No golden age

“Communicate or die.” That’s the grim truth many churches are grappling with as they seek to fulfill the Great Commission in modern Australia. In a series of three articles, Robert Doyle asks: Does our ‘package’ clearly communicate our message?

It is now a truism that for most Australians, church is a foreign culture. In my context, that is the ‘Anglican church’. But if your denomination has historical roots, your problems will be similar.

On the odd occasion our Australian attends a Sunday service, the strangeness and complexity of it makes him feel lost at first, and because participation seems to be the norm, he feels first inept, and then embarrassed. Everyone else seems to know what to do, and is doing it. Our visitor’s ignorance and discomfort spotlights him as an outsider who should be pitied, despised or patronized—all of which an Australian well and truly dislikes, as well he might. Worse, it soon becomes clear that after the service, and perhaps during it, the regulars intend to talk to him in a direct and personal way, and expect a reply!

No Australian likes to be made to feel a fool, especially about religion. Better the clear-cut culture of the leagues club, than church. After all, even the demanding task of slotting coins into the pokies, or sinking an ale, is done under dimmed lighting, and with minimal demands for interaction.

The modem church scenario is familiar, and the cultural insensitivity of the occasion, even if completely unintentional, needs no further elaboration. Nor does the fact that such cultural impropriety cuts clean across the actual message the Christian group is trying to convey, “God loves you, and so do we”!

But what might well need investigating is how culturally appropriate to the insider is what we do in Anglican Churches? By ‘insider’ I mean the regular church attender, whether from an Anglican church or another group, as well as the keen inquirer who wants to be an insider. The statistics of decline in Anglican church attendance, along with increased attendance in other denominations (especially the newer, charismatic ones) demand such an investigation, not to mention the Gospel’s call to serve our neighbour.

What I want to do in this series of three articles is to examine the question: Does the Anglican package clearly communicate our message—Justification by Faith alone1—and if not, why not, and what can we do about it?

We will consider this from several vantage points: 16th century church history, which will deal with our roots; missiology, which seeks to analyze successful cross-cultural communication; theology, which pushes us against the standard laid down for us by Holy Scripture; and communication theory and practice which has sought to produce a plain English suitable for the complexities of written contracts. Finally, I will outline a ‘modest proposal’ which you might like to make the basis of discussion.

This article will examine the source of reformed Anglicanism: the Elizabethan church (1559-1603), and its success in winning the hearts and minds of the middle classes and the rural peasantry.

Revolutionary Prayer Book

In 1549, England became overnight, in the words of historian George Elton, “a Protestant country in so far as legislation and decree could make her one”. The centre piece of this process, which finished essentially in 1552, was the Prayer Book—a Protestant Prayer Book—which has come down to us as the ‘First Order” strand in An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB).

From Pentecost Sunday 1549 there was across the land but one, legal, public expression of religion. As the sun rose, throughout an entire empire, there was for the first time in Christian history, let alone for the first time in Protestant history, a compulsory uniformity of liturgy which bound everyone from king to commoner, archbishop to parish priest. This achievement was massive, not only in that it encapsulated the whole of Protestant doctrine into recited prayers and ritual actions, but formed a single and simple propaganda weapon which day after day pounded into thick medieval skulls the message, ‘justification by faith alone, alone, alone …’.

It was a bold exercise by our Reformers, and its radical nature needs to be appreciated in an Anglican culture which now is often conservative, sacral, and uninterested in clear communication of biblical truths. Besides the fact that the Prayer Book was in English, and gathered all the services of the Church into one volume, why was it so revolutionary?

The answers lie in the Preface which opened the book and the short essay, Of Ceremonies, Why Some Abolished and Some Retained, which closed it. From these two essays, as well as the contents of the Prayer Book itself, the 39 Articles, and even the canon law formulated in the next century, three controlling principles emerged which were to finally determine everything:

  1. the Bible alone, as the sole source and authority of true religion;
  2. the Bible clearly communicated;
  3. in keeping with the missionary nature of international Protestantism, the Church to minister the gospel to every person in England.

In Of Ceremonies, for example, Cranmer points out that although many still found some of the old ceremonies edifying, common misperceptions now made it necessary to abandon them. It was also stated that “Christ’s gospel is not a ceremonial law … but is a religion to serve God … in the freedom of the Spirit”. In other words, a great number of ceremonies to cover all of life was not needed, but only such that clearly pointed the believer to the great concerns of the New Testament, which in turn defined our duty towards God and each other. Finally, the Prayer Book sought to address in an understandable way the full range of human experience then evident in England, from “the superstitious blindness of the rude and unlearned”, to those who “be so newfangled that they would innovate all things”. The lynch-pin in this was the apostolic command that all things done in church must be for edification.

