Ask an Anglican: Are Anglicans Schismatics?


From the 1933 film “The Private Life of Henry VIII.”

Richard writes:

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.

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20 Responses to Ask an Anglican: Are Anglicans Schismatics?

  1. Very simple point you make.

  2. George Brown says:

    A thoughtful discussion. More details on the actual differences from Rome at the time of the English Reformation would be most welcome.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi George,

      If you poke around the site a bit, especially in the tag marked “Roman Catholicism,” you’ll see a lot of those theological differences explored.

  3. An Awkward Aardvark says:

    What about the Eastern Orthodox? Do we as Anglicans have anything that separates them from us, or have we only inherited the results of the Great Schism?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi… um… Aardvark,

      I would say that we have basically inherited the schism between east and west that occurred long before the schism between England and Rome. That said, there are substantive doctrinal differences that would have to be overcome before we could once again have full communion with the Orthodox. I explored that topic a little bit here:

      • An Awkward Aardvark says:

        Great article and thank you Fr. Jonathan! What about the schism of Presbyterians from Anglicanism? Do we as Anglicans hold them to have valid sacraments and as true churches, or as schismatic?

      • Fr W says:

        I would say (though I’m not Fr Jonathan) that the sacraments of Presbyterians are unverifiable. Since they have abandoned the Apostolic Succession and the catholic understanding of the sacraments (excepting, of course, Baptism), we can’t be sure of their efficacy.

        This is a separate issue from whether they are schismatics. The Polish National Catholic Church is a schismatic body, but even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes its orders and sacraments as valid. It’s not schism, but preserving the Apostolic Succession and intent of the Church with regard to the sacraments, which decides the issue of sacramental validity.

  4. Excellent article, as always. Where does one draw the line, though? You are right in citing the Nicene Creed as a unifier, but with or without the filioque? I left the Episcopal Church in the early 80’s after they began the schismatic practice of ordaining women. What I found is that Protestants had been doing it for years. The Episcopal Church made (and continues to make) decisions to be decidedly Protestant. What difference do valid orders, valid sacraments, valid rituals make if the Church is Protestant in the first place? It’s just one more sect, like the Baptists or Methodists.

    I’m not finding fault with that… I am a Protestant pastor myself (whose heart has never really left the old Church). But it’s time for the Episcopal Church – and the Anglican Communion – to own the fact that theirs is a disunity contrived by their own actions, out of step with Orthodoxy, out of step with Rome, but fully in step with us other schismatic, sectarian Protestants.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Brian,

      Great questions. I think we certainly have to take responsibility for our own peculiarity. But I would say that is true of all other churches as well, be they “Protestant sects” as you call them, or one of the big two. “Drawing the line” is a funny phrase, in part because it assumes that this is a necessary task of church life. We have to draw the line. We have to make distinctions between that which is pure and that which is corrupt. I am not knocking that. Sometimes we do have to make such distinctions. I think the Reformation was such a time for sure. The question I was wrestling with here is how we go about living in the fall out. We cannot undo the Reformation, or the Counter Reformation, or the Great Schism. They are a part of us. They hand us a legacy that has both good and bad elements within it. The question is, what do we do with that? I think it is a good thing for us to be clear about who we are and clear about truth. This site has largely been a project in doing just that. But I think that we have to be careful with how we wind history–our own and others’–into our arguments. At the same time that we are speaking truth in love, I think we need to develop a grammar of unity. In other words, we need to find ways of speaking that are less triumphalist about the divisions that history has sorted us into and more hopeful about a future time in which God will heal the scars of our divisions. So in the end, unity becomes a Gospel imperative. He has already forgiven us for our divisions and paid the cost by dying on the cross. It is now a matter of the Holy Spirit opening our hearts that we can trust in that forgiveness and believe in the unity He has been sent to bring.

  5. Liam says:

    I would posit that the “Anglican Church”, i.e., the Angles Church, predates the “schism” from Rome and in fact, predates the Roman church’s “control” for lack of a better word, over the church of the Angles: the British church was established in the 2nd or 3rd century (perhaps earlier) and only later subjected itself to Rome. So it seems to me that, given it predated the Roman Catholic church in England, that it did NOT go into schism with Henry, but reasserted itself from it’s unnatural subjection to Rome. It was, one could argue, a concilliar (i.e., Orthodox) church to begin with…

    • I think this has been the Anglican argument, from at least the 18th C. or so, that the CofE is as old–in it’s establishment–as the papal-led Church of Rome. One reason its easy to find old-fashioned Anglicans talk of “papists,” (as C.S. Lewis did). I think there is a lot of weight to the argument, but not purely true. If you’d asked an educated Celtic cleric or bishop in say, AD 400 were they in communion with the Bishop of Rome, they would of said of course, and in communion with Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria….etc, as all were catholic, or universal, Christians in the original sense. Since all of Western Europe was under the general supervision of the Province of Rome, even after the Empire’s collapse in AD 476, I think such a Celtic cleric would also acknowledge Rome’s general supervision—but that is all, general–as the Roman papacy was not accepted with the specific power it later claimed. The Insular/Celtic church sent missionary bishops all over northern and even central Europe at this time–but it’s independence annoyed the Bishops of Rome and so eventually it was forced–in the name of a previously existing catholicity–to formally submit to specific Roman leadership, something, as we know from Thomas ‘a Becket’s martyrdom, and other events, the English were never very keen about…

  6. David says:

    Great post but I’m worried that this gives the impression that Anglicanism began after Henry VIII rather than with Augustine of Canterbury.

