By Joshua Penduck
In order to understand what Anglican is, you need to understand first of all the context in which Anglicanism as a separate stream of Christianity emerged. This happened primarily in the 16th Century in which the Church of England separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church, who had its head in the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Church of England had existed centuries before then, all the way back to Augustine of Canterbury in AD 597. You can even go before then, to the first Christians who had arrived in the British Isles centuries, and to the Celtic saints who evangelised the British Isles after. But from the Synod (or Council) of Whitby in 664 onwards, the British Church aligned itself with the Church of Rome, losing its independent status.
By the time the Church of England separated itself again from the Church of Rome in the 16th Century, there had been much change in the nature of the Church. For one thing, the Pope’s role became more prominent. Although the Church had always had a vital role in the interpretation of Scripture, and the Bishop of Rome had a revered position in offering wisdom on the right interpretation, this role increased over time. Though the attempts to extend the Bishop of Rome’s influence over the Eastern Churches backfired (and caused a split between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches), in the West the Pope himself was at the top of the religious political structure. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull (a kind of charter) called Unam Sanctum in which he proclaimed that the Pope has power over all kings, and furthermore, he wrote, ‘we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff’. In other words, if you’re not obedient to the Pope, you’re going to hell. Now, most historians recognise this was something of an extreme document, but it still demonstrates how far the role of the Bishop of Rome had come from its earlier days.
It wasn’t just the Pope’s role that had changed. There had been many other developments in the Roman Catholic world. The Mass had always been understood in sacrificial and offertory terms in that it represented the sacrifice of Christ made upon the Cross. But with an increasing tendency to seeing the bread and wine as literally the body and blood of Christ, it was soon believed that the priest at the altar in some way reiterated Christ’s sacrifice and offered him to the Father in the Mass. Furthermore, he was offered on behalf of others (as over the course of the Medieval period it was the priest only who received the bread and wine, rather than the congregation), and offered it on behalf of both the living, and the dead, in particular, those who were believed to be in purgatory (a place where people were ‘purged’ of their sins after death before entrance in heaven).
The Church increasingly believed it had continued control over the souls of those in purgatory, and began stating that the offering of the Mass and the doing of good works can help you get time off purgatory. This eventually evolved (or rather devolved) into the doctrine of indulgences: if you do good works – such as give money to the church – you can get to heaven quicker after death. This was soon exploited. Finally, although for the early Church Fathers the Bible as the source of theological authority was to be interpreted through the Church’s traditions, by the late Medieval period, the Church’s traditions were themselves seen to be a source of authority alongside the Bible.
At that time the only permissible form of the Bible was the Latin translation (the Vulgate), so it could only be read by those who were educated enough (though ordinary people did tend to know the Bible stories and Psalms very well). But in the early 16th Century, people such as Erasmus of Rotterdam began to read the Bible in its original languages – Greek, Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic. They began to think that the basis for all these Roman Catholic views was not as Biblically grounded as claimed. In fact, the authority of the Bible was sometimes contrasted with the authority of the Church’s traditions. Increasingly, the latter was seen more as a tool than as a source of divine authority in its own right.
It was a German monk called Martin Luther who, influenced especially by a late Medieval understanding of the great thinker Augustine of Hippo, lit the match which caused a fire to burn throughout Europe. After reading St Paul, Luther’s understanding of salvation was that it was through Christ’s righteousness – not our own – which brought us salvation (when applied to us through God’s gift of faith). This doctrine, also called ‘justification by faith’, was in direct contradiction to the ideas of the sacrificial Mass, purgatory, and indulgences. Furthermore, it completely undermined the role of the Pope. What with Luther’s increasing emphasis that the Bible alone is the source of divine authority on theological matters (tradition being something of a useful tool in understanding it), a great battle of minds (and sometimes even weapons) was primed. The Church began to violently debate and fall out over Luther’s views.
Independently in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was also influenced by Erasmus of Rotterdam’s emphasis on the Bible’s authority, and began the process of dismantling much of the Roman Catholic structures of the city of Zurich,, ordering the cleansing of the churches from all images and statues. Most shockingly of all, he claimed that in the Mass, Christ was not present in the bread and the wine. Instead, the Mass was simply a remembering of Jesus’ death and resurrection (through which we had communion with Christ). The German Reformation under Martin Luther would spread across the whole of Northern Europe (including Scandinavia and the Baltic cities), and soon those influenced by it began breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. The same was the case with the Swiss Reformation, which began to influence Western Germany, France, and Holland. In part this was because the authority of the Pope had been increasingly weakened in many people’s eyes by the thinking of Luther and Zwingli; in part, it was because of the hard-line reaction of the Roman Catholic authorities to any questioning of Medieval understandings of the Pope and the Mass. The two sides were on loggerheads, and although a split was not necessary historically speaking, it wasn’t surprising.