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Reassessing the shaping of Anglican Identity

A book review by Christy Wang on Andrew Cinnamond's 'What Matters in Reforming the Church? Puritan Grievances under Elizabeth I.

Andrew Cinnamond’s short book on the Elizabethan puritan/conformist polemics enables the reader to reassess the shaping of the Anglican identity. Cinnamond first affirms the revisionist challenge to the traditional, yet inaccurate, portrayal of puritans as seditious radicals who destroyed the via media of the established Church. He helpfully points out that, while holding to different interpretations of Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and disagreeing over fundamental issues like church polity and discipline, Elizabethan puritans and conformists shared a Reformed consensus and anti-popery sentiments. For many of us, this observation alone poses a healthy challenge to our understanding of what the Church of England was historically.

Cinnamond compares puritan and conformist narratives through a concise survey of the Admonition Controversy, a pamphlet war between presbyterians and conformists from 1572 to 1577. Two polemicists dominated the pamphlet war, Thomas Cartwright (c.1535-1603), then Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and an outspoken presbyterian, and John Whitgift (c.1530-1604), then vice-chancellor of the same university and a zealous conformist. Cinnamond’s exclusive attention on Cartwright and Whitgift means that his discussion is useful for understanding hard-line Elizabethan presbyterianism, not puritanism as a whole. The author’s concluding remarks serve as a helpful qualifier: “Puritanism became a dynamic and flexible movement of spiritual renewal, constantly reinventing itself in response to political realities and historical circumstance” (56).

If we speak of puritanism as a “movement,” Cinnamond is right that it was at best an incohesive and ever evolving one. For example, in the 1570s, Whitgift believed divinely ordained authorities could lawfully decide on adiaphora, or things indifferent to one’s salvation, while Cartwright argued that no one could demand what Scripture did not command, but one day the polemics would be reversed. Laudian authorities in the 1630s would lean towards iure divino episcopacy while many puritans, cornered by a hardening in conformist agenda, would argue that Scripture did not mandate one particular church polity. Looking beyond hard-line presbyterians like Cartwright, one further finds that puritanism did not necessarily entail nonconformity. Moderate puritans like Nicholas Byfield (1579-1622) could unashamedly adopt Whitgift’s rationale for their own conformity. Future presbyterian divines at the Westminster Assembly like William Gouge (1575-1653) and Edward Reynolds (1599-1676) also willingly stayed within the episcopal church before 1642, despite deep dissatisfactions with the prescribed worship.

Occasionally Cinnamond’s theological preferences seem to jump to the front. For example, He concludes that although Cartwright and Whitgift shared a “profound antipathy to Roman Catholicism,” it was the puritans that demonstrated a “tougher stance towards conformity and compulsion” (55). Also, while Cinnamond recognises that Scripture was upheld by both as the only divinely-inspired source of truth and salvation, he concludes that “the Puritans showed a greater willingness to appropriate the Old Testament and the totality of the Mosaic Law” (55). Whitgift would certainly disagree with such judgment, since ultimately the differences lay in one’s hermeneutic and take on adiaphora in relation to popery, as Cinnamond observes himself.

This booklet remains immensely helpful for exploring England’s puritan past that is very much an integral part of the historical developments of Anglicanism. How do we understand the biblical underpinnings of episcopacy? How do we make sense of our own conformity to the Church of England, along with its changing doctrinal principles? Reading Cinnamond can be the first step for us to begin a much-needed inquiry into the rationale behind our own conformity and attitudes towards church government and discipline. What matters in reforming the Church? This is not only a question for the Elizabethan puritans and conformists but also a pressing one for us.


Christy Wang is currently doing a PhD at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University. Her research is on the Dynamism and Fluidity in the Shaping of Puritan Church Polities 1628-1680



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