  7. Actually, it is very likely that the first Christian priests in the British Isles predate the first Roman Pope. The only followers of Jesus that are known to be members of the Sanhedrin and therefore identified as priests, were James the Just, Nicodemus, and Joseph Hari-Mathea (not Arimathea), that is, Joseph of the Horite line of Matthew. Apparently, he had business and family connections in the British Isles. Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260–340) may have been referring to this connection in Demonstratio Evangelica when he reports that some of Jesus’ earliest disciples “have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain.” Since a qualification of membership in the Sanhedrin was facility of languages, Joseph would have been able to communicate with the people of Britain.

    As a ruler-priest Joseph would have appointed men who were qualified to serve as priests in Britain. Being of advanced age, he would have been older than Jesus and the disciples. This suggests that the priesthood came to Britain very early and is older than generally supposed. It must be nearly as early as the episcopacy of Evodius of Antioch (53–69 A.D.) and the episcopacy of James the Just of Jerusalem (d. 69 A.D.), but would likely precede the episcopacy of Linus of Rome (67-79 AD).

    The legend concerning Joseph of Hari-Mathea coming to Britain has basis in anthropology. Horite priests were among the Ainu and genetic studies have confirmed that the Ainu dispersed widely across the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion. Some came to the British Isles and Scandinavia and migrated to Greenland, Labrador and Eastern Canada where they are called “Micmac.”

  8. Fr Rich says:

    The usual basis of such discussion is, as you note, “I’m better than you, because…my origins are purer than yours.” This seems so counter-Christian and lacks humility. Healing in the division of the the body comes quicker when we respect one another and celebrate our commonality.

    I very much enjoy your posts.

  9. The Church in Britannia was first established around 44 A.D. in Glastonbury and predates the Roman papacy by some 377 years. According to William Clark, author of the tenth, and last, work in the series Ten Epochs of Church History: The Anglican Reformation, The schism was primarily over who had authority over the Church in Britannia, by now called England. Around the time of John Wyclif in 1381, he claimed that the Rome had no authority over the Church of England, and began to attack Rome over the doctrine of Transubstantiation. This renouncing of papal authority was exerted again in the Anglican Reformation, claiming that The Church of England’s authority actually predated the papacy and thus was not subject to Roman authority.

  10. Loyd Prewett says:

    I read this the other day. Isn’t it great. I really love Fr. Jonathan- he is very knowledgeable. See you tomorrow. Don, I will only be at 8:00 Mass as I will need to come home so that Linda can use the car to go Inland Hills. Hope to see you at 8.

    Sent from my iPhone


  11. “We are all in schism” really means “there is no church.”

    As my good friend William Tighe notes, EVERY church from before the “Reformation” – Catholic, Orthodox, Monophysite, Nestorian, and even all the gnostic ones – has thought it is the true church.

    Unlike Catholic liberals, liberal high-church people, the Episcopalians, think the trappings of the church, from history to credal orthodoxy and other theology to liturgy to clerical garb, are fun, but push them against the wall and “self-evident” modern “truths” about sex and the sexes come first, so adios, church. Protestant private judgment.

    • Correction: not the gnostics, but all the other ancient heretical churches, such as the Arians.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Apologies if I miss something, as I’m not terribly adept at keeping up with multiple conversations in multiple threads.

      Your second paragraph is often true, though not universally so. There are Episcopalian liberals who fall into this trap, and many of them in the higher echelons of power, but there are also quite a few who are much more like Roman Catholic liberals, IE wanting certain aspects of the sexual revolution but not wanting to dump sacramental theology or credal orthodoxy in the process.

      As to the notion that “we are all in schism” really means “there is no church,” I believe that is just the kind of fatalistic, ahistorical, postmodern assertion that prevents many Roman Catholic apologists from seeing their own shadow. Schism is a sin, and it’s one that we’re all guilty of. We do better to repent than to do what Adam did and say over and over again, “It wasn’t me! It was this woman you gave me!”

      • Actually Catholic liberals are more like Anglican liberals before ritualism than Anglicans now: they don’t think credal orthodoxy and liturgical trappings are fun; they hate them. Many Anglicans love my traditional Mass, wear fiddlebacks, birettas, etc. (even the ladies); the old boomer liberals at the local Catholic campus ministry wouldn’t be caught dead at that: guitar Masses and beige cassock-albs forever, they say.

        “Wanting certain aspects of the sexual revolution but not wanting to dump sacramental theology or credal orthodoxy in the process” is Episcopal.

        Wanting to dump sacramental theology, high liturgics, and credal orthodoxy is Catholic liberal, which isn’t really Catholic.

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