7. The History of British Christianity – The Church of England (1534)
Throughout human history, God has often used pagan kings to advance His will in this world. Such is the case with King Henry VIII and his establishment of the Church of England.
[Disclaimer: If you think politics and religion are uniquely messy today, just study history, and you will find nothing has changed. Much more could be written about Henry’s later activities in closing monasteries, and Cranmer’s martyrdom, but the focus here is two-fold. To discover the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the Church of England and how it led to greater religious freedom for all. Lastly, I’ve tried to tie in the key figures and factors at play, and so it might help if you look over this timeline of the English Reformation and research further the individuals named, especially Cranmer and Cromwell.]
Supreme Head of the Church of England
In 1531 the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England was created for King Henry. England had not yet broken away from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but the religious, political, and personal issues which would lead to that action had long taken root.
Henry needed a male heir, and the lack of one he blamed on his wife, Catherine of Aragon. As the Roman Catholic Church ostensibly objected to divorce Henry would need special permission from the Pope for an annulment. This request was based upon several factors revolving around the fact that Catherine was the widow of Henry’s older brother. The Pope refused. However, the Pope’s motives in refusing Henry’s request were not all pure. At the time, Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain, had attacked Rome and held the Pope as his prisoner.
Henry had at one time enjoyed the favour of the Pope. Henry authored a book titled, “Septum Sacramentorum” which was a defence of the Catholic church. For this work, the Pope awarded Henry the title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith. Though England split from the Roman Catholic Church, the title was kept and it is still used by British Monarchs to this day.
Three advisors were instrumental in guiding Henry to separate from Rome, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas Wolsey (guess what name appeared in England’s top 100 names for boys that year!).
Thomas Wolsey welded religious power as the Bishop of York, but also great political power. Some have said that in power he was second only to the King. Like the King, Wolsey’s motives seem less than pure in the reformation process. His constant vying for power and money made him very unpopular. Despite making some reforms, some believe he committed abuses in the church more than any other. He appealed to the Pope three times to annul Henry’s marriage. This failure would later lead to his fall from power.
Thomas Cranmer held even greater religious power as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He helped build the case appealing to the Pope for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. He became a powerful influence, led major reforms and shaped the Protestant nature of the church of England. Cranmer was responsible for the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy for the Church of England. Cranmer made significant reforms regarding the Eucharist, images in places of worship, and the veneration of saints. Though Cranmer’s faults cannot be ignored, his martyrdom has served as an inspiration to many.
Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer and statesman, was another strong advocate of the English Reformation. Cromwell came to power through first acting as Wosley’s solicitor, and then having entered the King’s court he was quickly noted for his abilities. Cromwell, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for putting into action what others only discussed. Where Wolsey eventually failed and fell due to trying to serve two masters, the King and the Pope, Cromwell was loyal to the king. Cromwell had strong convictions regarding the sovereignty of England, and on that basis objected to the rule of Rome. However, it does appear that his primary motivations were ones of faith. He is often identified as Lutheran, supported English translations of the Bible, and appointed English reformers to positions of leadership in the church. When he was charged with treason in 1540, his support for anabaptism was mentioned. It is worth noting that Cromwell said William Tyndale was a man, “replete with venomous envy, rancour and malice.” So, Cromwell had some obvious faults.
The Act of Supremacy
When Pope Clement refused Henry’s request, Parliament endorsed the King’s claim to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. So, in 1534, the Church of England, sometimes referred to as the Anglican or Episcopalian church, was established. The wording of the Act of Supremacy made it clear that parliament did not claim to grant the title to the King, but acknowledged it as an existing fact. This led to England completely abandoning the Pope and Rome. The Parliament of Ireland passed a similar act in 1537 declaring Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of Ireland. Henry could now annul his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn.
When Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary I came to the throne, she repealed the 1534 Act of Supremacy. But then, in 1558, following Queen Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne, she reinstated the Act and declared herself to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. While Henry’s Act had been primarily personal, Elizabeth’s had better motivations and led to greater freedoms for non-conformists.
The True Reformation
At the same time that Henry sought to break from Rome for his own selfish reasons, the genuine protestant reformation was well underway across Europe. Luther was busy in Germany. In England, many, influenced by the translation works of Tyndale and Wycliffe, actively sought to worship freely. These genuine reformers used the opportunity afforded by the break from Rome to further their own cause. During the early years of King Henry’s reign, about half the population were 18 or under. This young, open, and increasingly educated population did not remember the old rule of Rome, and actively sought out the teachings of the reformers.
In 1552, as the reformation outpaced their ability to document changes, Thomas Cranmer tried to bring together a council to counter that of the Catholic’s Council of Trent. He invited the leading reformers from Europe to meet with him, Bullinger, John Calvin, and Melanchthon. Ultimately, the meeting never happened, though Calvin showed enthusiasm initially.
While many, including this author, object to certain doctrines which the Church of England retained, its establishment and ongoing existence opened the door for freedoms of religion that many enjoyed for centuries. Remember that some good and godly men, such as JC Ryle, the Wesley brothers, George Whitfield and many more were ministers within the Church of England.
We have noted before in this series of articles that church history is messy. We cannot condone everything we read in it. But we must demonstrate grace and humility. It is arguable that if many of us had found ourselves in similar positions we may have lacked the faith, intellect, or courage to go as far as they did in reforming the errors they perceived.
I believe there have always been faithful saints and fellowships down through the ages. For some, no reform was necessary as they had maintained doctrinal purity. Because of that heritage, and additionally, the victories won by reformers, we start our Christian walk with much greater advantages and with generations of writings and examples of those who have pioneered the way for us.
“What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”
“And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”
“In the midst of life we are in death, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”
“There was never anything so well devised by men which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.”
Martin Wickens is from West Berkshire, England and has worked in a variety of churches and ministries in England and Northern Ireland. He is married to Carrie and they have 4 children. Since 2018 Martin has lived in the US and pastors at Bedford Bible Church, PA. He has a strong focus on expositional preaching, family, fellowship, and spreading the Gospel to the community and around the world.