by Joel Lian
The Anglican Church is a curious creature to many contemporary Christians, especially to charismatic evangelical Protestants. It declares its belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” and at the same time its teaching reflects Reformed Protestant theology. The church’s structure and worship can seem old-fashioned (dioceses and parishes, primates, bishops and priests, robes and vestments, a fixed service order, common prayer), and yet many of its parishes also use contemporary forms of worship. What are we to make of this church?
One way of answering this question is to study the beginnings of Anglicanism. The early history of the church reveals two points. Firstly, it shows the faithfulness and sovereignty of God at work in the church. Secondly, it shows a church that, even as it recognized the need to reform its beliefs and practices, was also conscious of the importance of maintaining links with the traditions of historical Christianity. Understanding the history of the church thus carries valuable lessons for contemporary Anglicans.
Breaking from Rome
King Henry VIII
The term “Anglican” is derived from the Latin phrase Ecclesia Anglicana, which literally means the “English Church”. This brings us back to 16th century England, when Europe was undergoing the religious upheavals of the Reformation. At the time, Henry VIII, King of England, wanted to divorce his wife. Henry’s first wife, Catherine, had given him several children, but only one had survived infancy, Mary. Henry yearned for a son in order to secure his dynastic succession on the throne. At the same time, he was in love with Anne Boleyn.
Henry needed papal approval (approval of the Pope) in order to divorce Catherine, but this was complicated by European dynastic politics. Catherine’s nephew was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and master of an empire that stretched from Spain to Germany. Apart from the fact that the Church is against divorce, the Pope could not afford to offend such a powerful figure at a time when the unity of the Church was at stake.
Faced with this obstacle, Henry began the process of taking over control of the church within England. In doing so, he was motivated by more than just marital concerns. Control over the church would give him access to some of its wealth. It would also increase his political power, since religious matters in his kingdom would no longer be controlled by the pope in Rome.
Henry appointed several people who were sympathetic to his cause to positions of power within the church in England. One of these was Thomas Cranmer, who was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer believed that the question of the king’s marriage could be answered by the universities, which were respected theological schools. This would allow the king to bypass the pope’s authority. In 1531, the provincial bishops were pressured to recognize Henry as the “singular protector, the only and supreme lord, and as far as permitted by the law of Christ, even the supreme head” of the Church in England.
In January 1533, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn. In March of that year, Parliament, in obedience to the king, declared that the Church of England had the authority to govern itself, and that the pope would not be allowed to interfere in the appointment of English bishops. With this boost of authority, Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void, and legitimated his marriage with Anne. The pope responded by excommunicating Henry, but this did little to stop him. Finally, in late 1534, Parliament declared that the king “is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church”. Rome’s control was broken, and Henry had supreme control over the English Church.
Reforming the Church
Henry VIII had won control of the Church in England, but that did not mean that it would become Protestant. Only a change in authority had occurred. In fact, Henry remained personally Catholic in his beliefs. Under his leadership, there were few moves in a Protestant direction, even though Archbishop Cranmer had Protestant inclinations. True reform had to wait till Henry’s death.
In 1547, Henry died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI. During Edward’s six and a half year reign, the Church of England moved definitively in the direction of Protestantism.
Catholic practices like the veneration of saints were suppressed. Images were removed from churches, priests were allowed to marry, and Protestant thinkers from Continental Europe were welcomed. Nevertheless, because the doctrines of the Church remained unsettled, the old Latin Mass continued to be said in churches.
To resolve this confusion, Parliament passed an Act of Uniformity in 1549 that required the clergy to use a common prayer book. The Book of Common Prayer, which was written by Cranmer, remains one of the main bonds holding the Anglican Communion together today. The Book contains the liturgies used for all the main services of the church – morning and evening prayer, Holy Communion, and others. Cranmer took the main medieval Latin liturgies and translated them into English (before the Reformation, all services throughout the West were said in Latin). He also condensed them and threw out unscriptural sections, replacing them with new, biblically sound prayers that also reflected Protestant theology.
