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.