Henry VIII was faced with a problem. He was married to Catherine of Aragon, and the couple had yet to have a son. Henry VIII needed a male heir to secure his family’s control of the throne. He also felt his marriage was invalid, since Catherine had first been married to his late brother, Arthur. Pope Julius II had granted special permission for Henry VIII to marry his brother’s widow, but the king feared that wasn’t enough to remove God’s judgment of his marriage to Catherine. Further, Henry VIII desired to be married to Anne Boleyn. He needed to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. But the pope during that time, Clement VII, refused to grant Henry’s request. Complicating matters for the pope was the fact that Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Clement VII wanted to stay on the good side of Charles V.
What was a king to do? Henry VIII turned to the newly named archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who was willing to nullify his marriage. Though the pope excommunicated Henry VIII, parliament acted to support the king. It was made illegal to appeal a church decision in England to the church in Rome. Then, in 1534, the British parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. Henry’s main motivation in all this, González says, was for a “restoration of the rights of the crown against undue papal intervention.” Through the Act of Supremacy, this was finally achieved; the head of the church in England was now the king. The church in England officially separated from the church of Rome.
King Henry VIII’s move toward reformation had less to do with theology and more to do with a rejection of the pope’s authority. Henry still held to Catholic beliefs. Yet others in England, including Thomas Cranmer, held Protestant beliefs and sympathies. After the king’s death, his son, Edward VI, came to power. When Edward became king, says historian Bruce Shelley, “the power of government under young Edward rested with a group of royal advisers who were in sympathy with the Protestant Reformation, so official policy shifted abruptly in a Protestant direction.”
Cranmer helped lead the changes, which included the use of his Book of Common Prayer in worship gatherings instead of the liturgy of the traditional Latin mass. But this move toward Protestantism quickly stopped when Mary, daughter of Catherine, came to the throne after her brother’s death. Mary, a devout Catholic, was later known as “Bloody Mary” because of the many Protestants who were executed under her command. Thomas Cranmer, the former archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake.
Another reversal took place when Elizabeth I came to the throne. The daughter of Anne Boleyn and half-sister of Mary, Elizabeth was a Protestant. Elizabeth tried to follow a middle way, what is called
the “Via Media,” between the various Protestant beliefs and some Catholic practices. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Protestantism took root more fully in the English landscape.
Breaking with Rome
Scholar Mark Noll notes that the English Reformation signaled a purposeful break from the Catholic Church. Earlier Protestant reformers had not initially set out to separate from the universal church, though that had been the end result. But now, as typified by the reformation in England, there was a move toward more “self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity. “This was the effect: “By the time of England’s Act of Supremacy in 1534 . . . more and more regions were setting up their own distinct forms of the Christian faith.” Today, the Church of England, or the Anglican church, continues to be influential around the world through the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal church in the United States is an o shoot of the Anglican church.
Although the reformation in England started with political motives, God has certainly used the Church of England in incredible ways. Reflect on this fact and the good that God is able to bring about even through our muddled motivations.