The English Reformation: Creativity, Coups, and Compromise

Posted on November 17, 2011 by


The Protestant Reformation brought about sweeping religious changes in sixteenth-century Europe, altering the state of the Church and many governments. While specific groups who opposed Catholic corruption initiated the religious reform, most of the fledgling religions’ success depended on their secular leaders’ power (Hillerbrand, 2011). Within the past century, secular leaders in Western Europe had been stabilizing their control over their nations, so they were more able to reject papal authority and dictate their country’s religion (“Reformation”, 2011).  Loosely governed,  democratic nations accepted the more radical Calvinism, while strong centralist regimes either remained Catholic or transitioned into Lutheranism, a restrained reform where tradition remained intact (Koch, 2011). While most religious change depended on the government or the secular leaders’ beliefs, monarchs such as Henry the Eighth decided the fate of the English Church for entirely different reasons (Ozment, 2011).

Henry’s early success as a ruler could be credited to his advisor Thomas Wolsey, who  managed the nation and maintained good relations with the papacy for twenty years (Melton, 2005). At that time England was Catholic, and Henry was so insistent on papal supremacy that Pope Leo X gave him the title “The Defender of the Faith”. Matters would change, though, when in 1529 Henry decided that he wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, probably because of his relationship with Anne Boleyn or Catherine’s failure to produce a male heir. The Pope declined the annulment, and Thomas Wolsey couldn’t justify the action. Henry promptly hired a new advisor, Thomas Cromwell. With the assistance of Cromwell and the renowned scholar Thomas Cranmer,  Henry procured a declaration that his marriage was null and void from numerous universities across Europe (Shepherd, 2005). The team of three then worked with Parliament to pass two significant legislatures, the 1533 “Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome” and the 1534 “Act of Supremacy” (Shepherd, 2005). The former forbade the appeal of any matter to Rome and deemed the king the head of all such matters in England. The latter declared Henry the “supreme head in Earth of the Church of England”, removing papal jurisdiction from the country (Sutcliffe, 2011). Henry now had complete authority over religion in England and the freedom to marry whomever he wanted.

Henry oversaw Thomas Cranmer’s institution as the Archbishop of Canterbury because of the scholar’s belief in biblical devotion to monarchy. The new Archbishop pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and his secret marriage to Anne Boleyn valid. With his new power from the Act of Supremacy, Henry dissolved many religious institutions, confiscated their lands for the Crown and imprisoned or executed many who resisted the new royal supremacy. Citizens were not allowed to accept papal authority, saints’ days, masses for the dead, or relics. Local authorities and enthusiastic Protestants ensured that the citizens complied with the reforms (Burns, 2010).

Despite Henry’s tight hold on his people, the English Reformation initially did little break from Catholic tradition. Henry’s 1539 Six Articles supported the Catholic beliefs of transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper and priestly celibacy, showing that Henry’s Reformation was not for love of Protestantism, but for freedom from the Pope. By the end of Henry’s reign the only definitive portion of English Christianity was the lack of papal jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the doctrine and theology hung between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism until Henry’s death in 1547.

Religion in England would’ve remained undecided, but the Council of Regency that Henry left was strongly Protestant. Under Henry’s Protestant son Edward, anti-papacy and simplistic Calvinist worship spread from 1547 to 1553 (Wenxi, 2008). The most influential of these advances included The Book of Common Prayer, a publication introduced under the act of uniformity in 1549. Thomas Cranmer, the primary author of this liturgical guide, used mostly Lutheran principles, such as the Holy Communion without sacrificial elements, but also preserved some elements of Catholicism from the original Latin texts. This version found little popularity with either conservatives or radical reformers, although the liturgy for worship spread throughout England. Cranmer’s second edition in 1552 incorporated more Zwinglian tradition, with old ceremonies abolished and the Communion revised to the radical doctrine.

