholic reformation might have become a “flourishing, well-ordered, diverse, creative, and firmly managed” Catholicism.
The author is not so generous in his rendering of the Protestant Reformation where again royal politics drove religious proposals. The initial effort to give coherence to a Protestant Church of England came under Edward VI and his archbishop, Thomas Cranmer. Its inspiration was the “radical purity” of Swiss Protestantism and was headed toward replacing bishops with superintendents, divesting cathedrals, and using the church’s wealth to fund the training of priests learned in the Bible and theology and gifted in proclamation. Exile in Frankford or Geneva during Mary Tudor’s five-year reign only gave English reformers more of a desire to follow the plans of reformation from the Continent.
But because Elizabeth I, the successor to the throne after Mary, blocked efforts to emulate Geneva, a Puritan party emerged which was constantly calling for carrying the reformation out to completion. The Puritans became so various – from leaving for North America to going to war against Charles I – that they never controlled the Church of England. But Ryrie acknowledges their contribution even to a church that eventually turned many of them away (especially during the Restoration of Charles II). Puritans cultivated “notions of divine providence, Protestant patterns of piety,” and reverence for the English Bible. They “might have lost every battle,” Ryrie concludes, “but they were quietly winning the war.”
The most lasting (because victorious) was the Anglican Reformation. This emerged as a stable identity only twenty-five years or so into Elizabeth I’s reign and occupied the middle way (via media) for which the Elizabethan church became famous. It wove together three strands. The first was a ritualistic and aesthetic form of devotion particularly evident in the kingdom’s cathedrals. The second featured questions of church government with criticisms of bishops from Presbyterians yielding a conception of episcopacy as “not merely the best structure . . . but actually mandated by God’s law.”
The last was a theological foundation that revolved around Reformed Protestantism’s doctrine of predestination. These trends swirled through the Church of England depending on which monarch ruled and which archbishop he or she appointed. But after debates generated among Presbyterians, advocates for episcopacy, and Puritans, the Anglicanism that emerged in the seventeenth century featured the ceremonialism of the Prayer Book. This was a late iteration of Anglican identity, according to Ryrie. The Anglican notion that the English church represented an “unbroken” tradition stretching back to Augustine of Canterbury was a modern innovation. Anglicanism had since Henry VIII’s reign been fluid.
Ryrie is surely provocative and his book will likely provoke. His very first sentence is: “There is no such thing as ‘the English Reformation.’” As provocative as that assertion may seem to readers who identify with one of the reformations he examines, Ryrie’s book is not a work of demythologization. It is rooted in genuine historical insight and comes with an eye for the unintended consequences that constitute irony. Whether it would have been better for “the English Reformation” to be simply one reformation is an arguable point. But attending to the varieties of reform that transpired in England between 1520 and 1690 will not only yield awareness of British Christianity’s odd history. It will also help readers understand those Protestants and Roman Catholics who left the British Isles and so definitively shaped church life in the United States and Canada.
Buy the books
THE ENGLISH REFORMATION: A VERY BRIEF HISTORY, by Alec Ryrie