In "Elizabeth I and Religion, 1558-1603," noted Tudor scholar Susan Doran provides a brief though comprehensive overview of the religious policies of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Upon her accession to the throne at age 25, the new monarch faced a number of daunting challenges, especially her country's on-going conflict over religion -- the bitter legacy of her three immediate predecessors to the crown. Thus, as Doran notes, "the country was not only divided between Catholics and Protestants, but also the Protestants themselves had [very] different views about the nature and character of a reformed church." Elizabeth's attempts to "settle" the country's religious question, therefore, were fraught with numerous difficulties and potential dangers. These domestic actions would also have serious ramifications in England's foreign relations, as the queen well knew.
Elizabeth's ensuing Settlement of Religion of 1559 was certainly a "compromise" among the country's warring religious factions; however, it was a highly skillful and enduring one nonetheless. Like her father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth repudiated Rome's hegemony over the English Church and set England on a firmly (though not fanatically) Protestant footing. In deference to her Catholic subjects, however, she adopted the title of "Supreme Governor" and not "Supreme Head" of the Church of England, as Henry VIII had done. Elizabeth also issued a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, which, Doran notes, was broad (or ambiguous) enough in its theology to placate most moderate Protestants and Catholics. Due to her love of spectacle, the queen even allowed certain "ornamentations" of the "old" religion, such as priestly vestments and altar decorations, to be retained in the new liturgy. The latter, however, was conducted exclusively in the vernacular and not in Latin, as was true of the Catholic mass. Above all, the Elizabethan Settlement sought to maintain a loose outward "uniformity" in the religious practices of the English Church. If her subjects regularly attended the new Sunday and Holy Day services at their local parishes, they would be left well enough alone. The queen, as she herself repeatedly stressed, had no desire "to search men's souls" regarding their personal religious beliefs.
Nevertheless, hardliners within both the Protestant and Catholic camps launched repeated attacks against Elizabeth's conservative and "hybrid" revisions of the liturgy. Doran devotes her longest chapter in the book to the Puritans, those "extreme" Protestants who believed that the queen's limited reforms had not properly "purified" the English church of "popery." Horrified by the "vestiges" of the Catholic mass contained in the Book of Common Prayer, some Puritans became "nonconformists," refusing to serve as clergymen or, if so, altering official church services to conform to their reformed views. Although tolerant at first, Elizabeth eventually began to deal more forcefully with these English "refuseniks." In response, some Puritans sought refuge abroad or even "separated" from the English Church altogether. On the other hand, Doran points out, the threat from hardline Catholics, both foreign and domestic, presented a more "acute danger" to Elizabeth's throne. Pope Pius V, for example, excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 and absolved her subjects from all allegiance to the Virgin Queen. A number of Counter-Reformation-trained priests also secretly infiltrated the country to stir-up trouble against Elizabeth. These actions immediately cast suspicion on all English Catholics, the majority of whom were willing to support (however reluctantly) the country's new Protestant dispensation. Indeed, numerous conspiracies among some radical English Catholics (the "recusants") did arise, leading to executions and harsh restrictions against the overall Catholic population, which eventually lost its majority status.
Elizabeth I, the "Great," survived all of these challenges to her throne as did her religious settlement. In a concluding chapter, Doran provides a fair and balanced assessment of the overall strengths and weaknesses of the Elizabethan Church. There are, however, two of Doran's conclusions with which I strongly disagree. First, she rightly emphasizes that the "hybrid" nature of the Elizabethan Settlement was due primarily to "pragmatic political considerations" as well as to "serious tensions" that arose between Elizabeth and her senior religious advisors. However, Doran goes on to insist that since it was not a "well-though-out" via media or "middle way" between the religious practices of Rome and Geneva, the Elizabethan Settlement should not be termed as such. And yet, just such a via media in official Church policy did emerge during Elizabeth's long reign. This "middle way" was exemplified by four striking features of the English Church: the royal supremacy, a prerogative unheard of in other Protestant (or even Catholic) countries; the three-fold ministry (bishop, priest, and deacon), which contrasted sharply with the "Presbyterian" church polity practiced in Geneva; the Book of Common Prayer, which formed the faith of the English people as much as did the Bible itself -- the "sole" source of religious authority for most Protestants; and the official emphasis on uniformity in "practice" rather than "belief," which ultimately prevented the English Church from developing a "confession" of faith like those of the Swiss reformers. Thus, the Elizabethan Church rarely resembled the reformed churches of the Continent, especially in church polity and discipline. Nor, on the other hand, was it simply "Catholicism without the pope." The English Church under Elizabeth -- regardless of official "intent" -- had in fact charted a "middle way" between the two "extremes" of Rome and Geneva.
Secondly, Doran believes it is "misleading" to describe this official religion of the Elizabethan Church as "Anglicanism." This term, she rightly notes, only arose during the mid-nineteenth century in the wake of the Oxford Movement. Besides, she points out, much of the theology of Elizabeth's "divines" was greatly permeated with Calvinist doctrines, such as "double predestination.'' These church leaders also attempted to forge a common front with their Continental brethren against the resurgent forces of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Therefore, Doran concludes, there was little that was "nationalistic and self-consciously different" in the ethos of the English Church at this time. However, as was shown above, the Elizabethan Settlement was a uniquely "English" solution to the issue of church reform. For this reason alone it warrants the term "Anglican." Additionally, the queen herself was hostile to many of the tenets and practices of the Swiss Calvinists. Thus, Elizabeth often thwarted the mechanizations of the "Calvinists" in her own church, as in 1563 and 1571 when they endeavored to impose "reformed" views of predestination and parochial discipline on the English Church. The queen was, after all, the "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England, regardless of the religious views of her chief advisors and "divines." And, ultimately, it was the Queen's vision of the English Church which prevailed. Indeed, in 1577, Elizabeth had Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, placed under house arrest for defying her in issues related to nonconformity. By 1597 Richard Hooker, one of Elizabeth's most influential theologians, ultimately jettisoned much of Calvinist thought and argued for a decidedly "middle way" in his "Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity." In light of the above, perhaps "proto-Anglicanism" would be a more apt (and acceptable) term in describing the religion of the English Church as it emerged in the decades after the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559. But, certainly, it was "Anglican" nonetheless!