Protestantism had gained popularity in the English nation, but when Henry’s daughter Mary I succeeded Edward in 1553, she launched a brutal Catholic reform that sent many Protestants fleeing the country. Mary forced Parliament to revoke all of Edward’s reformations and then instituted the burning of heretics in 1554, eventually condemning Thomas Cranmer as a traitor. Mary did not realize, however, that the prolonged absence of Catholicism in England and her harsh treatment of Protestants would eventually undermine her cause. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs exemplified Protestant suffering and evidenced increasing anti-Catholicism under her reign.

Elizabeth replaced her half-sister Mary in 1558 and immediately started to resolve the differences between Protestants and Catholics by creating an entirely new religion. Although Elizabeth herself was a moderate Protestant, many of her allies were Protestants who had been suppressed during Mary’s rule, and these people helped to unite England under a decidedly Protestant doctrine.

In 1563 the Canterbury Convocation published the Thirty-Nine Articles, a religious statement that has remained the main doctrine of the Anglican Church and is Anglicanism’s only official confessional statement. Episcopacy and royal supremacy formed the platform for Anglicanism, along with a combination of Protestant and Catholic liturgical regulations and a strong emphasis on biblical authority. These articles are the root of Anglicanism in their stance on salvation as well as the importance attributed to canonical scriptures and ancient traditions. The purpose of the Articles appeared to be creating a nationalist religion that would not suffer from corruption like that of the Catholic Church. Parliament also merged the conservative and radical versions of The Book of Common Prayer into one volume that ambiguously covered controversial topics, leaving the meaning of the liturgy open to interpretation (Shepherd, Massey, & Martin, 2005). By 1571, the Convocation had approved a revised Thirty-Nine Articles, and together with The Book of Common Prayer, it formed the basis for the Anglican Church.

Despite its religious compromise, the Elizabethan Settlement faced many issues, mainly the radical reformers who were dissatisfied with the conservative Protestantism the Settlement presented (Bremer, 2005). Puritans, many of whom had fled during Mary’s rule and become radicalized on the mainland, sought to purify the Anglican Church of Catholic influence by protesting outward signs of ceremony. Presbyterians also hoped to cleanse the Church of its remaining Catholicism and demanded a removal of bishops. These two prominent groups protested church authority and troubled the new Church, but had largely been suppressed by the end of the Elizabethan reign.

The modern-day Anglican Church remains much the same as it was in Elizabeth’s day, emphasizing truth from the Bible and a general acceptance of religious traditions. In many ways Anglicanism revolutionized Christianity, from its roots in anti-papacy and its creation by the state to its unique theology and episcopacy. Excerpts from the Thirty-Nine Articles concerning significant Anglican doctrine and church organization offer a deeper insight into this unique religion.

The Anglican Church relies on three important theological publications: The Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Thirty-Nine Articles. While the first two are well-known, the official statement of Anglicanism, the Thirty-Nine Articles, is often overlooked. This document defines the Anglican Church’s position on the religious controversies of the sixteenth century and is still relevant today (Kohn, 2003). The 1563 Canterbury Convocation developed the Thirty-Nine Articles from Thomas Cranmer’s Forty-Two Articles, but in 1571 revised the publication to soften Cranmer’s strong Lutheran sympathies, motivating both the Convocation and Parliament to pass the more conservative statement (“Thirty-Nine Articles”, 2011). Describing a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism while clarifying viewpoints on radical movements, the Articles briefly address common doctrine and then discuss controversial traditions more thoroughly (Edwards, 2011). The two sections excerpted for deeper analysis cover the contentious matters of salvation and church authority, all the while dealing with the arguments that defined the Reformation.