Did it sell?

But our historical interests are with the actual implementation of the great hope of this book, that people would understand and be converted to its central message (justification by faith alone) and thus clearly grasp Christ as he offers himself in his gospel. Did the Book and its surrounding legal and ecclesiastical package succeed in delivering the goods? Did it, in the remainder of the century during the reign of Elizabeth I (1559-1603), win the hearts and minds of the people of England?

Patrick Collinson, formerly of the University of Sydney and now Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, has recently observed that today the Church of England does not have the widespread respect of the mass of people as does the Catholic Church in Poland and the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.2 Historical investigation shows that the Church of England never had it. As an assessment of the situation at the end of 16th century, Collinson can state that “the Church of England lost touch with a lot of the people of England”.

The issue is of course a complex one, but in recent studies on the religious beliefs and practices of lay people of the period, a clear picture is emerging. Two groups, one very influential in public life, the middle class Puritans, and the other the cultural majority, the peasantry, were by the end of the century alienated by Anglicanism. Why?

The central reason was the nature of the Elizabethan Settlement. Elizabeth wanted political and religious stability on her terms. Uniformity and control were the watch-words of her religious reforms.

‘Control’ was the key. Elizabeth used her bishops as officers of the royal bureaucracy, to discipline at her command all citizens, whatever their particular religious inclinations. This made the bishops’ job administrative, fussy, and open to ridicule when the people in their care were out of sympathy with Elizabethan Protestantism.

The Puritan market

The Puritan movement was perceived by Elizabeth to be a treasonable threat from amongst her co-religionists. We know that she was wrong. The actions Elizabeth took in suppressing the Puritans using her enforcers, the bishops, were to have profound and long term consequences for the shape of Protestantism into the next century and beyond.

Who were the ‘Puritans’? They were not a single groups as such, but individuals and diverse groups within the reformed Church of England who wanted a ‘purer’ expression of religion, a more far-reaching spiritual reformation. They wanted a more Bible-based church. Puritans complained about the shortness and the impersonal formality of Prayer Book services. Contemporary accounts show that their own worship combined a reverence of the Scriptures with a relevance to the conditions of the worshippers. They clearly enjoyed and profited from this style of Christian fellowship. Such desires for reform, although ever-present and wide-ranging, were grouped around three crisis points.

First, the Vestarian controversy, which centred on the enforcement of the surplice. The Puritans wanted all the vestments of the old religion abolished because of their association in people’s minds with the minister being a mediator between them and God, whereas the Bible declared that Jesus Christ was the sole Mediator between humanity and God. Although the Christian commonsense of two of the three Elizabethan Archbishops, and at least two diocesan bishops amongst a wider number of church leaders, led them to agree with the Puritan perceptions about the surplice, its use was nevertheless enforced at Elizabeth’s command.

Secondly, after Elizabeth sacked Archbishop Grindal because of his tolerance of the Puritans, the local conferences conducted by Puritans for mutual edification were crushed.

Thirdly, from 1569 to about 1587, Puritan laymen took their cause to the floor of Parliament, trying unsuccessfully to legislate for their various reforms. In particular, they wanted to restrict the power of bishops to enforce uniformity. After various defeats by majority vote, and suppression of reform bills by the Queen herself, the Parliamentary phase peaked in 1587 when a bill was introduced for the abolition of episcopacy and its replacement by a full-blown Presbyterianism. It was an extreme move occasioned by the constant frustration of less controversial and more spiritually important reforms. The bill failed. The bishops, on behalf of their Queen, were now no longer just on the defense, but on the attack. In the closing years of the century it was possible to hang three leading Puritan dissenters.

By using her Episcopal agents to enforce uniformity on the Puritans, Elizabeth made certain that they would dream of a Presbyterian form of church government, a Protestantism without bishops.

