English Reformation

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury and editor and co-author of the first and second Books of Common Prayer.

The English Reformation was a series of events in 16th-century England by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were, in part, associated with the wider European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that affected the practice of Christianity across western and central Europe. Causes included the decline of feudalism and the rise of nationalism, the rise of the common law, the invention of the printing press and increased circulation of the Bible, and the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among scholars, the upper and middle classes and readers in general. However, the various phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accommodated itself.

Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage (first requested of Pope Clement VII in 1527), the English Reformation was at the outset more of a political affair than a theological dispute. The reality of political differences between Rome and England allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore.[1] Until the break with Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the church that decided doctrine. Church law was governed by canon law with final jurisdiction in Rome. Church taxes were paid straight to Rome, and the Pope had the final word in the appointment of bishops.

The break with Rome was effected by a series of acts of Parliament passed between 1532 and 1534, among them the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which declared that Henry was the "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England".[2] (This title was renounced by Mary I in 1553 in the process of restoring papal jurisdiction; when Elizabeth I reasserted the royal supremacy in 1559, her title was Supreme Governor.[2]) Final authority in doctrinal and legal disputes now rested with the monarch, and the papacy was deprived of revenue and the final say on the appointment of bishops.

The theology and liturgy of the Church of England became markedly Protestant during the reign of Henry's son Edward VI, largely along lines laid down by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Under Mary, the whole process was reversed and the Church of England was again placed under papal jurisdiction. Soon after, Elizabeth reintroduced the Protestant faith but in a more moderate manner. The structure and theology of the church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations.

The violent aspect of these disputes, manifested in the English Civil Wars, ended when the last Roman Catholic monarch, James II, was deposed, and Parliament asked William III and Mary II to rule jointly in conjunction with the English Bill of Rights in 1688 (in the "Glorious Revolution"), from which emerged a church polity with an established church and a number of non-conformist churches whose members at first suffered various civil disabilities that were removed over time. The legacy of the previous Roman Catholic heritage and establishment as the state church remained an issue for some time and still exists today. A substantial but dwindling minority from the late 16th to early 19th centuries remained Roman Catholic in England. Their church organisation remained illegal until the Relief Act of 1829.

Early reform movements

The Reformation was a clash of two opposed schemes of salvation. The Catholic Church taught that the contrite person could cooperate with God towards their salvation by performing good works.[3] Medieval Catholic worship was centred on the Mass, the church's offering of the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood. The Mass was also an offering of prayer by which the living could help souls in purgatory.[4] Protestants taught that fallen humanity was helpless and under condemnation until given the grace of God through faith.[3] They believed the Catholic emphasis on purgatory was an obstacle to true faith in God and the identification of the Mass with Christ's sacrifice a blasphemous perversion of the Eucharist.[5][6] In place of the Mass, Protestant worship was centred on the Bible–to them the only road to faith in Christ–either read or presented in sermons.[5]

Lollardy anticipated some Protestant teachings. Derived from the writings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century theologian and Bible translator, Lollardy stressed the primacy of scripture and emphasised preaching over the sacrament of the altar, holding the latter to be but a memorial.[7][8] Unlike Protestants, the early Lollards lacked access to the printing press and failed to gain a foothold among the church's most popular communicators, the friars. Unable to gain access to the levers of power, the Lollards were much reduced in numbers and influence by the 15th century. They sometimes faced investigation and persecution and rarely produced new literature after 1450.[9] Lollards could still be found—especially in London and the Thames Valley, in Essex and Kent, Coventry, Bristol and even in the North—and many would be receptive to Protestant ideas.[10][page needed]

More respectable and orthodox calls for reform came from Renaissance humanists, such as Erasmus (who lived in England for a time), John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, and Thomas More. Humanists downplayed the role of rites and ceremonies in achieving salvation and criticised the superstitious veneration of relics. Erasmus and Colet emphasised a simple, personal piety and a return ad fontes ("back to the sources") of Christian faith—the scriptures as understood through textual and linguistic scholarship.[11] Colet's commentaries on the Pauline epistles emphasized double predestination and the worthlessness of human works. Anne Boleyn's own religious views were shaped by French humanists such as Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, whose 1512 commentaries on Paul's epistles stated that human works were irrelevant to salvation five years before Luther published the same views.[12][13]

Humanist scholarship provided arguments against papal primacy and support for the claim that popes had usurped powers that rightfully belonged to kings. In 1534, Lorenzo Valla's On the Donation of Constantine—which proved that one of the pillars of the papacy's temporal authority was a hoax—was published in London. Thomas Cromwell paid for an English translation of Marsiglio of Padua's Defensor pacis in 1535. The conservative cleric Stephen Gardiner used Marsiglio's theory of a unitary realm to defend royal power over spiritual as well as secular affairs.[14]

By the early 1520s, the views of German reformer Martin Luther were known and disputed in England.[15] The main plank of Luther's theology was justification by faith alone rather than by good works. In this view, only faith, itself a gift from God, can secure the grace of God. Justification by faith alone threatened the whole basis of the Roman Catholic penitential system with its doctrine of purgatory, prayer for the dead, indulgences, and the sacrificial character of the Mass.[16][17] Early Protestants portrayed Catholic practices such as confession to priests, clerical celibacy, and requirements to fast and keep vows as burdensome and spiritually oppressive. Not only did purgatory lack any biblical basis according to Protestants, but the clergy were accused of using fear of purgatory to make money from prayers and masses. Catholics countered that justification by faith alone was a "licence to sin".[18]

English Catholicism was strong and popular in the early 1500s, and those who held Protestant sympathies would remain a religious minority until political events intervened.[19] Protestant ideas were popular among some parts of the English population, especially among academics and merchants with connections to continental Europe.[20] The first open demonstration of support for Luther took place at Cambridge in 1521 when a student defaced a copy of the papal bull of condemnation against Luther.[21] Also at Cambridge was a group of reform-minded university students that met at the White Horse tavern from the mid-1520s, known by the moniker "Little Germany". Its members included Robert Barnes, Hugh Latimer, John Frith, Thomas Bilney, George Joye and Thomas Arthur.[22]

The Tyndale Bible was the basis for later English translations.

The publication of William Tyndale's English New Testament in 1526 helped to spread Protestant ideas. Printed abroad and smuggled into the country, the Tyndale Bible was the first English Bible to be mass produced; there were probably 16,000 copies in England by 1536. Tyndale's translation was highly influential, forming the basis of all later English translations.[23] An attack on traditional religion, Tyndale's translation included an epilogue explaining Luther's theology of justification by faith, and many translation choices were designed to undermine traditional Catholic teachings. Tyndale translated the Greek word charis as favour rather than grace to de-emphasize the role of grace-giving sacraments. His choice of love rather than charity to translate agape de-emphasized good works. When rendering the Greek verb metanoeite into English, Tyndale used repent rather than do penance. The former word indicated an internal turning to God, while the latter translation supported the sacrament of confession.[24]

Between 1530 and 1533, Thomas Hitton (England's first Protestant martyr), Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbury, James Bainham, Thomas Benet, Thomas Harding, John Frith and Andrew Hewet were burned to death.[25] In 1531, William Tracy was posthumously convicted of heresy for denying purgatory and affirming justification by faith, and his corpse was disinterred and burned.[26] While Protestants were only a small portion of the population and suffered persecution, the rift between the king and papacy in the 1530s gave Protestants opportunities to form new alliances with government officials.[27]

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