Articles X through XIII concern salvation, justification by faith, good works, and free will. Most of these theological affirmations in the Thirty-Nine Articles take the traditionalist Lutheran tone, with the exception of Zwinglian sacraments (“Anglican Beliefs”, 2005). Elizabeth’s desire to unite battling religions lead to a heavy reliance on conservative reformer doctrine. Article X states that, “The condition of humanity after the fall of Adam is such that we cannot turn and prepare ourselves, by our own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God,” (“Anglican Communion”). This article implies that Adam’s fall has made corruption and sin the natural state of humanity, so that humans do not have the free will to please God. Without God’s grace, the article affirms, humans cannot make the right choices. Article XI states the significant Lutheran belief that humans are justified by faith alone, not the Catholic doctrine of faith and good works, saying, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”. The Catholic Council of Trent described justification as the forgiveness of sins, but also sanctification, or becoming holy in practice. Catholics believe that good works and faith will lead to justification, but Anglicanism internalizes Lutheranism in saying that humans cannot avoid sin unless they are faithful enough to be granted God’s grace. Articles XII and XIII state that good works, if they come from true faith and are not for the purpose of forgiveness, are pleasing to God, but that good works before justification have the nature of sin. The Convocation writes, “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ”.  Essentially, these Articles preclude the corruption that the Catholic Church suffered. If people believe that the unholy cannot do good works, then those who do good works for justification have sinned, and sales of indulgences are not an issue.

These articles covering salvation come primarily from the Lutheran doctrines of Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Sola Christus, translated as justification by grace alone, by faith alone, and by Christ’s merit alone. Theologically, this section represents Anglicanism’s most important break with the Roman Catholic Church and sets Anglicanism’s tone more towards Protestantism. The majority of these articles focus on preventing corruption within the Church and withholding power from the papacy, the two important tenets of Anglicanism.

Articles XIX through XXII are some of the most influential statements in Anglicanism in their acknowledgment of Roman Catholic failures and establishment of the state’s dominance over the church. Article XIX defines the Church as a congregation of the faithful where sacraments are administered according to the Calvinist doctrine. The Article insists that only God’s word, or biblical texts, be preached, so as to avoid corruption of the Christian message. Here the authors demonstrate the problems within Catholicism, admitting that, “the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith”. In this article, the Convocation states that the Roman Catholics have not only failed in their worship of materials, but also in their beliefs, setting the stage for the modified Anglican doctrine. Article XX is crucial to a state-established Church in that it confines the power of the Church to religious matters, and a very limited scope at that. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, members of the Anglican Church may not “ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written”. The Church may also not enforce actions that they have decreed necessary for salvation, but must allow the people to understand the Bible for themselves and be saved by faith. This framework for Church authority ensured separation of the Church and secular issues so that Anglicanism would not suffer from the same problems as Catholicism. Article XXI follows in the same vein of preventing corruption, noting that human councils are often mistaken, so their authority is less than that of Scripture. Unless a council proclaims that its laws have been taken directly from Biblical sources, such regulations have no validity. In addition, the article pronounces that such councils are under the authority of secular leaders, not the Pope, an important tenet of the anti-papal Anglicanism. The final article specifically declares the popular Roman Catholic beliefs Purgatory, indulgences, pardon from sin by religious authorities, and worshiping saints for merit to be useless on the grounds that such traditions are, “grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God”.

The Thirty-Nine Articles represent one of the first instances where secular leaders actually shaped a country’s religion. Anglicanism and the English Reformation were defined by a series of laws passed by the monarchy rather than the Church. The English Reformation differed greatly from the broader Reformation in that it was state-established, but the larger ideas of anti-papacy and simplifying practices to prevent corruption characterized the renovation of Christianity. To this day, Anglicanism remains a popular, accepting religion that belies its roots in an unhappy marriage.

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Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of Henry VIII. 1537. Painting. Wikimedia Commons

Unknown. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. 1547. Painting. Wikimedia CommonsWeb. 14 Nov 2011. <;.

Unknown. “Darnley Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. 1575. Painting. Wikimedia CommonsWeb. 14 Nov 2011. <;.

Unknown. The Book of Common Prayer. 1923. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons, 1552.

The Thirty-Nine Articles. 2011. Photograph. Open Library

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