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Highlighting a Protestant Canterbury

As a part of our resourcement project, we have categorized a number of the Reformation churches and schools under the heading “Evangelical Centers of Learning.”  Part of our rationale for this approach is our conviction that the identity of the Reformed churches was not simply drawn from abstract theology- not even distinctive theological positions and competing schools of thought.  This can be seen by noticing the alliance between the Church of England and the Heidelberg school, an alliance existing at the same time that England viewed Geneva with a good deal of suspicion.

Another example is the use of the term “Puritan.”  William Perkins is undeniably a Puritan, even as he defended the establishment of the Church of England along with its episcopacy.  James Ussher and Joseph Hall look like, sound like, and are sometimes called “Puritans,” while also having the curious feature of actually being bishops.  On the other hand, an opponent of the Puritans, George Herbert, in his The Country Parson, says that a good priest always wears black because he is perpetually in mourning.  He then goes on to critique Puritanism for being faithless to the text of Scripture!  History is entirely too big for many traditional labels.

And so we have attempted to approach the necessary task of taxonomy and nomenclature from a social and historical point of view, grouping men by their time and region.  Doing so has produced some very interesting results.  One of the most interesting- and illuminating- is Canterbury, by which we mean the English Establishment.  We have found that dedicating a page to these churchmen and statesmen gives a particularly panoramic view of English Protestantism.  And in order to whet the appetite of the readers, we’ll post some of the introductory text from that page here:

“Fog in Channel: Continent Cut Off,” or so goes the famous and possibly apocryphal British headline, exemplifying the peculiar British view of its relations to Europe. This anecdote has been cited by a recent historian to make the point that there is certainly something foggy about a great deal of early modern British ecclesiastical history written from the late 19th c until just a few years ago. In this case, the continent which gets obscured by that fog is Continental Protestantism, a movement which the English Reformers considered themselves unqualifiedly part of. The historical revisionism of the Oxford Movement, which systematically misread and misrepresented early modern English formulae and theological works in the doomed hopes of finding them closer to the unreformed, found a sort of broad appeal with an insular-minded sensibility present among many popular writers and even academics, who liked the thesis of English exceptionalism even if more or less indifferent to the essential project of the Oxford revisionists. And of course those who sympathized with the Oxford project were more than happy to promote that account of things. The trouble is that it was largely false. The view that the English Church from the accession of Elizabeth I onward was something other than a Reformed church was contested, of course, by those who knew better, from the time of Newman until recently. But the number of those who know better has been increasing, due in part to the remarkable restorative work of historians such as W.J. Torrance Kirby, Nigel Atkinson, and Peter Nockles.

Why should we care? British Christians and members of the Anglican Communion have to, because this is the history of their own congregations. The rest of us should care because the history of the English church,and the works of its great writers, have had an incalculable effect on English-speaking Christians and indeed on English-speaking people altogether. Also, we feel that the English church under Elizabeth and James offers a fascinating example of a very irenic, comprehensive, and cosmopolitan model of Reformed reflection and community; and it is a shame that many Reformed are unaware that writers such as Hooker, Andrewes, and Field were Reformed too. We hope to be of some help in amending this problem.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.