When we think of the church in England, we think of the Church of England. Our Anglican tradition. The Archbishop of Canterbury. A church founded by Henry VIII. But our English story starts well before Henry created the church of England in the mid-1500s. It starts in the first two centuries after the birth of Christ, with missionaries to the British Isles.
Early historians of Christianity note that there were British representatives at the Council of Arles (314 CE). Britain had its first homegrown heretic (someone who preaches something that is not correct, according to the institutional church) in Pelagius, who opposed the doctrine of original sin. St Augustine wasn’t amused, and wrote a whole treatise about Pelagius’ error, called The Anti-Pelagian Letters.
…and when the Anglo-Saxons invaded England in the fifth century, they found a country that was largely Christian. The Anglo-Saxons, by the way, didn’t find much to like about Christianity UNTIL Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to convert them all.
…and it’s important to have saints to counterbalance those heretics, so we present to you the first British saint: St Alban, a pagan who converted to Christianity and who was martyred for his faith in the late 200’s during a time that the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was busily making many Christians into martyrs. St Alban is said to have saved the life of a priest when a Roman soldier was coming by donning the priest’s cloak and saying that he was the cleric. The soldier believed Alban, and lopped off his head. It is said that the soldier’s eyes dropped out when he did that. Bad call, soldier boy.
In Germany, a friar named Martin Luther was expressing his disgust at the venality of the Church selling indulgences and such –
… so he posted a document outlining his arguments against these misdeeds in a document called “The Ninety- Five Theses” on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. The Church was not amused. Luther was at the heart of a great movement to reform the Church, but the Church did not really want to be reformed. He was excommunicated.
His argument for reformation of the church continued. Some key points in his theological argument: The Bible should be made available to the common people in their own language, rather than Latin. The Pope was not the final authority on matters of doctrine – only Scripture could do that. (Sola scriptura) Salvation is not earned by good deeds, but by faith in Christ, who saved us all by his death. Thus, selling indulgences as a way for people to get into heaven is a denial of Christ’s death as our salvation. He argued for a priesthood of all believers, rather than a special class of people who were ordained. He believed priests should marry. He believed that the common people should sing hymns in church. His work formed the beginnings of the Lutheran Church.
Henry VIII hated it. He styled himself “Defender of the Faith.”
Henry VIII, 1491-1547 Did you know that: Henry lived and died a devout Catholic (or so he thought). Henry was deeply opposed to the reforms that Luther promoted, and arrested those in England who were trying to reform the Catholic Church in England, prior to his own break with Rome. Henry’s cardinal, Cardinal Wolsey, decried William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, as a heretic. Henry allied with Rome (and Spain) against France, in 1511. This may have had more to do with gaining control of France for himself…but in 1520 he met with Francis I in hopes of having peace between the two nations.
Life was tough for Henry. What’s a king to do if he has no male heirs (legitimate ones, that is?) Catherine of aragon Anne Boleyn
The King’s Great Matter Henry had only one child by Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother. That child was Mary. Henry had required a special papal dispensation for that marriage. Henry came to believe that the marriage was – despite the dispensation – illicit, and that God was punishing him by not allowing Catherine to bear him a male heir. Henry asked the new pope, Clement VII, for an annulment… By the way, in the meantime Henry met and became enamored with Anne Boleyn, whose older sister had been his mistress. Anne refused his advances unless she was to be his wife. …but Clement was imprisoned by Catherine’s nephew, so Cardinal Wolsey convened an ecclesiastical court to overturn the marriage. This court said the marriage to Catherine should be annulled, but it was the Pope who had to say this, not some bishops in England…and the Pope was taking his time. Wolsey was banished. The archbishop of Canterbury died, and the Boleyn’s family chaplain, Thomas Cranmer was named the new ABC.
Thomas Cranmer convened an ecclesiastical court that decided that the King’s marriage to Catherine was null and void. Catherine was stripped of her title of Queen and was sent away. Henry, impatient with the Pope, secretly married Anne Boleyn. She became pregnant. Thomas Cromwell, a supporter of Anne, shepherded legislation through Parliament that set the stage for a final break with Rome, even as the Pope excommunicated Henry: The Ecclesiastical Appointments Act 1534 required the clergy to elect bishops nominated by the Sovereign. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared that the King was "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England" and the Treasons Act 1534 made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge the King as such. In response to the excommunications, the Peter's Pence Act was passed in and it reiterated that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope. England no longer acknowledged the Pope, and yet… Henry still thought of himself as Catholic.
The first Book of Common Prayer (1549) The Elizabethan settlement and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1558) The King James Bible – in English – completed in 1611. Ongoing battles as to how Catholic or how Protestant the “via media” was going to be.
Disestablishment of the American churches. Ordaining the first truly American bishop – Samuel Seabury - via the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Ordaining two American bishops in England after the passage of the Consecration of Bishops Abroad Act. Tensions during the Civil War, although there was no true schism as in other denominations. More tension over high church Tractarianism vs low church Evangelicalism– some things never change!
Women are ordained, first “irregularly” in 1974, then officially as of 1976. Women are elected bishop (Barbara Harris – 1989) An openly gay and partnered man is elected Bishop of New Hampshire (Gene Robinson – 2003). A woman is named Presiding Bishop (head of the Episcopal Church in the US – 2006).
First American Book of Common Prayer – 1789. Revisions: 1789 1892 1928 1979 Folks still argue about which version is best!
But the focus on the Great Commandment remains: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the church still works to “clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned.” And our reliance on the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason still guides us.