The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Anglican tradition

Kells folio of Christ

Depiction of Christ from the illuminated gospels in the Book of Kells

The term “Anglican” refers to the broad topic of “Christianity in England,” and it is somewhat of a misnomer, except that it was coined at a time – the 17th century – when it was vital for English theologians to affirm Christianity in England over against continental Roman Catholicism. In truth, however, there were Christians in the British Isles long before there were English people, much longer in fact than the lifetime of the “Anglican” label itself. Anglicanism, however, embraces this pre-English heritage, especially of late, as recovering Celtic Christianity has become a movement of sorts; indeed, Anglicanism embraces all of Western and Eastern Christian tradition as the well from which it drinks, not in order to imitate but to be informed and, perhaps, formed and reformed by relevant insights from all threads of the Christian tapestry. Anglicanism, in other words, is a broad tradition that finds within itself factions that often are in profound disagreement precisely because of our willingness to live and let live.

There have been Christians in the British Isles probably since the third century, although it’s likely that they weren’t the natives but Romans, whose armies had pushed back the various tribes and clans of Celts into what are now Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As Roman domination began to wane, the tribes pushed back; and at some point, perhaps in the late fourth or early fifth centuries, Christian missionaries – St. Patrick, for example – converted some among the Celtic, Irish and Welsh tribes of the western Isles. This Christian culture quickly flourished, producing numerous monasteries, many of them “co-ed” and most of them centers of learning and art. (A wonderful discussion of this history: Tom Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.)

The Angles and Saxons, meanwhile, had been migrating to the eastern Isles as the Romans withdrew, and these tribes are the roots of “English” history in Britain. In the late sixth century, a Roman Catholic pope, Gregory I, sent missionaries to England to convert these tribes – totally unaware that Christianity had been established in Britain for about 150 years! A group of Benedictine monks from Rome landed at Thanet in 597 and proceeded to Canterbury, seat of the Anglo-Saxon king, who had married a Christian princess of the Franks. He welcomed the monks, and they established a monastery at Canterbury.

Over time, the Roman Catholic and Celtic Christian communities came into contact and found that there were distinct differences of theological opinion and practice. They didn’t celebrate Easter on the same day, for example, and their appreciation and understanding of the natural world were profoundly different – the Celts had a high regard for and mystical connection with God in nature; while the Catholics were imbued with Augustinian theology that nature was something to be overcome and subdued if one was to know the salvation of God in Christ. These and numerous other matters large and small were controversial in Britain for more than 150 years; meanwhile, Celtic and Catholic Christianity continued to flourish. At the Synod of Whitby in 867, after both traditions had presented argument and debate, a Northumbrian king, Oswy, decreed that Roman Catholic doctrine and customs would prevail in England. The Celtic tradition receded to become a kind of “hidden tradition” in British church history, while Catholic Christianity became normative through the middle ages until the Protestant reformation – about 700 years.

Henry VIII trampling pope

A 16th-century cartoon shows Henry VIII trampling the pope

The story of the English Reformation was enormously complex and soaked in royal politics, international intrigue and ecclesiastical maneuvering. As reformation of Roman Catholicism began spreading in Europe under the leadership of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and the like – another very complex story – English church reformers were looking to their king, Henry VIII, who prided himself as a theologian (and just about everything else), and had been honored by the papacy as “defender of the faith.” Henry, however, had a political problem at cross-purposes with Roman Catholic doctrine. His marriage with Catherine of Aragon had produced no male heir, only Mary (more of her later). Henry feared that his empire would crumble if there were no male heir apparent at his death. He wanted the marriage annulled – all but impossible given the politics of Europe at the time (Catherine was the aunt of the powerful king of Spain, Charles V).

The king’s desire to be free of Rome was not solely rooted in marital difficulties. Among other things, the Catholic Church in England was financially wealthy and land-rich. Henry had his eyes on monastic foundations that controlled vast properties in England, and he always had chafed under church laws, which he believed impinged on his right to rule. Priests, for example, were not subject to English law when accused of crimes; rather, they were subject to ecclesiastical courts. Rome, not the king, appointed politically powerful prelates, who also controlled vast amounts of property. They were peers of the realm, but they owed their primary allegiance to the pope. Henry VIII was not the only Catholic king who resented the church’s political power, but he was finally willing to take a step that others had not – over time (1529-1534), through legislation, Parliament made the king head of the Church of England.

Severing ties with the Roman church accomplished much more for Henry VIII than merely securing annulment of his marriage. The king seized control of monastic properties, assumed the appointment of bishops and archbishops and required that they swear allegiance to the crown. English law became supreme. The Church in England became the Church of England. It was the state religion, and Henry ruthlessly persecuted non-conformists, but the church’s former privileges of state were abolished.

