The Purity of the Church of England

In 1852 the bishop of Exeter charged his chancellor, E.C. Harington, with preaching on the foundations of the Church of England. Harington used the opportunity to proclaim what he believed were the explicitly apostolic and biblical origins of the English Reformation. Unusually for a cleric who identified at times with the High Church party, Harington designated his own communion the Reformed Church of England. Harington wedded the rhetoric of ancient religiosity to the Reformation. For Harington, the Reformation was not an obliteration of ancient custom but instead a return to ancient custom. “No power on earth, Harington declared, could persuade him “to refrain, as a minister of Christ, from endeavouring to correct errors on matters purely religious —matters which relate to each of us as members of the Anglican Branch of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church.” He could not conceive that he could more advantageously occupy his congregation’s attention “than in pointing out to you the much forgotten fact, that we, as members of the Reformed Church of England, hold those doctrines, which, prior to the rise and dissemination of Romish errors, were the doctrines of our own Church.” The Reformation, put simply, restored the ancient English church founded by the apostles.

Harington believed that “in the minds of many, even of tolerably well informed members of our Church, the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England” were so intimately intwined “with the events of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, that it scarcely occurs to them, that her doctrines and her discipline are coeval with the establishment of Christianity in this island, probably in the first century.” The Church of England’s  doctrines were not, “as the Papists tell us, the peculiar doctrines of Luther or of Calvin, nor are they the distinctive doctrines of Cranmer or of Melancthon, but they are the doctrines of the Bible. The Protestant doctrine of the English church were truths “which were preached in this island at a very early period of the Christian era, and probably propagated among our British ancestors by an inspired Apostle.” Those same apostolic truths “were retained amongst us uncorrupted, till the various emissaries of Rome, in after ages, obscured the pure light of the gospel, by a mass of Romish novelties, and ‘spoiled’ us of our faith, by introducing ‘the traditions of men.’”

The emphasis on apostolic foundation allowed Harington to argue that Christianity in Britain not only antedated the Early Medievals, but it had been promulgated in the first two centuries of the Christian Church’s existence and well before Roman ecclesiastical leadership claimed preeminence in the Latin Church. The Exeter Chancellor explicitly rejected the notion of Sarum Christianity or the development of an explicitly English ecclesiastical and liturgical tradition in the Middle Ages. The Early church’s bishops arrived in Britain to plant Christianity independent of Rome. As early as the fifth century AD, “the whole body of our British Clergy” “synodically met together” and resolved “not to subject themselves to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome.” Modern Anglican polemicists’ tendency to trace a tradition of English churchmanship through the Medievals was rejected by British bishops in the nineteenth century who relied on the conventional Protestant argument that the Reformation was a return to the purity of the Church Fathers and a definitive break with Rome instead of being a mere correction of occasional Roman excess.


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This