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The English Reformation

At its inception, the Church of England had much in common with the Roman church from which it was separating.  However, as the English Reformation continued, many reforms from the Protestant movements were incorporated into the new church’s theology and polity.

While Henry VIII sought independence from papal authority, he was not a supporter of Protestant reforms espoused by the Puritans.  Though he declared himself "the supreme head on earth of the Church of England" (Henry VIII, Supremacy 285), he nonetheless continued to espouse several traditions of Rome which were the objects of reform elsewhere, such as transubstantiation, the withholding of communion wine from the laity, and the celibacy of clergy (Henry VIII, Six Articles 287).  González indicates that Henry was largely conservative in his religious views and that any reforms beyond his declaration of primacy were politically motivated as opposed to having theological differences (74).

But some elements of the Reformation began to enter the picture quite early.  Following on earlier attempts by Wycliffe to introduce Scripture in the vernacular, an English translation of the bible was introduced into the churches, allowing the laity to hear readings in their own tongue.  Further, it appears that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, incorporated some of Luther’s understanding of justification into his own preaching.  While adhering to contemporary views of satisfaction atonement (Cranmer 303), he nonetheless began to preach that Christians are "justified freely by faith without works" (Cranmer 307).

Under Henry’s son and successor, Edward VI, Cranmer went on to write the bulk of the Book of Common Prayer, which would serve as a standard for corporate worship within the Church of England.  While the first edition of this text includes language in the Eucharist referring to the bread and wine directly as the body and blood of Christ, the second edition, under the influence of Zwinglian thought was altered to indicate that the elements were a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice.  However, later under Elizabeth II, these two readings would be conjoined, opening the freedom of personal belief within the framework of church doctrine (González 76, 79).

The English Reformation was not without its setbacks.  Upon the death of Edward VI, Mary Tudor assumed the throne and reversed many of the earlier reforms.  As a Catholic, Mary banned the use of the phrase regia auctoritate fulcitus (sanctioned by royal authority), returning to papal allegiance (310).  She also ordered that clergy who had married to give up their wives and that the practice of church processions, holy days, fasting days and the Latin mass be reinstated (Tudor 311).  Under Mary’s rule, 300 clergy and Archbishop Cranmer himself were burned as heretics.

But with the rise of Elizabeth II, the Book of Common Prayer was reintroduced into the churches (Elizabeth II, Uniformity 313).  Further, several Protestant reforms were also introduced, barring pilgrimages and the offering of gifts to relics or images, and banning the use of prayer beads (Elizabeth II, Injunctions 315).  Shrines commemorating miracles, as well as any items associated with them, were also outlawed as idolatry and superstition (Elizabeth II, Injunctions 316).  During this time the clergy were also again allowed to marry (Elizabeth II, Injunctions 316).  The earlier Forty-two Articles released under Edward were revised and rereleased as The Thirty-nine Articles which included particular injunctions against the worship and adoration or relics, prayers to saints, the doctrine of purgatory, and the practice of pardons (320).  While introducing reforms, the Articles retained several Catholic doctrines such as the role of ordained clergy and the sacramental nature of Baptism and Eucharist (320-321).  One question that was raised for me by the readings was how the Episcopal Church today can still consider itself to be the "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.  It would seem that the Anglican Church, while organized differently in some respects, is much closer in its current incarnation to the theology of Luther than to that of Catholicism.

For me personally, the English Reformation remains relevant today because of the production of the Book of Common Prayer.  Though I was raised within the Southern Baptist tradition, the time I spent in the Episcopal Church in communal worship and in confirmation classes helped to foster within me a deep appreciation for the liturgy.  In an age when churches are grasping at straws to attract people on Sunday morning, oftentimes introducing whatever harebrained scheme is coming down the pike this week in the latest worship magazine, I found a great comfort in the familiarity of the liturgy as the public work of the assembled Body of Christ on a weekly basis.  The thoughtfulness in word choice, the meaning behind its formulations of doctrine, and the sense of continuity with others throughout the denomination and, historically, throughout the Anglican Communion, all worked together to counteract one of the worst outcroppings of the Protestant Reformation and the American cult of individuality.  For it is through this shared vision of common prayer and worship that many have discovered one way to understand our place within the context of the living Church as interdividuals called out for the purpose of God’s work on the earth.


Works Cited

Cranmer, Thomas. "A Sermon of the Salvation of Mankind." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 303-309.

Elizabeth II. "Act of Uniformity." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 313-314.

Elizabeth II. "The Elizabethan Injunctions." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. 314-317.

González, Justo L. The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985.

Henry VIII. "Act of Six Articles." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 285-294.

Henry VIII. "Act of Supremacy." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 285.

"The Thirty-nine Articles (1563)." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jantz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 317-323.

Tudor, Mary. "The Marian Injunctions." A Reformation reader: primary texts with introductions. Ed. Denis R. Jants. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. 310-311.

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