I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s the English Reformation in 1000 words.
The airbrushed version of the story goes like this: King Henry VIII needed a male heir. His wife had only managed a daughter and things were looking bleak on that front. Henry fell in love with another woman who surely was young and fertile enough to produce a son. In order to legitimize any children of the second union, Henry needed to remove his first wife from the picture. The pope wouldn’t grant an annulment. So, in 1534, Henry directed Parliament to approve his divorce and proclaim him the “supreme head of the Church of England.” Without the pope’s interference, the Reformation in England could start scrubbing the grimy Romish doctrines from the walls of a truer Christianity.
Of course, the airbrush was invented to hide blemishes and make people look glossy and even-coloured. Let’s take another pass at the story: King Henry VIII needed a male heir. His wife had only managed a daughter and things were looking bleak on that front. Annulments were not uncommon at the time, but Pope Clement VII balked because Rome needed the friendship of Spain, whose ruler Charles V did not want to see his aunt, Henry’s wife Catherine, be humiliated. So, Henry took matters into his own hands for political, rather than religious, reasons. You see, the Reformation was lumbering toward its third decade on the continent, but Henry appeared immune to its effects. Indeed, at a time before all the business about divorce, the pope had proclaimed Henry a “defender of the faith.” When the 1534 acts of Parliament established Henry as the head of the Church of England, the monarch envisioned a sort of Roman Catholicism minus the Roman bit.
The reformers interpreted Henry’s break with the pope as an opportunity to install Protestantism on the island. Henry’s dissolution of the English monasteries fueled the reformers’ hopes because the monasteries were bastions of papal influence. But the reformers only saw what they wanted to see. Henry dissolved the monasteries not to signal new reforms, but to consolidate his power and to refill the royal coffers with the assets of the rich monastic lands. With an unsympathetic monarch and infighting among various Protestant groups, reform in the English Church would be slow in coming and would never reach the full break with Roman Catholic doctrine that happened in many places on the continent.
This is not to say that Henry never waved the flag of reform. Rather, his support for the myriad religious flavors being tasted on the streets of London shifted depending on winds of the current political moment. Henry was a political realist: he sought advantage with little regard for principle. In direct conflict with this realism, Henry was also a glutton: his royal appetite for food, alcohol, and women was the stuff of legend. Indeed, when Henry died, he probably looked something like Jabba the Hutt.
The task of reconciling Henry’s gluttonous appetites, political maneuvers, and religious position fell to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer favored incremental reform of the church, and over time, his subtle influence over the king pushed England toward an unique experience of the Christian faith, both like and unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
In his thirteen years as the head of the Church of England, King Henry married five more times, divorced twice (Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves), and executed two of his wives (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard). His gluttony and penchant for disposing of his wives make it remarkable that the church he accidentally started turned out as well as it has. Okay, moving on.
Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, finally produced a male heir before she died, but King Edward VI was never a picture of health and outlived his father by only six years. In that time, Archbishop Cranmer invented something that has defined the Anglican Church ever since: the Book of Common Prayer. The first edition, appearing in 1549, was Cranmer’s English synthesis of various traditional sources. This first book was decidedly Roman Catholic in tone, a fact that led to a second, much more Protestant, edition three years later.
When Edward died, his successor hit the reset button on reform in the English Church, and she hit it hard with blood and burning. Mary Tudor, Henry’s first daughter and a staunch Roman Catholic, repealed the reforms made since 1534 and relentlessly sought to purge England of all Protestant influence. During her five-year reign, England once again affirmed obedience to the pope. As with most everything else in these tumultuous decades, religion and politics once again danced clumsily with one another. Mary’s allegiance to the pope was borne not just out of religious zeal, but also to secure Mary’s status as a legitimate heir to the throne. Mary burned several hundred people at the stake including our old friend, Thomas Cranmer.
Mary’s reign was fierce but short. Upon Mary’s death in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne and reinstated the religious policies of her father and brother. Like Mary’s, Elizabeth’s legitimacy as heir was tied directly to the version of history that the ruling religious class embraced. In 1559, Elizabeth issued a third edition of the Book of Common Prayer. This edition combined the varying theology found in the first two books and birthed the Anglican tradition of navigating the via media (the “middle way”). Elizabeth reigned more than forty years, during which the Church of England established its own identity separate from but related to other expressions of Christianity. Her demeanor and bearing were the antithesis of her father’s; indeed, she was known as the “Virgin Queen,” and she makes for a much more appealing spiritual founder of the Anglican Church.
So, the beginning of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, is predicated on a great historical irony. The whole messy business began when Henry needed a male heir. In the end, his female heir solidified the new Church as one of the major expressions of Christianity in the world.*
* Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. II helped refresh my memory on many of the above details. Thanks Justo!