What would you say to the charge that the Anglican Church was born originally only out of Henry VIII’s desire to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his decision to break from Rome was not over theological differences, but rather over his desire to be “the boss?”
I’m Henry the Eighth, I am…
In 1930, an American priest named Nelson R. Boss wrote a book called “The Prayer Book Reason Why.” It was set up like a catechism, in short question and answer format, with the intention being that it be used as a textbook for those seeking Confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Fr. Boss addresses the question of Henry VIII briefly and succinctly:
Is there any truth in the assertion, often made, that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII?
None whatever. It is an assertion that could only be made by one ignorant of history or regardless of truth.
What part did Henry VIII take in the work of Reformation?
His part was purely political and selfish. After his quarrel with the Pope, who refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage which, uncanonical in itself, had been solemnized under a dispensation granted by a previous Pope, Henry did all he could to free the realm and Church of England from the Pope’s influence and control; but in all other respects he was a Roman Catholic and held the doctrines of that Church, to the day of his death.
Anglicans have never celebrated Henry, neither in his own time nor today. He is not honored on any church’s sanctoral calendar. He is almost never mentioned in our own internal discussions of Anglican history. In fact, outside of conversations like this with folks from the outside, I would daresay that most Anglicans never even give him a second thought.
The political circumstances surrounding the English Reformation are complicated. The actions of almost all the players were too often borne out of hunger for power and realpolitik, both for figures like Henry and for papal loyalists like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and especially for Pope Clement VII whose refusal to grant Henry an annulment was predicated as much on politics as Henry’s decision to challenge his ruling. Had Henry’s wife not been the aunt of Emperor Charles V, whose troops were dangerously close to the Roman border, the pope might have been more inclined to grant Henry’s request and perhaps the English Reformation would have progressed along a slightly different timetable. Nevertheless, as Fr. Boss points out, Henry was not the originator of Anglicanism. He never held Anglican beliefs. Much of what became the founding of Anglicanism happened long after his death. As Boss says in a later appendix, if we are to consider Henry VIII the founder of Anglicanism then we ought “to say that Constantine was the founder of Christianity because he gave it his royal recognition.”
We are all in schism
What lies behind the question about Henry VIII, however, is a much more interesting question: Is the Church of England a schismatic church? And if so, does that mean that all Anglicans around the world today are the children of schism, poisoned from the get go by our founding? And the answer that I would give to such a question is one that may surprise you. Yes, the Church of England is a schismatic church. But so is the Roman Catholic Church. And at this point, so is everyone else too.
My polemic is bigger than yours
Of course, Fr. Boss would not have said that. He characterizes the assertion in 1532 by King Henry of being the “supreme head of the Church of England” as “merely an assertion of the Church’s right to manage her own affairs without foreign interference.” According to Boss, this did not amount to a break in communion. That break came much later, in 1570, when Pope Pius V commanded “all the clergy and people of England who upheld the claims of the Papacy to withdraw from communion with the Reformers, and establish separate places of worship.” In Fr. Boss’ view, the entire split can be blamed on the obstinance of the pope whose own lust for power simply would not allow him to leave the Church of England in peace. Roman Catholics are the true schismatics. Our hands are clean.
There are versions of this kind of polemic that come up throughout the history of Anglicanism since the Reformation. Many of them were written to counteract similar works by Roman Catholic authors who sought to make the papacy and Roman loyalists out to be blameless. There is a certain value in that kind of writing. In their tenacity to defend a particular party line, such polemical treatises often helped to sharpen where the theological differences between our churches actually lie. The substance of what divides us was therein brought to the surface, which is why these works are still worth reading today. Nevertheless, the manner in which such documents were written betrays a sleight of hand when it comes to how history is portrayed. Very rarely is a conflict the size of the one that fomented the Reformation as simple as good guys versus bad guys.
History as a blunt object
It is a scandal of epic proportions that the Christian Church is as divided today as it is. Jesus prayed that all who believe in Him through the Word “may all be one” (John 17:20-21). We have not been so good at receiving that calling. Divisions began even in the New Testament period, but the real game changer was the Great Schism between east and west that took place in the eleventh century. While disputes and divisions had arisen before, it had never happened on such a grand scale. The east and the west became divided from one another, resulting in a separation that exists all the way down to the present day. So by the time of the Reformation, we were all already in schism. The events surrounding the Reformation made things worse though, as anathemas began to fly back and forth and martyrs were made on all sides.
None of this is to say that there was not then and is not still today a set of very important theological divisions that need to be addressed for us to be in harmony with one another. But how different might the landscape look today if we were able to find ways of working through those divisions within our relationships instead of outside of them. When it comes to the division between the Church of Rome and the Church of England, we do no favors to history to pretend that what tore us apart did not have as much to do with the politics and the pride of various kings, queens, popes, and priests as it did with the reading of Scripture and the Fathers. At this point in our history, it does very little good for any of us to be constantly looking back through our own lenses and saying, “You come from people who were more terrible than the people I come from!”
The gift of unity
My favorite hymn in the Hymnal 1982 is “The Church’s One Foundation.” In that blessed hymn, we sing, “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed / by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed / yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” / and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” It is a beautiful reminder that the oneness of the Church that we confess in the Nicene Creed is not ours to build but God’s to grant in His grace and mercy. When we pretend that we are the only blameless souls because we have joined the right tribe, what we are actually doing is attempting to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Schism is ultimately just another form of idolatry. We make our own rightness into a god. May we all eventually come to be cured of such foolishness, and may the day finally dawn when our prayer can be the same as that of Our Lord that we may all be one.