I am currently reading A History of the Church in England by JRH Moorman, and had I known it would be this enriching and illuminating I would have read it much sooner. If I had my druthers, it would be mandatory reading for all confirmands and inquirers. One of the most helpful sections comes in the chapter dealing with the Elizabethan settlement during the English reformation. Specifically, it deals with the unique way that the English reformers approached the reform of the church in their country. From page 212:
In the eyes of those who were shaping the destiny of the Church in England there was no sense of separation from the rest of the catholic church. The Church in England was, as the title-page to the first Prayer Book had implied, a part of the catholic church, even though it had repudiated papal jurisdiction. It was catholic, but it was also reformed. Its roots ran back to the primitive church, but certain customs and ideas which had clung to it during the Middle Ages had now been cut away. The fundamental doctrines and constitution of the Church remained the same, but a number of genuine reforms had been carried out, such as the vernacular liturgy, the administration of the Sacrament in both kinds and permission for the clergy to marry.
The key point for me here is that they were in no way trying to be anything other than catholic Christians, and the inheritors of the Holy Traditions of the church as they had been received in England. They certainly believed there had been some medieval missteps that needed to be put right, but on the whole English “Protestantism” was less about being good protestants and more about being good catholics. This is markedly different than the way the reformation proceeded on the continent (of Europe).
After the brief, but violent interlude of the Puritan commonwealth, the Caroline divines carried forward the torch of reforming the catholic church in England. Their work was, again, not about creating a new church, but about being faithful as the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. From page 234:
The point of view… may be summed up in the dying words of Thomas Ken…, ‘I die,’ he said, ‘in the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolick Faith, professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West. More particularly I dye in the Communion of the Church of England as it stands distinguished from all Papall and Puritan Innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross’…
Theirs was an atempt to get back to the early Church before the accretions of the middle Ages which the reformers had been so anxious to get rid of. The Anglicans stood between two great religious systems. On the one side was Rome, active and aggressive under the impetus of the Counter-Reformation, trying to rebuild a Christendom shattered by the cataclysms of the sixteenth century. But to the Anglicans there could be no return to Rome since the faith which she taught was, in their eyes, impure — corrupted by the ‘innovations’ which were no part of the Holy Catholic and Apostolick Faith’ as taugh by the Primitive Chuch. As Laud said, they could not return to Rome ‘until she is other than she is.’ On the other side were the Calvinists and Lutherans, who had separated from catholic tradition and had magnified certain doctrines out of all proportion. The Anglicans were equally clear that they could not fall into line with them since they had abandoned things which the Early Church thought essential. The Caroline Divines, therefore aimed at a Via Media between two extremes; but the Via Media which they sought was not a compromise, a ‘lowest common denominator’; it was a real attempt to recover the simplicity and purity of primitive Christianity. (Bolding mine)
And here we have that famous phrase: Via Media. It has been bandied about much in contemporary Anglican debates as a way of encouraging compromise, tolerance, and broad mindedness. However, what we find in the minds and work of the Anglican reformers is no watered-down compromise. It is a full-throated declaration and a full bodied working out of the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic faith as understood and passed down by the undivided church. Now that is what I call, “change we can believe in.” That is an Anglicanism we can believe in