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Hervé Picton, A Short History of the Church of England. From the Reformation to the Present Day

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, 166 p.
Camille Bedeau
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Hervé Picton, A Short History of the Church of England. From the Reformation to the Present Day. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, 166 p. ISBN : 978-1-4438-7176-1.

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1Writing a Short History of the Church of England: From the Reformation to the Present Day is necessarily selecting only the most salient traits of the periods described and one does not expect a precise and complete description of each period. However, Hervé Picton manages to present a summary which is never a simplification of the political or religious context. The author warns in his Preface that some questions such as church architecture or clergy life will not be treated or only touched upon, but this enables him to focus on the political and doctrinal issues debated or fought upon in each period.

2In his introduction, H. Picton reminds the reader that the ties between Rome and the Church in England had been loose from its foundation under Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th century. As early as the 12th century, the murder of Thomas Becket in his cathedral illustrated the tensions between papal authority and royal supremacy. Besides, before speaking of Henry’s breach with Rome, H. Picton shows that the English Reformation had indigenous roots since John Wyclif in the 14th century already criticized what he saw as a corrupt Church, preached the authority of the Scriptures only, translated the Bible into English and called for the dissolution of monasteries. H. Picton also mentions Erasmus’s visit to Cambridge where he influenced English theologians.

  • 1 See ‘A Reappraisal of Liturgical Continuity in the Mid-Sixteenth Century: Henrician Innovations and (...)
  • 2 In Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, Yale UP: 2009.

3From its onset, the Reformation in England had political and financial explanations as well as doctrinal grounds. If Henry VIII saw in the schism the possibility of having a male heir and of ‘refill[ing] the State’s coffers’ (9), Reformers used the circumstances to put forward their views. H. Picton concludes with several historians that Henry’s religion was ‘Catholicism without the Pope’, then he describes the forging of the Church of England doctrine under Edward VI with the successive alterations to the Prayer Book. Here H. Picton could have mentioned articles by Aude de Mézerac-Zanetti on the liturgical changes under Henry’s reign, especially her argument that this immediate past made the acceptance of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer easier.1 Moreover, even if such a short work is not necessarily the place for a reappraisal of each period, Eamon Duffy’s views on Mary Tudor’s reign could have been alluded to,2 in the same way as Picton notes that the anticlericalism thesis—which he adopts as one of the reasons of the Reformation under Henry—is challenged by some historians such as Christopher Haig.

  • 3 See Helen Parish, Clerical Celibacy in the West, c. 1100-1700, Routledge, 2010.

4H. Picton makes a curious parenthesis when he comments on Cardinal Wolsey’s mistress and explains that the secular clergy, ‘although celibate, were not yet bound by the vow of chastity’. Celibacy in the Roman Church was not enforced until the Lateran Councils of the 12th century, although it was the model preached by the apostle Paul and it was encouraged since the 4th century. The obligation to live a celibate life, though, was met with resistance, and it was not uncommon to find priests with concubines, which seems to have been Wolsey’s situation.3 Priests never take a vow of chastity but their promise to live a celibate life is necessarily a vow to abstain from sexual intercourse, which according to Catholic doctrine is authorized in marriage only.

5These are but minor points. The book is pleasant and easy to read, and it presents readers with all the information they need to get an accurate intellectual and political picture of each period. H. Picton has to juggle between necessary brevity and clarity, so that the fascinated reader can only be at times frustrated. The author writes, for example, without any further development: ‘On 10 June 1688, the unexpected birth in mysterious circumstances of a Catholic heir to the throne of England had furthermore rekindled fears of a permanent Catholic restoration’ (59). The mystery which is not explained here is the birth, unexpected because his mother had lost all her previous children, of James Francis Edward Stuart, James II’s heir, who was said to be an impostor. It was suspected that a healthy baby had been made to take the place of the queen’s stillborn child. But this strange event could not of course be thoroughly developed, as it triggered a much more important moment in English history: the Glorious Revolution.

6In the first pages of the chapter on the nineteenth century, H. Picton makes an overview of the state of the Church. Despite its ‘colossal wealth’, some members of the clergy could live in utter destitution. These pages are useful as they broach the subject of stipends, underlining huge disparities between the North and the South, pluralism (one man holding several benefices) and absenteeism, nepotism and corruption. These abuses, denounced in 1831 by John Wade, a journalist (1788-1875) in his Extraordinary Black Book, fuelled a strong feeling of anti-clericalism. But the Church was not only attacked as an institution. H. Picton also describes the conflicting tendencies in its ranks. It is a period in which struggles of the past were re-enacted: there was a revival of Latitudinarianism in the Broad Church, the scepticism of eighteenth-century philosophers was given a new vigour with a new school of ‘believing criticism’; Catholicism, as in the seventeenth century, seemed to threaten the Church of England, the members of the Oxford Movement being seen as ‘crypto-papists’; and the Evangelicalism inherited from the previous century became an influential party in the Church. No student of the nineteenth century can dispense with a precise knowledge of the religious turmoil of the period, but the situation of the Church can only be understood in the light of the theological debates of its past. When the Oxford Movement, for example, called for a ‘better Reformation’ which would be a return not to the sixteenth, but to the seventeenth century, it is obvious that Church history was a battleground: H. Picton’s work can greatly help readers identify the conflicting parties.

7The last chapter bearing on ‘The Twentieth Century and Beyond’ is particularly enlightening and presents the paradoxical situation the Church of England finds itself in. It can be considered as the flagship of ecumenism but it struggles to find a compromise between its liberal and more conservative tendencies on the issues of the ordination of women bishops and of homosexual clergy—issues which could also destroy all hope of reunion with the Roman and Orthodox Churches. According to the author, the Church of England might have a ‘historic responsibility’ in ‘bringing Christian Churches together’, a view not unlike that of Remy Bethmont (in L’Anglicanisme, un modèle pour le christianisme à venir ?, a book included in the bibliography).

8It is not surprising that a specialist of nineteenth-century studies should have wanted to work on a complete history of the established Church. The often quoted 1851 census of religious practice showed the decline of the institution, and the well-known challenge to Biblical truth was a serious blow to its authority. In the nineteenth century, the Church seemed on the brink of collapse, however it withstood the storm. Part of the explanation can be found in the study of previous centuries. The history of the Church of England indicates that conflict and the accommodation of different sensitivities are a very important part of Anglican identity. The supposed frailty of a Church having to compose with different tendencies might in fact be the reason why it has not completely lost influence.

9H. Picton provides a select bibliography for the reader who would like to know more, and the book is sure to arouse the curiosity of the reader. Students not acquainted with the specific vocabulary linked with the development of such a subject will appreciate the glossary. The author takes care to refer the reader to the previous sections if an event already covered is mentioned, so that the reader can never get lost in this history of unending tension and compromise.

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1 See ‘A Reappraisal of Liturgical Continuity in the Mid-Sixteenth Century: Henrician Innovations and the First Books of Common Prayer’ in Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXII-1, 2017.

2 In Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, Yale UP: 2009.

3 See Helen Parish, Clerical Celibacy in the West, c. 1100-1700, Routledge, 2010.

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Camille Bedeau, « Hervé Picton, A Short History of the Church of England. From the Reformation to the Present Day », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL :

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Camille Bedeau

Université Grenoble - Alpes

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