Good Queen Bess

Since I first studied the Elizabethan Settlement back in seminary, I have been an admirer of Queen Elizabeth I and her role in securing a future for Anglicanism. Lately I have been reading Elizabeth and the English Reformation by William Haugaard. It’s a wonderful, very accessible book from the late sixties and it has re-affirmed and even expanded my sense that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Good Queen Bess.

The popular gloss on Elizabeth is that she was not terribly interested in religion and that the compromises she made regarding the Church were mere matters of political necessity, designed to make everyone happy so that no one would threaten the unity of the kingdom. After the chaotic reigns of Henry, Edward, and Mary, it would have been prudent for the young queen to place the stability of the realm above all other concerns. However, as Haugaard aptly shows, this was not the case. Far from being only concerned with statecraft, Elizabeth took her role as head of the church extremely seriously (p. 129).

Many of the voices within parliament and within the church at the time when Elizabeth came to power were remarkably reform minded, despite Queen Mary’s best efforts to have eliminated all such protestant influence. Some of them had been in exile on the continent during Mary’s reign and had absorbed the spirit of Geneva where Zwinglian and Calvinist churchmanship were moving in an ever increasingly more radical direction. By contrast, Elizabeth appears to have had something of a high Lutheran theology. She told a Spanish dignitary in 1559 that she “believed that God was in the sacrament of the Eucharist” and she “only dissented from two or three things in the Mass” (p. 109). It would take a great deal of careful work to bridge the gap between the queen and her subjects, but Elizabeth utilized all of her royal powers, including careful negotiation, to steer the church towards uniformity in doctrine and practice. Classical Anglicans can thank her for the preservation of the following elements of our faith:

The Real Presence in the Eucharist

Elizabeth’s intention seems to have been to use the first Book of Common Prayer from 1549 as the basis for a new, authoritative prayer book. The Puritans agitated against this, insisting that it was too popish. So instead, the much more reformed 1552 BCP became the basis for the new book, but not without some significant revisions. The memorialist sentence used at the distribution of communion in 1552 was now reduced to a tack-on at the end of the  much clearer statement from 1549 that each communicant was truly receiving “the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee” which would “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” Similarly, the new BCP eliminated the Black Rubric from 1552 which had explicitly denied any kind of local presence of Christ in the sacrament. The Black Rubric would return in 1662, of course, but with a significant change in its wording that made it more palatable, and by then the Anglican teaching on the Real Presence was well established. Haugaard believes that Elizabeth is responsible for these changes.

Vestments, Ornaments, and Altars

The Elizabethan BCP ordered that the “ornaments of the church and the ministers thereof” should be those used in the second year of the reign of King Edward. This meant that priests were required to wear at least a cope if not the full array of Mass vestments when celebrating the Eucharist and that they had to wear cassock and surplice during the offices. Additionally, this rubric allowed for crucifixes, candles, stained glass images, and even statuary within the churches. Elizabeth pushed even further by issuing an order in 1561 that prescribed where the priest was to stand during the Eucharist and also prescribed that the “holy table” was to be against the wall in the east-facing position when not in use if not during the celebration itself. Additionally, Elizabeth ordered the use of communion wafers (p. 106-107).

All of these changes infuriated the Puritans who routinely ignored them. In fact, during the summer of 1559, Puritans began burning vestments and defacing crosses, as well as ripping down the beautiful rood screens of the medieval churches. They even went so far as to remove the silver cross and candles from the altar in the queen’s own royal chapel while she was away in Kent and Surrey. This infuriated Elizabeth, who ordered the restoration of rood screens and crucifixes, along with images of John and Mary on either side, in all of the churches. The order was unable to be carried out in those dioceses where Puritan sentiment was the strongest, but the rood screens themselves were restored, though now often bearing the royal seal rather than the cross (p. 185-188). It is remarkable that the Puritans were less bothered by a giant symbol of royal authority at the center of their churches than by a symbol of the authority of Christ. Nevertheless, the cross and the candles were restored to the royal chapel where they remained throughout the rest of the queen’s reign.

Enforcing the liturgical provisions of the settlement was a constant source of stress for the queen throughout the early part of her reign. Nevertheless, it was by her careful guidance that these hallmarks of classical Anglicanism were able to be retained in policy if not always in practice. These provisions allowed for the flourishing of liturgy under James I and Charles I, and they would later become part of the basis for the Catholic revival of Anglicanism in the nineteenth century.

Celebration of the Saints

While Elizabeth did not push her subjects to accept the idea of prayer directed to the saints, she did order a significant expansion of the number of holy days in the church calendar, making it possible for previously excised saints to be celebrated, including Ambrose, Augustine, Cyprian, and even the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14. Elizabeth made clear that the saints who were worth recognizing could not and would not be limited to the apostles as the Puritans had argued.

Supreme Governor

Unlike Henry and Edward who had proclaimed themselves “Supreme Head” of the Church of England, Elizabeth insisted on the title “Supreme Governor” which is still used today. As John Jewel explained, in regards to the Supreme Head of the Church, Elizabeth “seriously maintains that this honour is due to Christ alone, and cannot belong to any human being soever” (p. 105).

All of these things helped to make the Church of England more Catholic, less Erastian, and fully able to claim continuity with the primitive Church. Sometimes modern Anglicans are uncomfortable with recognizing the place that monarchy held in the development of our tradition, but the truth is that without monarchy, the passions of the most radical and puritanical voices within England would have been allowed to run wild. None of which is to say that Elizabeth was perfect. She hated the idea of married clergy, for instance, something which was settled in the opposite direction, I believe for the better. But Elizabeth protected the Church of England at a crucial time and guided the process that led to Anglicanism’s development. She believed in the strong protestant ideals of justification by faith and the centrality of Holy Scripture, but she also believed in the sacraments and the good order of the Church. By her providential leadership, all of these things prevailed.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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6 Responses to Good Queen Bess

  1. Jordan says:

    Good post, Fr. Jonathan.

    I explored the Ornaments Rubric at my blog a while back:

  2. Whit says:

    Interesting. I had no idea that Queen Elizabeth had such a large and positive role in the development of Anglicanism. I was never convinced that the Elizabethan settlement was purely practical, given that it alienated both RCs and the more radical Protestants.

    Why did the CoE never become confessionally Lutheran.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Good question, Whit. And answering that would lead into a bigger conversation about why Anglicanism is not “confessional.” If you don’t mind, I’m going to hold onto your question and make a whole post out of it some time in the near future.

  3. Robbie says:

    “It is remarkable that the Puritans were less bothered by a giant symbol of royal authority at the center of their churches than by a symbol of the authority of Christ.”

    Fascinating point, Fr. Jonathan! I think this points to the inanity of many hyper-protestant political impulses. In the attempt to demystify the church, they ended up ‘mystifying’ the state in its stead. And in their attempt to de-politicize the church, they ended up substantiating the state as a political religion. Very interesting to read Elizabeth in this light; that is, as laboring to counter the steady march toward Erastianism.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      You hit the nail on the head, Robbie. When the Church ceases to be the Body of Christ and becomes simply and assembly of like minded folks, something else ends up having to fill the void this leaves in people’s ability to know truth and light and love tangibly. Sadly, the state is often the next most likely candidate.

  4. Pingback: Ask an Anglican: Confessionalism Vs. Conciliarity | The Conciliar Anglican

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