The Book of Common Prayer remains Cranmer’s masterpiece. In one volume, he managed to infuse the ancient prayers of the church with Reformed theology. Cranmer’s liturgy retained the shape and structure of worship that the church had practised from its earliest days, and also included many ancient prayers even as he added new ones. In thus revising the liturgy, Cranmer demonstrated what would become a key characteristic of Anglicanism – a church that embraces the wisdom of the early church while remaining true to Scripture. Cranmer’s Scripture-saturated liturgy remains heavily influential throughout the Anglican Communion today. The liturgies used in the Diocese of Singapore retain a family resemblance to those written by Cranmer.
The Catholic Reversal and the Elizabethan Settlement
Edward VI died in 1553, before his sixteenth birthday. His older sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine, acceded to the throne. Mary was a devout Roman Catholic, and so was naturally eager to bring England back into the fold of Rome. During her short five-year reign, she reversed the legislation of her father and brother. The Book of Common Prayer was banned, clergy were again barred from marriage, and services reverted to the Latin Mass. Clergy who refused to accept Roman Catholic authority were accused of heresy and burned at the stake or beheaded. Archbishop Cranmer, along with other key church leaders of the English Reformation, was burned at the stake. In 1554, the papal representative to England absolved the kingdom of its schism and received it back into communion with Rome.
Queen Elizabeth I
Mary had accomplished her goal of restoring Roman Catholicism in England, but she died childless and left behind an unsettled kingdom. Her repression of Protestantism had angered many of her subjects and divided the people. Into this precarious situation stepped her half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth needed to stabilize her kingdom, and sought to order the church in such a manner that would please as many of her subjects as possible. To this end, “she sought to make it include both Roman Catholic and Protestant elements”.
In 1559, the Act of Supremacy was signed into law. By this act, Elizabeth ended once and for all the control of Rome in the realm. The authority of the pope was rejected; Elizabeth was named the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and all clergy within her realms were required to acknowledge her authority. The Book of Common Prayer was restored to uniform use, and Catholic practices were suppressed. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were also issued. This provided the definitive statement of the Anglican Church’s doctrinal position, against both Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. The Articles rejected the doctrines of transubstantiation, purgatory, the veneration of saints, and the authority of the pope. They affirmed key Protestant doctrines such as justification by faith and the authority of the Bible. The institutional structure of the church and the shape of its worship remained Catholic in the sense that they followed the historic practices of Christianity.
The Ancient-Future Church
We return to the question that began this exploration of early Anglican history: what are we to make of this church? For one, we are to take it as a testament of God’s faithfulness and sovereign power. The history of the church contains many dark and unwholesome episodes, and yet God demonstrates time and again his ability to use the darkest circumstances to further His purposes. Henry VIII may have taken control of the church for personal gain, but God was able to use this to bring the Reformation to England. The church’s position as the national church also meant that it was well-placed to spread the Gospel abroad as the British Empire expanded. As a result of missionary efforts, today the Anglican Church has become an international communion of around 80 million people.
Photos used with permission from The Diocese of Singapore
Secondly, Anglican history helps us to better understand and appreciate some of the distinctive features of Anglicanism. Here is a church that is not afraid to reform its doctrines and practices to stay in line with God’s word, and yet, is also conscious of the wisdom to be found in the early church. The Anglican Church is catholic and apostolic. It is catholic because it is a part of the universal church. It is apostolic because it maintains the faith handed down to us by the Apostles.
It is also Reformed because it embraces the Protestant theology of the Reformation. In a way, this ancient-future church presents us with a picture of what the Body of Christ is: a timeless communion of saints, and yet relevant in every age.
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McGrath, Alister e. The Christian Theology Reader. MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001.elwell, Walter A. evangelical Dictionary of Theology. CA: Baker Book House Company, 2001.
Joel continues to fight his daily battle against procrastination, which, by the grace of God, he manages to win. Sometimes. For the important things at least. He was going to write a longer byline but got tired. He attends Mustard Seed Service.
This article first appeared in Issue 7, April 2013 CHORUS Magazine.