The king, however, embarked on a kind of counter-reformation after the break with Rome brought civil unrest. Reform had long been a topic in England – and there were, perhaps, as many disputes among the reformers as there were complaints against the pope. Some were radical. Iconoclasts, for example, called for the removal of all statuary and appurtenances such as candles from Catholic churches, which met with strong opposition. There was violence in the streets over these and numerous other disputes and controversies. The king reacted with strong decrees in 1538 forbidding priests to marry and expelling Anabaptists from the realm, among other things. He published the Act of Six Articles in 1539, re-affirming Roman Catholic practices such as sacramental confession, which Protestants found abhorrent. Having previously agreed to put English bibles in all churches by 1539, Henry decreed in 1543 that only nobility were permitted to read the sacred texts. Accessible English bibles were removed from churches.

Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving a male heir, Edward VI, the 9-year-old son of Jane Seymour. Edward had been reared as a Protestant, so reformers led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer began “re-reforming” the Church of England, which was typified in many ways by publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and 1552. These books were compilations and translations of ancient texts traditionally used in western Catholic worship, but they also prescribed how religious rituals would appear; for example, by prescribing vestments (no chasubles!) and the appointments and arrangement of sacred space. Priests, for example, would face the congregation for celebrations of Holy Communion; and all the old Latin priestly “secret prayers” were abolished. Churches were de-decorated – all images dismantled, all stained-glass and shrines destroyed. These changes were not without opposition. Throughout the realm, loyal Catholics buried their gold and silver appointments, their stone altars and anything else subject to destruction by the Protestant kingdom. Edward, however, died suddenly in 1553, which brought about yet another counter-reformation to the Church of England.

Queen Mary I was the only surviving child of Catherine of Aragon and was Roman Catholic to the core. She did all she could to bring the power of the throne against Protestant reforms in England. Among other things, she executed Archbishop Cranmer and many other church leaders who had instigated reform. She got the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of English Protestants. On the other hand, English Catholics who had been persecuted during the reign of Edward VI were delighted with Mary’s coming to the throne. Her reign was short-lived, however. She died of cancer in 1558. Her successor was Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s long reign of 43 years, firmly established the church in England as the Church of England. There has not been a significant attempt since Elizabeth’s time to “counter-reform” the church in Great Britain. The Church of England is the state religion of England to this day.

There is much more to the story of the Church of England and the formation of Anglicanism, but this brief summary of the English reformation gives some indication of the turbulence out of which our ethos emerged. There always has been a strong current of European Catholicism and Protestantism in English Christianity. Historically, these currents converged in Elizabeth’s time, even though Catholics and Protestants remained profoundly loyal to their traditions. All English Christians were bound by national identity and a strong monarch beset by international enemies – especially Catholic Spain. Elizabeth insisted on religious peace at home, and she obtained it by demanding conformity to what has come to be called the Elizabethan Settlement, which made no one entirely happy but which conceded ground to both sides. It was a move away from what might be called the “stripped down” version of Protestantism that had taken over England before the reign of Mary I.

Authorized Version (KJV) 1611

Title page of the Authorized Version of the Bible, 1611

Elizabeth was followed by James I, who continued to rule in the spirit of Elizabeth’s great settlement. This is the monarch who commissioned the Authorized Version of the Bible, also known as the “King James version.” James’ successor, Charles I provoked civil wars in England by, among other things, seeming to move back toward Catholicism. “Puritan” Protestants took over the government in 1649, executed Charles, abolished the monarchy and established a Commonwealth that lasted about 10 years. It was during the tumultuous period, the 17th century, that the term “Anglicanism” began to refer to that uniquely English tradition of Christianity that always seemed to be at war with itself.

Anglican theologians began to enunciate a theological identity for Anglicanism based on its historic adherence to the “middle way” between the warring claims of Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicanism, they said, understands itself in continuity with historic Catholicism and yet in recognition of the need for reforming vigilance; however, and this is an important point, Anglicans are always willing to live in this tension between two types of Christianity and thereby create an altogether third point of view. Catholicism, for example, regards the bread and wine of Holy Communion as the transubstantiated flesh and blood of Jesus, a notion utterly rejected by Protestants, who believe that Holy Communion is a memorial meal and no more. Anglicans acknowledge the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion but don’t try to define it as a matter of dogma. It is, we believe, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

Elizabeth I is said to have put it this way when asked her opinion by a Puritan leader: “Christ’s was the word that spake it. He took the bread and brake it; and what His word doth make it I do believe, and take it.” Elizabeth’s ditty is an almost perfect exposition of Anglican theology: The living and active Word of God is paramount, a Protestant affirmation, although with less emphasis on the written word; the biblical tradition of Jesus’ action is emphasized, again, a Protestant affirmation; the belief that something happens to “these creatures of bread and wine” when we follow Christ’s example in this way, a more Catholic way of understanding Holy Communion; and a typically Anglican conclusion to the theological formulation – acceptance of the gift itself in light of both traditions, but in a way that favors neither. Elizabeth’s formulation is neither “transubstantiation” nor “mere memorial.” Anglicanism doesn’t define itself against other perspectives but seeks to find a comprehensive path of understanding that gives an account of authentic experience from many perspectives.


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