Theresa May has made much of being a vicar’s daughter in seeking to build her image. Less remarked on is that she is from a particular sub-tradition within the Church of England, and so deeply formed by it that its particular take on English history will shape how she sees the UK’s relationship with mainland Europe.
In thinking about Brexit, she must inevitably perceive echoes of the last time England was so bitterly riven about its identity and destiny, in the 16th and 17th Centuries. My use of England rather than ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’ is quite intentional.
In 2014, while Home Secretary, May appeared on Desert Island Discs with one particularly unusual choice of tune for a politician aiming for the top – Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn, Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, normally sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and during the procession to the Altar of Repose during the Maundy Thursday Mass. As the still devout daughter of an Anglo-Catholic vicar and a faithfully practising Anglican, it will more familiar to her in its Victorian translation into English, Therefore we before him bending, this great Sacrament revere. On the programme, she referenced fond memories to kneeling in church singing it with her father and mother.
That marks her out as of a particularly elevated Catholic tradition within the Anglican spectrum, with a particular sub-culture and understanding of history, indeed the one in which I have worshipped throughout my adult life. Of particular note is that this tradition has traditionally interpreted the English Reformation not as a move towards Protestantism, but a distancing of the English Church from a Roman Pontificate that had accrued too much power in the Middle Ages, precisely because it wanted to revert to the ‘purer’ form of Western Catholicism under which England had been converted to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon times.
In that understanding, Queen Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess, stands as a doughtily quiet resister of extremism, seeking a special English ‘middle way’ between (continental) Roman authoritarianism and the iconoclastic destruction of (continental) Calvin and Zwingli. Resisted also were the domestic English puritans, whose logical endpoint of joyless, vandalism-soaked, murder would later be seen personified in Cromwell.
That narrative has taken a serious battering by academic historians over the past forty years or so: the Elizabethan Church may have frozen while still incomplete the radical reforms undertaken during the brief but thoroughgoingly Protestant reign of Edward VI, but they were rolled back only in some details.
While Elizabeth may have kept her chapels as bastions of a ceremonial and sacramental faith, and ensured the safety of the still proud papists who wrote beautiful music to be sung in them for her, her reign saw the organs and choirs, let alone the Mass, banished from the ordinary parish churches of England. Her Prayer Book leaned towards a Zwinglian view of the Eucharist, far more radically reformed than the deeply sacramental religion that Luther midwifed in North Germany and Scandinavia.
The pendulum did indeed start to swing back after James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and fell under the influence of Lancelot Andrewes and his fellow ‘avant-garde conformists’, and it would swing still further after the Victorian Anglo-Catholic revival. Indeed, the austere and minimally ceremonial religion of Elizabethan England really only survives in pockets of Ulster Anglicanism which have resisted the recent onslaught of praise bands and charismatic outpourings. But that all came later.
Neither were the radical Protestants of the period in any way little Englanders. It was on the continent that the reformers sought sanctuary during periods of domestic persecution under Henry and Mary, indeed it was in Antwerp that Tyndale began the first post-Reformation English translation of the Bible before his betrayal and execution. Under Edward and Elizabeth, the finest minds from across Protestant Europe were headhunted for jobs in London, Oxford and Cambridge.
As Diarmaid MacCulloch notes, English Puritans saw themselves as part of a continent-spanning movement that stretched from Scotland to Transylvania, with a particularly theological affinity and close relations with the Zürich of Heinrich Bullinger. Another historical myth, that of a godly New World made specially for English-speaking Protestants to flourish in, had to wait for another century. Elizabeth’s England was even more definitely European than it was Protestant.
Whatever the facts and shifts in interpretation, it was Anglo-Catholic historians, those most interested, who dominated English understandings of their own Tudor history for most of the period since Victorian times. Indeed, although it has come under academic assault, the classic High Church interpretation of the English Reformation as an essentially Catholic movement continues to convince many, an especially useful story in an ecumenical age.
The High Tory interpreters of that story spin out from the Reformation to an England that has always been apart from ‘the continent’, with a unique and clearly superior form of religion and society, blending the best of monarchy and democracy just as it blended the best of Catholicism and Protestantism.
This England of the mind is alien to the Scots, whose Reformation’s links with Geneva were celebrated then and now, and still more to the Irish, who performed the unique feat of completing the counter-reformation while under persecution, in no small measure thanks to continental, especially French, support.
We hear echoes of this uniquely blessed England of the mind in May’s stated desire for a buccaneering global Britain which also has a deep and special relationship with the European Union, a via media for the 21st Century.
She may be politically battered, deprived of a parliamentary majority by her own decisions, isolated internationally and lacking a credible goal in Brexit negotiations, but that might make the comparison with Elizabeth I all the more resonant in Theresa May’s mind. Assaulted at home by her own radical Puritans of the hard Brexiteering variety, and facing a veritable diplomatic Armada from the continent, the Prime Minister could hardly be faulted if she saw herself as a latter-day Good Queen Tess.