The Reformation of the Church of England

The Reformation of the Church of England

By the time of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the Reformation, (begun by Martin Luther in Germany in 1517) had been in progress for seventeen years. Whole areas had broken with Rome to become what we know today as Protestant churches. Luther had launched a fundamental critique of papal authority and a call to more securely ground the Church’s teaching, worship, and government on Scripture. (It was not, however, Luther’s intention to create a new church–he wanted to reform
the old one.)

Interestingly, Henry VIII rejected most of Luther’s ideas and even wrote a treatise defending the system of seven sacraments against Luther’s attacks. For this effort the pope awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith”. Henry’s break with Rome had little immediate consequence for the worship and theology of the Church of England. He aimed not at a reformation of the Church (as did Luther) but at a “Catholicism without the pope”. Henry’s commitment to traditional Catholicism can be seen in the Six Articles of 1539 which, among other things, upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation and the necessity of sacramental confession (both denied by the Protestants).

The Reformation of the Church of England did not really begin until the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, who became king in 1547. The architect of reform in England was Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Cranmer moved the Church of England in a more “Protestant” direction. He produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 which was the first complete book of Christian liturgy in the English language. He produced a second Book of Common Prayer, even more “Protestant”, in 1552.

Edward VI was sickly and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary in 1553. Mary restored papal authority in England and brought all attempts at reform to an end. Under her reign many of the leaders of the English reformation (including Cranmer) were executed. After Henry’s break with Rome, the attempts at reform under Edward VI, and Mary’s return to Rome, England was in religious chaos.

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