The Reform of the English Church

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In America today “separation of church and state” is basic to both political and theological thinking. In contrast, in the sixteenth century in England the union of church and state was taken for granted as governed and guided by divine providence. In fact, the one definite thing that can be said about the English Reformation is that it was first of all an act of state. Central to it all was the assertion of royal supremacy, of king or queen, in ecclesiastical affairs. And the claim of royal supremacy was made explicitly not only by Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, but also implicitly by the Catholic Mary when she decided to reconcile the English church with the Roman papacy in 1553.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the English situation as a mere “Erastianism” (named after Thomas Erastus), that is, a subordination of the church to the interests and policies of the state. The theory of royal supremacy justifying headship in both church and state emerged in the 1530s out of a long academic and legal debate that reached back at least to the twelfth century, with roots in a variety of sources — biblical, patristic, political, and historical.

Henry VIII and his advisers recalled that the ecumenical councils of the church in the first eight centuries were called by emperors through their imperial commissioners. Constantine the Great, for example, had the bishops of the Empire join him at Nicea in 325 to seek to bring theological peace to the church during the Arian controversy. Further, it was recalled that under the old covenant the godly king or monarch led his people in the worship and service of their covenant Lord God. Edward VI was called “the young Josiah” by the archbishop of Canterbury! 

The godly monarch cared for the church and all its members, though he left the actual preaching, teaching, and administration of the sacraments to those ordained to perform the same, the clergy. But he had a duty, it was held, to make sure that the church acted as the church and that her ministers performed their duties according to Scripture and tradition. In the language of the day, the king had the potestas jurisdictionis (authority and power of jurisdiction/rule) while the ministers had potestas ordinis (authority conveyed by ordination in the church).

Thus a series of acts of Parliament culminating in 1534 declared that Henry VIII is “the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.” At that same time, a convocation of clergy stated that according to Scripture, the bishop of Rome has “no greater jurisdiction in England than any other foreign bishop.” Consequently, the English monasteries, which had been around since the sixth century, were closed by 1540, and their funds were taken by King Henry to use as he willed. During this time, as a reflection of Lutheran influence, the vernacular “Great Bible” appeared, and a copy of the Bible was placed in every parish church.

Religion in England at the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII in 1509 was typical of the Christian West. The advent of the printing press had made devotional books in Latin and English popular. However, deficiencies in the church and its religion were to be the basis of the call for reform in thirty or so years time — deficiencies such as inadequate instruction of the laity before and after confirmation in biblical content, creedal doctrine, and moral law; the low level of theological education of most parochial clergy and their failure to preach biblically based sermons; widespread superstition especially in the use of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the saints; preoccupation with ways of passing smoothly through purgatory after death; the over emphasis on the Mass and the function of the celebrant therein; too much regard for the bishop of Rome; apparent decline in the spiritual and moral life of the monks and nuns; and too many senior clergy involved in secular and financial matters. In relation to the last point, Thomas Wolsey combined the highest offices in the church and state, serving in the 1520s simultaneously as Lord Chancellor, archbishop of York, and special emissary to the pope!

The form of Christian religion that emerged within the ecclesia anglicana (English Church) during the reforms of the last part of Henry VIII’s reign and during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, was described then as “Reformed Christianity” and later as “Reformed Catholicism.” It was, of course, the reform of the late medieval, not of the patristic, form of Catholicism. Today we may call it “The Anglican Way of Christianity.”

The “Catholicism” aspect points to such things as: the commitment to renew the church according to the clear teaching of the Bible and as that teaching had been received and understood in the ancient church of the early centuries and expounded by orthodox Fathers like Chrysostom and Augustine; the retention of the threefold ministry of ordained deacons, presbyters (priests), and bishops as being the polity that emerged in the early church and is conformable to Scripture; the continuance of the basic structure of the medieval ecclesia anglicana — two provinces (Canterbury and York) each with dioceses, and each diocese with parishes; the use of a written liturgy for all public worship, administration of sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion), and daily prayer; the retention of the Christian calendar with seasons, holy days, and fast days; and the use of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed in public services of worship.

