One Church, One Century, Six Identities: What is Anglicanism (Part 3)

By Joshua Penduck 

Last time I talked about Anglicanism, I talked about the Reformation context for where an independent Church of England began. But unlike those who followed after Martin Luther in Germany (Lutheran) and those who followed after Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and west Germany (Reformed), the Reformation in England wasn’t in anyway smooth.

In fact, during the sixteenth century, the Church of England went through no less than six different identities.

Identity One: Medieval Roman Catholic

At the beginning of the century, the Church of England was one of the most structured and organised parts of the Roman Catholic world, and a model to be emulated. The kings of England were deeply committed to Papal authority and traditional Catholic theology, so much so that Henry VIII was named as ‘Defender of the Faith’ (Fidei defensatrix) by Pope Leo X after he wrote the anti-Lutheran book ‘Assertio Septem Sacramentorum’ (‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’).

Identity Two: English Catholic

But then, the Pope, who was normally quite generous in granting divorces to monarchs throughout Christendom, decided not to grant Henry’s own request for a divorce. Why? Simply put: Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, whose own nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was holding the Pope prisoner. It wasn’t a happy situation. The Popes had been gratuitously liberal when it came to the sanctity of marriage, and it came back to haunt them. Henry pulled the Church of England out of communion with Rome, made himself its Head (and then divorced his wife). The previously existing Church of England was now independent of Rome again. He then ransacked the monasteries, which though they had become bloated with riches, were still the main source of welfare for the poor. Henry’s Church was pretty much traditional Catholicism without the Pope and without the monasteries. This is more or less a vision that would be resurrected amongst many Anglo-Catholic Anglicans in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Although he sometimes would veer in a Lutheran direction, and towards the end of his reign the ‘Evangelicals’ (or Protestants) would get increasing sway in court, Henry remained a Catholic, and the Church of England remained for all intents and purposes a traditionally medieval Catholic church (minus the monasteries).

Identity Three: Reforming Catholic

Edward VI

When Henry died, the Evangelicals took the upper hand, and with a new young and sickly but nevertheless Evangelical King on the throne, Edward VI, reform was in the air. In 1549, the new boy king introduced a new reformed Prayer Book, one which was to standardise the multiple worship services across the country. This had been written by his Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The 1549 Prayer Book was still recognisably Catholic. It still held the sacraments – baptism and Holy Communion – in high veneration, kept traditional Catholic clothing such as chasubles, maintained the prayers for the dead, but many of the typical devotions of Medieval Catholic worship (such as veneration of Mary and the saints) was severely reduced. Furthermore, Lutheran theology and even bits of the Reformed theology was creeping in. Due to an odd legal loophole in the church’s canons, many Anglo-Catholics in the 19th Century would try to return to some of the aspects of this Prayer Book (especially in regard to vestments such as stoles and chasubles).

Identity Four: The Rome of the Reformed

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

In 1552, Archbishop Cranmer revised the Prayer Book again in a radically more Lutheran and Reformed direction. The prayers for the dead and traditional vestments were scrapped, and many of the old devotions were literally smashed. Furthermore, the sacraments were no longer understood to be the location of Christ’s physical presence (as was the case in Medieval Christianity), but instead were close to being seen as mere memorials of Jesus’ death upon the Cross (through which, in faith, the faithful may receive communion with Christ). Cranmer also put together a book of thoroughly Protestant sermons (The Homilies) to be read by the priests in churches. Protestant theologians from throughout Europe were invited to teach and study in Oxford and Cambridge, and to advise Cranmer and the Reformers. The Church of England became the centre of the Reformed branch of the Reformation. For the sake of good church order, Cranmer kept the traditional structure of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, with many of the Medieval developments (Archbishops, Cathedrals with Deans and Canons, the parish and diocesan system). It wasn’t worth the hassle of changing them. But then, the sickly boy king Edward VI died. Despite an aborted attempt to stick Jane Grey on the throne, the firmly Roman Catholic child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary I, came to the throne.

Identity Five: The Counter-Reformation Hub

Mary I

Mary brought back communion with Rome, and through her Archbishop, Reginald Pole, began to reintroduce Roman Catholic practice. However, this wasn’t simply a return to Medieval Christianity. Pole had been very influenced by humanists such as Erasmus, and so the Catholicism that he developed in England was very different. It introduced seminaries to properly train priests (in particular to combat the articulate Protestant pastors), as well as introducing little liturgical items (such as the ‘tabernacle’ which would hold the sacrament). These innovations would later be instituted at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which would in turn apply them to the whole Roman Catholic world. Mary I’s Catholicism was a forerunner of the reform of the whole Catholic church. However, Mary was violently opposed the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in England, and would burn many at the stake (including Archbishop Cranmer). It was actions like these which would turn the population of England against the Roman Catholic reforms. Like Edward before her, Mary had no heir, so when she died, she was succeeded by her sister, the Protestant Elizabeth. This in turn would lead to the sixth identity of the Church of England, which we will look at next time.


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