The elizabethan compromise and pluralism: Lessons for today

By | January 7, 2021

Anglicanism has its roots not just in Henry VIII’s split with Rome, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the so-called Elizabethan Compromise. As such, the Elizabethan Compromise contains within its underlying paradigm lessons for a pluralistic society, which are increasingly important for the United States in light of yesterday’s coup attempt.

What on earth is the elizabethan compromise?

The so-called Elizabethan Compromise had its philosophic roots in Queen Elizabeth I’s comment, prior to her coronation, that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls.”

In keeping with this perspective, Elizabeth made the decision, remarkable for its time, that citizens had freedom of belief as long as they at least nominally adhered to worship in the Church of England.

That contrasted markedly with the prevailing view of the time, which is that the citizens of a country conformed with the religious views of their sovereign.

What is its significance to a pluralistic society?

And while the Elizabethan Compromise was an amazing thing for its time, it carries with it lessons relevant even today to all western democracies.

One of the key practical tenets of the Elizabethan Compromise was that it required enforcement of the via media. In other words, Elizabeth and the Privy Council had to act, sometimes vigorously, to ensure that people maintained the terms and conditions of the Compromise, versus pursuing their own perceived self-interest.

This included suppression of Catholics, following several reports of assassination plots against Elizabeth by Catholics, who had been emboldened by papal and Spanish entreaties. By today’s standards, these efforts were appalling, involving torture, drawing and quartering, and other practices that are beyond barbaric.

And while several of Elizabeth’s closest privy councilors were Puritans, including Walsingham and Dudley, Elizabeth vigorously resisted their efforts to further repress Catholics. This, despite Puritan efforts, beginning shortly after her accession, to rid the country of Catholic influences.

In short, the Elizabethan Compromise was predicated on the notion that the via media, or middle ground, would not maintain itself, but required the government to impose guardrails to prevent groups from asserting their power over each other and, in turn destabilizing the government.

Thus, then as now, a pluralistic society cannot maintain itself without the assistance of government.

How might the government maintain plurality?

There is, of course, tremendous danger when the government seeks to teach people how to be part of society. One has only to look at the curriculum of totalitarian regimes to see how readily they fall into all too predictable patterns of glorifying government, creating imaginary threats, and trying to control the day-to-day discourse of society.

And yet, we need to see government at every level make clear the importance of plurality. Far too many in our society, much like the Puritans, seek to elevate their own interests about the greater good of society. If nothing else, it is perfectly appropriate to discuss this openly when considering legislation: Does it favor the needs of the few over the needs of the many? Does it build a stronger, more cohesive society, or one that is less so?

Near term, we need to see vigorous enforcement of existing legislation against traveling in interstate commerce to engage in sedition. We need enforcement of the laws against trespass, incitement to riot, assault on a federal law enforcement officer, and the myriad other federal laws that were violated as part of yesterday’s coup attempt. While only a starting point,  taking action to make sure that participants understand that such conduct is not acceptable in any democratic society.

The need for private action

In addition to a vigorous response by state and federal government at all levels, yesterday’s events also make clear the need for the private sector.

Why do we need the involvement of the private sector? The simple answer is that the First Amendment does not apply to private actors, but only to the government and those acting under color of government authority.

Thus, we need Facebook, Twitter, and other social media fora, which have served as bully pulpits for Trump, to be responsible citizens and closely monitor their platforms for misuse. This may include denying access to those who abuse their platforms; this is particularly the case when, as here, current efforts by Twitter to add context to Trump’s fabrications have not been adequate.

What about the First Amendment and the implications for free speech?

On this issue, I offer no easy solutions.

Generally, I am a vigorous advocate for free speech rights. But when, as here, fabrications and conspiracy theories undermine the very fabric of our society, we need to give careful thought to where the boundaries of free speech rest. To be clear — just as the First Amendment does not permit Americans to shout fire in a crowded theater, neither does it permit incitement to sedition and riot.

Personal responsibility

Private citizens, and the Episcopal Church itself, also have a responsibility to work to ensure a pluralistic society. This includes:

  • Arguing against Q-Anon and other conspiracy theories that undermine confidence in our democracy.
  • Working towards justice and equality at all levels of society.
  • Understanding that words matter.

The notion that words matter is particularly important. As Trump has illustrated time and time again, inflammatory, ugly language is not just spiritually damaging. They can lead to violence, death, and the destruction of society,

In this regard, the Episcopal Church is particularly bad. While we often hear about “the way of love,” the reality is that ugly, hateful, inflammatory rhetoric is, in this author’s experience, all too common in the denomination.

Nor is there much recourse. Just as Bishop Bruno surrounded himself with sycophants who backed his conduct, right up until his hubris brought about his ouster due to his bullying of the St. James the Great congregation in Newport, so too will few vestries or standing committees do anything to address bad behavior.

Much the same paradigm applies to the church’s disciplinary canons. While they expressly forbid clergy from engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” the reality is that most claims under these provisions get brushed off as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Indeed, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has gone so far as to say that it will not get involved in such conduct absent criminal charges; that reflects this author’s personal experiences with the diocese.

Thus, the Episcopal Church needs to look closely at the power inherent in our words, and how it and its members speak to each other. And it needs to take these matters seriously, and much like the Elizabethans, it must put in place guardrails to ensure that travelers along the via media don’t skid off one side of the road or the other.


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