But the damage went further. Puritans, both clerical and lay, were at the cutting edge of a newly emerging class of thoroughly Protestant, loyal, capable people who, at times, dominated the Parliament and the civil service for the nation’s betterment. To frustrate their religious desires (by fair means and foul) was a blow to their expectations for a growing political democracy. Their alienation on matters of religion was deeply felt, and it meant that Elizabethan Protestantism failed to harness their creative energies, and dealt a massive blow to the ideal of a representative and widely respected reformed Church of England. As one historian puts it, “their discouragement must have been a real loss to the Church’s pastoral effectiveness”.3

Politically, Elizabeth’s unrelenting opposition to the Puritan movement encouraged the slow birth of an English-speaking republicanism, and laid the foundations for a violent revolution in the next century.

Thus, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the English Church lost the sympathies of the upwardly-mobile middle class of Puritans. They obeyed because Elizabeth was God’s ruler, not because they were convinced that all her key religious policies were true or helpful. Further, as was their right and responsibility under English constitutional law, they saw Parliament as the proper lay court of final appeal. When Elizabeth and her bishops frustrated their attempts at legislation on religious issues, a very sore nerve was hit. Religious, and eventually political alienation was inevitable. In the 17th century, the English Parliament—a Puritan Parliament—would cut the head off a King for matters of religion and treason.

The English rural working class

But there was failure elsewhere too. Central control over a period of one hundred years was able to change the previously medieval ministry of all England. Folk Protestantism gradually replaced folk Catholicism. But, although there is evidence to show a positive urban response to this in the sixteenth century, recent studies show the manifest failure of reformed ministry to win the hearts and minds of the great mass of rural inhabitants.

The recent and revisionist study by Christopher Haigh advances several reasons for this, nearly all of them, we note, springing from the social and cultural insensitivity of the English version of Reformed ministry. This insensitivity produced antagonism and catastrophic misunderstanding amongst the English peasantry at three levels:

  1. the unattractive nature of the church, which in its aggressive and regulatory guise was seen to be successively despoiling the old church, communal culture, and personal moral liberty. Dancing, gambling, free and easy attitudes to drinking and marriage were now legislated and spoken against, and prosecuted.
  2. the unattractive message, which denied the hope of salvation once offered to all Christians and reserved it for those who were able to nurture ‘faith alone’ by Bible reading. Only 1/3 urban men and 1/20 women could read. The old church may not have had certainty of salvation, but through its magical ceremonies and holy statutes it at least offered the possibility of salvation to all.
  3. the unattractive media, with compulsory sermons (sometimes 2-3 hours in length) and catechisms (one with 387 questions—16,000 words of memory work!) the main strategy for bringing the Word of God to rural workers. These were the same workers who spent six days, sunrise to sunset, at hard physical toil. Just sitting still for church was uncomfortable enough.4


The Elizabethan Settlement continued to strengthen the first two stages of reformation—the official and the theological. It also made headway with the third stage—the popular. England remained and grew as a Protestant nation. But because of the cultural insensitivity of even her best churchmen, she made little progress with the rural populations, engendering a resigned contempt. This insensitivity was not deliberate, for these eager Protestants knew no better.

But the eventual alienation of the most vigorous, dedicated and influential of her members, the Puritans, as they were sacrificed on the altar of monarchical and episcopal power, was calculated and culpable. It was to produce a church that would grow more and more pastorally ineffective in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our concern, though, is clear communication in the Australian context. The problems of the 16th century England are not ours, but they do form a cautionary tale. As far as our self-understanding goes, they challenge an old belief that there was once a Golden Age, the late 16th century, when Prayer Book Anglicanism was both popular and successful. That picture needs some radical qualifications.

More to our present interests, put a truthful content into the wrong package and you will not only fail to convince the ignorant, but you are likely to get even the well disposed off-side. To keep the well disposed of the Elizabethan period on-side arguably would have involved letting Puritan culture throw up its own structures or cultural matrices to carry the message of justification by faith.

If, however, church history only affords us negative lessons, some of the insights from a modern discipline, missiology, offer positive assistance. In the next article we will look at how Pentecostal Christianity has fared in the slums of Latin America, and what the Bible tells us is indispensable in any communication package which would call itself Christian.


1 See Article 11 of the 39 Articles of Religion (the Anglican doctrinal standard).

2 Claire Cross and P. Collinson, The Church of England: The Elizabethan Settlement and After, audiotape H28 (Sussex Tapes, 1981) side 2.

3D. L. Edwards, Christian England (volume two) (London: Fount, 1984), p. 171.

4C. Haigh, ‘Popular Perceptions of Protestantism in Elizabethan England’, Moore Theological College library tape 1986.

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