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What is the Church of England?

Church of England audio

The origin of the Church of England, the state church in England and the mother church of the Anglican Communion, is related to the events leading up to the Protestant Reformation. England had been torn apart by the wars between the House of Lancaster and the House of York until Henry VII founded the Tudor dynasty in 1485. His son, Henry VIII, came to the throne of England in 1509, shortly before Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation by posting his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. At this point, the church in England came under the authority of the Roman Catholic pope. Thomas Wolsey was appointed Cardinal in 1515 with papal legate powers that enabled him to bypass the Archbishop of Canterbury and govern the church in England. King Henry VIII wrote a popular book that attacked Martin Luther and supported the Church of Rome. In 1521 Henry was given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope.

Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had produced only one surviving child, Princess Mary, born in 1516. Henry was desperate for a son and tried to persuade the pope to grant him an annulment of his marriage, claiming it had never been legal. Since the previous pope had specifically granted Henry a licence to marry Catherine of Aragon in 1509, the current pope rejected Henry’s arguments, as presented by Cardinal Wolsey. This failure to obtain an annulment cost the cardinal his job, and he was arrested, but Wolsey died before he could be brought to trial.

It was Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell who introduced a series of acts cutting back the influence of the pope and the Church of Rome in England. In 1532 Thomas Cranmer was promoted to Archbishop of Canterbury. The following year he declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid, and Anne Boleyn was crowned queen in May 1533. Pope Clement responded by excommunicating King Henry. In 1534 came the Act of Supremacy, which recognized the king as the only supreme head of the Church of England (called Anglicana Ecclesia). Cranmer then navigated a theological middle path between two emerging Protestant traditions, Calvinism and Lutheranism.

Under the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547–1553), the Church of England became more explicitly Protestant, eradicating statues and stained glass in churches and allowing the clergy to marry. Then Edward’s half-sister Mary Tudor came to the throne, and she restored papal supremacy in England. She abandoned the title of Supreme Head of the Church, reintroduced Roman Catholic bishops, and started to reintroduce monastic orders. Mary was also responsible for the deaths of some 300 Protestants, including Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, as detailed in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Due to her persecution of Protestants, Queen Mary I of England became known as Bloody Mary. During the reign of Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth Tudor (1558–1603), a secure Church of England was established, and its doctrines were laid down in the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563. The final result was a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

According to the Church of England, the roots of the Church of England go back to the third century AD when Tertullian and Origen mention the existence of a British church. What eventually became known as the Church of England (or the English Church) embraced the Roman tradition of Augustine and his successors, the remnants of the old Romano-British church, and the Celtic tradition from Scotland, associated with St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert. One result of the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 had been an English Church led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York. Until the Reformation and the time of Henry VIII, the Church of England acknowledged the authority of the pope.

Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith formed the basis for the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. The pope’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570 destroyed any hope of reconciliation between Rome and England. After many years of theological adjustments, starting with those of Thomas Cranmer, the Church of England now considers itself to be “Catholic and Reformed,” a “middle way” between Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1649, is the standard of doctrine for the Church of England and the Church of Scotland and is also influential within Presbyterian churches throughout the world.

The term Anglicanism was used in the 19th century to collectively refer to the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Anglican congregations in the United States, Canada, Africa, Australasia, and the Pacific. All those churches use the Book of Common Prayer in their services. The Anglican Communion—the churches around the world that look to the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury as their spiritual leader—has an estimated membership of 80 million and is the third largest Christian communion, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

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This page last updated: March 20, 2024