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18. The Anglican Reform: The Middle way?

The English Crown’s Response to Lutheranism

By 1521 Luther’s ideas had begun to influence the English universities. In reaction to growing support for Luther’s call for reform Henry VIII (1491–1547) wrote the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, wherein he repudiated Luther’s Evangelical doctrine and outlined a cause for Papal supremacy of the Church. “For it is as easy for the Ethiopian to change his colour, or the Leopard his spots,” Henry wrote, “as for Luther to be converted by teaching.” (Def. of Sac, 450). As it would turn out constancy or consistency would not be hallmarks of Henry VIII’s own life and beliefs. Pope Leo X bestowed the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ (FD) on Henry VIII for his attack on Lutheranism and for defending Papal supremacy. Luther responded with a book entitled the Martin Luther Against the King of England (1522), wherein he lambasted Henry VIII for his ignorance and uncritical regurgitation of Aquinas’ philosophy.

The Great Divorce

Things were about to change radically in England when in 1526 Henry made plans to divorce his Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon following failure to produce a male heir. It would take Henry six-years to get the annulment he so desperately needed. The king argued that Catherine’s brief marriage with his late brother Arthur invalidated his own union with her, citing Leviticus 18:16 and 20:2. However, Henry knew that he entered into his marriage with Catherine because of a special dispensation given to him by Pope Julius II.

Pope Clement VII refused to agree that Pope Julius II had infringed God’s law in granting the Papal dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place. Furthermore, Clement did not want to alienate the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was Catherine’s nephew. The English Church also refused to overrule the Pope, and a meeting of clergy and lawyers in 1530 refused to accept that the Pope’s jurisdiction could be flouted. Henry had reached a dead end.

Hope for the annulment arose with the death of Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham in 1532. This allowed Henry to appoint a more compliant Archbishop Thomas Cranmer as his replacement. By this time Anne Boleyn was already pregnant and in 1533 Henry secretly married her (thereby entering into a bigamous marriage). In May 1533 Cranmer succeeded in annulling Henry’s marriage to Catherine in defiance of Rome.


So far Henry had achieved the new marriage he needed, but he was soon forced to go further. When the Pope threatened to excommunicate him unless he returned to Catherine he was faced with the prospect of rebellion in England. In 1534 a Supremacy Act by the English Parliament declared Henry the ‘supreme head’ of the English Church. Many Catholics objected to this as an overstep by Parliament in matters of Catholic dogma. Among them was Thomas More who was executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy.

Henry VIII was excommunicated in 1535 by Pope Paul III but is should be remembered that in his theology Henry remained far more Roman Catholic than Reformed. Evidence of this was seen in 1535 when Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp by English agents sent by Henry VIII and executed in 1536 outside Brussels for the crime of publishing the Bible in English. The threat of a Catholic crusade against England forced Henry into defensive preparations; he paid for these by the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. In 1536 the Irish Parliament declared King Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church in Ireland.

An English Catholic Church?

The first attempt at defining the doctrine of the Church of England was the Ten Articles in 1536. These articles stated that: 1. That Holy Scriptures and the three Creeds are the basis and summary of a true Christian faith. 2. The necessity of baptism for salvation 3. That penance consists of contrition, confession, and reformation, and is necessary to salvation. 4. That the body and blood of Christ are really present in the elements of the Eucharist. 5. That justification is remission of sin and reconciliation to God by the merits of Christ; but good works are necessary. 6. That images in churches are useful. 7. That saints are to be honoured. 8. Saints may be invoked as intercessors, and their holy days observed. 9. Church ceremonies are to be observed. 10. That prayers for the dead are good and useful, but the efficacy of papal pardon, and of soul-masses offered at certain localities, is negative.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, a rising in the north of England against Henry VIII, was put down in 1536–37. In 1538 an order was granted placing of an English Bible in every church, but Henry would not go any further in reforming the theology of the Church of England.

Further doctrinal definition was provided in The Six Articles of 1539 which swung away from all reformed positions. The Six Articles was referred to as “the bloody whip with six strings” by many protestants. In the Six Articles: 1. Transubstantiation affirmed, 2. Concomitance affirmed, 3. Clerical Celibacy affirmed, 4. Vows of chastity affirmed, 5. Private masses affirmed, 6. Sacrament of Confession affirmed.

Henry now tried to maintain a balance in religion, neither Papal nor Lutheran. This was symbolized in July 1540 by the simultaneous execution of three alleged Roman Catholics and three Lutherans. The King's Book in 1543, re-established most of the earlier Roman Catholic doctrines, and in 1543 the reading of the English Bible was restricted by law, but in 1544. the English Litany was issued. At his death Henry’s will was largely Roman Catholic in its emphases, requesting prayers for his soul.

Edwardian Reform

When Henry died in 1547 his son Edward VI came to the throne still a child. This allowed the reformers at the court and in the Church, with Cranmer at their head, a free hand. During this time Cranmer produced the First and Second Books of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552), and a summary of key Anglican doctrine, the Forty-Two Articles in 1553. However, Edward died in 1553 aged 15.

Mary I and Counter Reformation

Mary (ruled 1553-1558) was the child of Henry VIII by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. A loyal Catholic she restored Papal supremacy and initiated a widespread persecution of Protestants which was encouraged by the Papacy. A Rebellion in 1554 was crushed with its leader Thomas Wyatt hanged, drawn and quartered. Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley (The Oxford Martyrs) are burnt at the stake (1555). Cranmer’s arrest and interrogation resulted in his lapsing and reverting to Roman Catholicism. However, when he was sentenced to death he recanted, reverting once again back to Reformed theology. He was burned at the stake in 1556.

The Elizabethan Settlement

Elizabeth (ruled 1558-1603) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She came to the throne in 1558 after Mary’s death and was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570. The Thirty-Nine Articles were issued during her reign in 1563. Opposition to her rule in the Rising of the Northern Earls 1569-70 was defeated. The Spanish Armada of 1588 was launched as a Catholic Crusade against England but failed. Philip II of Spain would lauch further attempts at invasion in 1596 and 1597, but each Armada ended in failure and eventually bankrupted Spain.

The Anglican Reformation was achieved under Elizabeth I but many Christians in England were left disappointed. Roman Catholics viewed her support of Reformed theology as a betrayal of orthodoxy, while other Protestants felt her reforms did not go far enough. This would lead to non-conformist churches and movements in England that sought for a church home outside of the official Church of England. In the final analysis the Anglican Reform as an Act of Parliament was a unique movement in the history of the Reformation. In politics compromise is often seen as a virtue but in terms of theological dogma this is rarely the case. Thus, the Anglican middle way is something of an anomaly in Reformation history.


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