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Straightening the Altars: The Ecclesiastical Vision and Pastoral Achievements of the Progressive Bishops under Elizabeth I, 1559-1579.

By Scott A. Wenig. Studies in Church History, vol. 10. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. xi + 290 pp. $61.95 cloth.

This helpful study deepens our understandings of the origins and tempo of the Protestant Reformation in England under Elizabeth I during the first twenty years of her reign. This was the formative period when Protestant authorities were proceeding to move the nation from its old Catholicism to the new Protestant faith. Wenig's work focuses on four "progressive bishops"--all returned Marian exiles and Protestant Reformers--who were leaders in Elizabeth's episcopate. These are Richard Cox, bishop of Ely (1559-81), John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury (1560-71), Edwin Sandys, bishop of Worcester (1560-70), and James Pilkington, bishop of Durham (1561-76). These clerics had significant effects on both their local scenes and the national church. Their efforts dramatize the difficulties involved in moving the nation's faith and establishing religious change. This study shows how these bishops, all Reformed in their theological leanings, used their positions within the ecclesiastical establishment to advance their visions for reforms.

Three major issues are addressed through analysis of the work of the four bishops. The first is the ways the English church evolved in the years after the Elizabethan Settlement (1559) and how some members of the church's leadership pressed for a more thorough reform, viewing the Settlement as the beginning of this quest and not its conclusion. The second issue concerns the various disagreements between the progressive bishops and the Crown, as well as controversies with the lower clergy, over the nature and character of the emerging national church. These difficulties display the varieties of beliefs and aspirations resident in the early Elizabethan church. Third, this study conveys the reach and rate of religious change in specific localities. Specifically, influences such as geography, episcopal administration, and the power of the throne were powerful forces affecting the rate of reform. Thus Wenig shows that the developing Protestantism emerged at varying speeds and in differing degrees in given regions. While this should not surprise, Wenig's study gives us ample documentation of how this happened in the particular places highly affected by these progressive bishops.

Methodologically, the author combines theological analysis, political narrative, and an appraisal of religious change in specific localities. He moves from chapter 1, which describes the work of the initial Elizabethan episcopate (1560-71), to chapter 2, where he sketches the progressive bishops' ecclesiastical vision, grounded in Reformed theology. This vision was to press for a church devoid of the old religion's rites and symbols and led by theologically grounded bishops and pastors under the Crown's authority. But it was modified when under royal pressure the progressive leaders were forced to compromise their national agenda to make local inroads against the primary enemy, Catholicism.

Chapter 3 is a political narrative of the bishops' conflicts with the Crown (1559-66) and with the emerging Puritans (1566-73). The focus here is on the Vestiarian controversy (1565-67) and episcopal conflicts with Presbyterians over church polity (1572-75). Elizabeth's requirement that all clergy wear vestments (1566) meant that true to their Erastian conviction of submission to the Crown's authority, the progressive bishops had to obey. They, in turn, had to enforce vestments on their ardent lower clergy who were moving to form a "puritan" party within the Protestant family. The beginnings of Presbyterianism (1571) left the progressive bishops in the role of defending an only "partially reformed" national church in the face of intensifying criticism by more "radical" clergy.

This sets the stage for the book's primary focus on the ways in which these four progressive bishops sought to effect reform in their local contexts. Wenig examines episcopal registers, ecclesiastical reports, personal correspondence, and county histories to present the varying circumstances and challenges faced by each of the four leaders.

Jewel was successful in moving the majority of his see toward conformity with the Elizabethan Settlement while being unable to form a fully Reformed church. He was able to draw on the firm commitments of some dedicated Protestants while facing minimal Catholic opposition.

Sandys had success in reforming the city of Worcester but faced stiff conflict from entrenched Catholic nobility and gentry in the outer regions of his see. By the end of his tenure, Catholicism was still highly prevalent.

Pilkington in the city of Durham drew on the help of William Whittingham. But Pilkington's aggressive Protestantism alienated gentry and nobility, fomenting a Catholic rebellion in 1569. The bishop battled these forces until his death in 1576.

The record also indicates that these bishops were not averse to seeking help from the Crown and Privy Council in dealing with combative Catholics. Ironically, while the power of the Crown thwarted the designs of these progressive bishops to establish a truly Reformed national church, it was their valued ally in seeking to overcome the vestiges of the old faith in local settings.

The success of Richard Cox in advancing the Reformation in Ely is a chapter unto itself. Diocesan records are more plentiful here and documentation more detailed. With the background of strong Protestant sympathy in East Anglia prior to 1553 and with the University of Cambridge within its bounds, the diocese of Ely became functionally Protestant by 1577. Thus, geography was a factor. Cox did not face the need to seek royal assistance in combating Catholics. He went on to promote puritan clergy, as long as they were obedient to his ecclesiastical authority. Yet Cox, resisted puritan "prophesyings" and even wrote a Latin treatise in opposition to them, fearing they were ultimately a threat to reform.

Wenig's study makes important contributions to understanding of me role and rate of reform in Elizabethan England. It shows the varieties characteristic of the English Reformation and, by its case studies of four progressive bishops, displays the complexities of factors involved in the spread of Reformation faith. Political realities led these bishops to compromise their agendas, both nationally and locally. But their passion for transformation led to zealous efforts, as this significant volume clearly demonstrates.
Donald K. McKim
Westminster John Knox Press
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Author:McKim, Donald K.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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