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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part V - The Reformation: Lesson No. 32 - The Church of England

I. Introduction

Protestantism in England got off to a slow and shaky start. This was primarily because the Reformation in England was born, not of popular religious conviction, but of political and social expediency. Nor did the Reformation in England produce the renowned spiritual leaders, such as Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin, who arose to ignite and rally reformatory movements in other countries. This is not to say that England had none of sincere religious sentiment or heroic spirit, for hundreds of martyrs testify otherwise. However, the central characters in the English Reformation drama, those who dominated and directed it, were politicians and their subservient ecclesiastical officials, who were moved mostly by political self-interests. Consequently, England's Reformation, subject to the whims of the country's changing political winds, came on, not as a flood, but as a tide with its ebb and flow.

II. Henry VIII

It fell to a king, Henry VIII (1509-1547), to give Protestantism its toehold in England. Though Catholic, England had long possessed an independent spirit. The English episcopacy was largely controlled by the king, and bishops, often being the ones selected to serve in political positions, were appointed more for their political prowess than their piety. A strong nationalistic feeling which was antagonistic to foreign intervention and challenged loyalty to the pope had also grown up among Englishmen. Thus, it was papal authority rather than Catholic doctrine which tended to offend English sensitivities. These feelings coincided exactly with Henry's needs, for papal authority, not Catholic doctrine, was the obstacle in his way.

Ironically, Henry preferred to think of himself as an orthodox Catholic to the day of his death. For publishing his Assertion of the Seven Sacraments in 1521 he had won from Leo X the title "Defender of the Faith." Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, his brother's widow, but of their six children only Mary survived infancy. Desiring a male heir, he sought to have his marriage to Catherine annulled on alleged religious grounds, though he had received papal dispensation for the marriage in 15003 (cp. Lev. 20:21; Deut. 25:5-10). His request might have been granted except that the Pope was under the sway of Emperor Charles V who happened to be Catherine's nephew.

Failing to obtain an annulment from the pope Henry took advantage of the English aversion to foreign - in this case, papal - interference in national affairs and moved the Parliament to pass a series of acts which increasingly separated the English Church from papal authority. These acts finally culminated in the famous Act of Supremacy in November, 1534 which declared the English king to be "the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England," thus replacing the pope with the king (cp. Eph. 1:22). During these events Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn about January 25, 1533, had his marriage to Catherine adjudged null and void by Archbishop Cranmer on May 23, and had Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, born to him on September 7 (cp. Matt. 19:1-9). However, not long after Catherine died in January, 1536, Henry, tiring of a questionable marriage to Anne, charged her with adultery and had her beheaded, two days after Cranmer pronounced her marriage to Henry null and void. Eleven days after Anne's death, Henry married Jane Seymour who bore him his son, Edward, about a year later, and then died shortly thereafter. Henry married Anne of Cleves in January, 1540 out of political expediency but obtained an annulment about six months later. He then married Catherine Howard but had her beheaded in February, 1542 for questionable conduct. Finally, he married Catherine Parr who survived him at his death in 1547.

Beyond his rejection of supreme papal authority, Henry wanted to be known as an orthodox Catholic. Hence, his ecclesiastical reforms were extremely moderate. Protestantism in his Ten Articles (1536) manifested itself only in the moderation or omission of Catholic practices. Little that was strictly Catholic was condemned. In 1539 Parliament passed the Six Articles Act which restored a number of typically Catholic practices and doctrines - transubstantiation, communion in bread only, priestly celibacy, private masses, and auricular confession.

III. Henry's Successors

Though the Reformation spirit was lacking in Henry, his revolt did open a door to growing Protestantism in England. At the time of his death three religious parties vied with one another - the Protestants, the Catholics, and Henry's popular moderates. During the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, the Protestants dominated. During his six-year reign a Book of Common Prayer and the Forty-Two Articles (later revised as the Thirty-Nine Articles) which were decidedly Protestant in tone were issued. Upon Edward's death, the crown passed to Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, who was a Catholic. She reversed the reforms which had been made during the reigns of Henry and Edward. Papal authority in England was restored by Parliament in 1554, and the English Church was returned to a Catholic status, except that confiscated property was not returned to the Church. Mary persecuted Protestants with such cruelty and vigor that she was given the nickname, "Bloody Mary." With Mary's death and Elizabeth's accession Protestantism had a champion once again. Conditions were returned to a Protestant orientation. Though the Church of England is classed as Protestant, it has retained a strong Catholic slant. The confusion of its Protestant origins has left its mark with Catholic and Protestant attitudes in its membership referred to as High Church and Low Church.

IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) Henry wanted the Church of England to remain doctrinally Catholic.

(2) (T or F) The church has no universal earthly head.

(3) How was the Reformation in England different than in other countries?



(4) Aversion to ________ ____________ rather than ___________ ____________ prepared the way for the Reformation in England.

(5) What situation occasioned Henry's revolt against the papacy?



(6) Indicate by a "C" or "P" whether the following monarchs were Catholic or Protestant: ____ Edward ____ Mary ____ Elizabeth.

(7) What were Henry's more prominent sins?



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