The “Reformed” aspect points to things such as: the adoption and confession of doctrine that the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Europe also proclaimed — especially justification by faith alone and the use and meaning of the two sacraments; the availability of the Bible in the vernacular, English, for all to read, and its supreme authority in matters of faith and conduct; insistence on the need to preach the Gospel at the administration of the Lord’s Supper along with the rejection of the doctrines of transubstantiation and of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice; the removal of all signs of piety and practices that were based on such doctrines as purgatory, salvation by works, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints; the rejection of the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the vicar of Christ on earth; and the right of the clergy to marry.

By the time that James I came to the throne in 1604, the theological position of the Church of England was sometimes explained by use of a scheme of one through five. The church has ONE canon of Scripture, made up of TWO Testaments; the central doctrines of the Bible are summarized in THREE creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) that are used in worship and for instruction; with relation to the foundational Christian dogma of the person of Christ and the Holy Trinity, the church looks to the definitions of FOUR ecumenical councils (Nicea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; and Chalcedon, 451); and in terms of general guidance in church life from worship services to church law, the church is guided by the first FIVE centuries of Christian history, before the major divisions occurred. 

In terms of its own standards of faith, usually called formularies, the Church of England settled on three books, which in later generations were all bound together as one book, for the second and third are short. They are the Book of Common Prayer (the original edition was produced in1549 and revised in 1552 and 1662); The Form and Manner of Making Deacons, Ordaining Priests and Consecrating Bishops (1552 and 1662); and the Articles of Religion (final edition, 1571).

Of course, there are many persons, clergy and laity, who worked under and with the three monarchs to bring about the English Reformation. In fact, one of the major springs from which the theological and spiritual renewal came forth was the fellowship of a group of devout and scholarly academics, deeply affected by Renaissance humanism, who met in the White Horse Tavern in the University of Cambridge in the 1520s in order to discuss the new Lutheran ideas from Germany. No wonder the Tavern was dubbed “Little Germany.” In the group were all the principal theological figures of the future Reformation of the ecclesia anglicana — the future bishops, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, and the translators of the Bible into English, William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale. In fact, Tyndale’s brilliant translation of the New Testament, made illegally at Flanders in 1526, and including a special preface to the epistle to the Romans (based on Luther’s own preface), was itself a powerful means of spreading Lutheran doctrine, especially that of justification by faith alone, among educated people in England. Its success led to the capture and execution of Tyndale in 1536 near Brussels.

Thomas Cranmer came to prominence initially because of his work for Henry VIII in the matter of his “marriage” to Catherine of Aragon, which was eventually declared null and void because it contravened Levitical law on marriage. He was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and in this position was the adviser of the king, seeking to move him gradually to embrace the essential elements of the Lutheran reform of doctrine, rites, and ceremonies. Patience and diplomacy were needed because King Henry, although he had rejected the rights of the bishop of Rome in England, was very much committed to medieval Catholicism as a religion. Further, he was the author of a major defense of the seven sacraments, entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, for which Pope Leo X awarded him and his successors the title of defensor fidei, “defender of the faith.”

Yet the king had to address the need for political accommodation with the Lutheran states in Europe, and the several statements of faith produced in the 1530s and 1540s in London reflect a going to and fro between Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Ten Articles of 1536 was an attempt to conciliate both Catholics and Lutherans; in contrast, The Six Articles of 1539 was decidedly Catholic. Of the two longer expositions of doctrine, The Bishops’ Book of 1537 tips towards Lutheranism, while The King’s Book of 1543 is more Catholic. However, though the official doctrine was not yet truly Lutheran or Protestant, much of the support of traditional Catholicism was being eroded by the dissolution of the monasteries and friaries, the dismantling of shrines, the removal of special holy days from the calendar, prohibition of the veneration of relics and other anti-medieval-Catholic legislation and activity. Thus, when Henry VIII died in 1546 the ecclesia anglicana still used Latin most of the time, and the medieval Mass was still ostensibly central, but much of the trappings of medieval religion were gone or not easily available. And Henry had left his young son, Edward VI, in the care of Protestant noblemen, and this was to be extremely important in the next few years.

