Queen Elizabeth I

"Common Saints" series: The Virgin Queen's shrewd guidance of an infant church.

The monarch most closely associated with the Anglican Church is, unfortunately, King Henry VIII, driven by his bloody quest for an heir. This rather embarrassing episode may have given the Church of England its opportunity for reformation, but its actual effect on the beliefs and practices of what would become the Anglican Church is very small compared to the efforts of the great and celebrated Queen Elizabeth the First.

For The Virgin Queen, like anyone so unlucky to have ruled in such tenuous times as hers, religious controversies were political liabilities. Elizabeth assumed the throne after the death of her half-sister Mary, whose short reign and Catholic religion swung the pendulum of repression back toward Protestants—earning her the name “Bloody Mary.” The moniker is a little misleading, considering Henry VIII was responsible for killing scores more Catholics. But Mary’s villainous representation in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs stuck, most likely due to the country’s broad Protestant sympathies and her preference for having heretics burnt at the stake, sparing nobody any horror. (She amassed a frighteningly high ratio of executions compared to her short reign of only five years.)

Elizabeth’s main religious project, as viewed by most historians, was to found a church that both Protestants and Catholics could love. She was a Protestant, and had been raised so, but she was not an evangelical. She had no patience for Puritan attacks on the church’s finery or liturgy. She preserved the pageantry and iconography of the church—her own personal chapel featured a crucifix rather than a bare cross—but she was also passionate about the founding mission of the Anglican Church: that word be preached and sacraments be administered in the English language of her people. This was no trivial point to stick on. Many in her day (and some in ours) saw the traditional Latin Mass as the only acceptable vessel through which the word and sacraments could be duly preached and administered. But the effect of the English language on people’s devotion was obvious. Cranmer may have written the Prayer Book, but Elizabeth ensured that its words soaked into the hearts and minds of her people in the way that the old Archbishop always hoped that they would.

Ultimately, Elizabeth settled theological matters along the lines of political expediency. There is little reason to doubt that she was a faithful Christian, but she left her particular views on the divisive doctrines of the day purposely vague. Her revision of the Prayer Book, the 1559 version, was a cross between the more evangelical 1552 version and the more traditionalist 1549 one. The more mysterious wording of the Communion Rite from 1549 found its way back in, making it more palatable for traditionalists. Perhaps the most important factor in ingraining the Book of Common Prayer into people’s minds, according to Alan Jacobs’s history of that book, was her long reign of forty-five years. Thus, the blessings of peace, political stability and (relative) religious tolerance afforded people the time and opportunity to allow the words of the Prayer Book and the English Bible to wend their way into their hearts. There is no question that Elizabeth’s reign did a great deal to establish Christianity in England beyond a single “sacred language” and opened the door for devotion to be expressed in a people’s native tongue. As we can see from the recent revivals in Africa and Asia, translation of Scripture into a people’s native tongue may be the single most important catalyst to conversion.

In a way, Elizabeth’s doctrinal vagueness and her enforced compromises between opposing camps—and this could probably be extended to the whole mission of Anglicanism—allowed people the opportunity to get past more esoteric doctrinal questions and simply get down to the business of reading Scripture, approaching the Lord through prayer, and being fed with the good gifts of the Spirit.

More posts in the “Common Saints” series:

Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

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