The nine-year old Edward, the new Josiah, ascended to the throne in 1547, and during his short reign the combination of the work of Archbishop Cranmer (with other bishops) and prominent laity caused reform to move very quickly. First of all, greater use of English was required in public worship at the parish level, and a Book of Homilies was produced to provide sermons to be read in churches. In them, the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone, the final authority of the Scriptures, and basic moral instruction were most clearly set forth in a very powerful form of English. Then in 1549 came the Book of the Common Prayer, which was a condensation and reform of several medieval books into one; and three years later a more “Reformed” edition was published, which, with few changes, has been the primary prayer book of The Anglican Way ever since. And this powerful, biblically-based liturgy was followed a year later by a confession of faith known as the Articles of Religion (containing forty-two). In six years the ecclesia anglicana, now very much the “Church of England” (using only English in worship) had moved far, not only under the initial influence of Lutheran doctrine but also of Reformed or Calvinist doctrine from Geneva and Zurich. Also resident in England and giving their learned advice on reform were Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer, heroes of Continental reform.

The death of Edward brought the oldest daughter of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, to the throne. A Roman Catholic, she used her power as “the supreme head of the church” to bring back the medieval Catholicism that her father and brother had caused to be removed. The revival of heresy laws led to nearly three hundred people being put to death at the stake (including Archbishop Cranmer and other “Protestant” bishops), and it led to some eight hundred fleeing abroad to safe Protestant havens. She died without an heir to continue her policies, and her short reign was not long enough to re-establish traditional Catholicism fully in the land.

Another daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, acceded to the throne in 1558, and with her reign came the recovery of Reformed Catholicism, which had made such headway under her brother, Edward. In 1559, Parliament recognized her as “the supreme governor (not “head”) of the church” and restored, with minor modifications, the Book of Common Prayer (1552) as the basis of worship in cathedrals and parishes. Also at this time, exiles who had fled to places like Geneva began to return to England and make their presence felt in the church, not always in full support of the policies of the queen. From these emerged those whom we call “Puritans” who were committed to further reform of the national church and the implantation of a Presbyterian polity. But in 1571 a convocation of clergy approved the revised version of the Articles of Religion, first published in the reign of Edward VI, though now there were thirty-nine, not forty-two. Of this statement of faith it may be said that it is patristic (of the church Fathers) when speaking of the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, and original sin; Lutheran when speaking about the Gospel and justification; and Calvinist when speaking about the two sacraments. In other ways it is English in character.

Elizabeth I ruled for a long time, and this allowed The Anglican Way, despite opposition from new Puritans and old Catholics, to develop and mature. Happily, her successor, James I, continued her policy, and, at the beginning of his reign, the new, Reformed Catholic canon law of the church (a favored project of Cranmer in the 1550s) at last appeared (1604), and the impressive and influential Authorized Version of the Bible (kjv) was prepared and published (1611). The Church of England now had her English Bible, prayer book, confession of faith (the Thirty-nine Articles) and other formularies all in place. In a word, the English Church exhibited Reformed Catholicism.

In 2007, the Church of England is still the established church with the same formularies as in 1571 and with Queen Elizabeth II as its “supreme governor.” However, the second Elizabeth now acts in all major areas of church life through Parliament and a general synod of the church. Further, the majority of the membership of The Anglican Way is now no longer in Britain but overseas, especially in Africa, with twenty-five million Anglicans in Nigeria. In fact, as the Church of England has declined in membership and importance, the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia have expanded in numbers and influence.

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