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By David Hein, Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 David Heim and Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.
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ENGLISH AND AMERICAN BEGINNINGS: 1534–1662
Episcopalians in the United States trace their religious roots back to the sixteenth century, when Anglicanism emerged as a distinct denominational tradition out of the Protestant Reformation in England. Originally a missionary extension of the Church of England in colonial America, the Episcopal Church itself was organized in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Because "Church of England" was no longer suitable as an ecclesiastical designation in the new United States, a convention of Anglican clergy and laity meeting in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1780 chose the name "Protestant Episcopal Church" instead. The term "Protestant" differentiated the denomination from Roman Catholicism, and "Episcopal" signified that the church's polity had retained the ministry and authority of bishops. From the outset, Episcopalians emphasized that their church included Catholic as well as Protestant elements—a heritage both ancient and reformed.
PRE-REFORMATION BRITISH CHRISTIANITY
Although there is no certain date for the planting of Christianity in Britain, it was probably established there by soldiers during the Roman occupation. The earliest archaeological evidence dates from the fourth century, after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and three bishops from England are known to have attended the Council of Arles in 314. The British monk Pelagius, whose views on human free will brought him into conflict with the theologian Augustine of Hippo, had a profound impact on church life in the early fifth century. Whereas Pelagius believed that Christians could rely on their own willpower to live morally perfect lives, Augustine argued that men and women attained salvation by virtue of divine grace alone. Augustine's ideas prevailed, and Pelagianism was eventually condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
With the sack of Rome in 410 and the general collapse of imperial authority in the West, Saxons and other pagan tribesmen effectively destroyed the structures of government, culture, and religion in England. Although the British churches were cut off from communication with the papacy in Rome, the Celtic monastic tradition in Ireland and in the western and northern regions of Britain remained vibrant over the next two centuries. To restore papal authority over the British isles, Pope Gregory the Great organized a mission under the leadership of the Benedictine monk Augustine in 597. Augustine landed in Kent, where he was well received by the pagan Saxon king. A few months after his arrival, he was consecrated as the first bishop of the English people, and according to one report, he baptized about ten thousand pagan converts in the Canterbury area at the end of the year. Despite Augustine's success in evangelizing the Saxons, inconsistencies between Celtic and Roman Christianity–most notably, disagreement about the dating of Easter day—proved to be troublesome and enduring. Not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 were Celtic liturgical practices and beliefs finally brought into line with those of the church at Rome.
Its official allegiance to the traditions of Roman Catholic Christianity notwithstanding, the church in England, like the church in France, enjoyed a considerable measure of autonomy throughout the medieval period. Moreover, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, western Christendom as a whole was torn by a series of crises that further undercut papal power: first, the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in France (1305–1377); second, the development of the Great Schism (1378–1417), when there were two, and later three, popes; and finally the rise of the conciliar movement (1418–1449), when the reunited papacy contended against a succession of general councils for supremacy within the church. As the prestige of the papacy waned during this era, English bishops increasingly recognized the authority of the king, rather than of the pope, in ecclesiastical matters in their nation. The passage of several secular statutes in the fourteenth century further curtailed the ability of the papacy to exercise control over the church in England—legislative actions that would be used as precedents for severing ties to Rome two centuries later.
Reformer John Wyclif was undoubtedly the most influential religious leader in English Christianity in the late Middle Ages. Wyclif not only attacked priests and bishops who abused their power in the church but also emphasized the importance of the Bible and encouraged its translation from Latin into English. In addition, he expressed strong doubts about papal supremacy, suggesting that the papacy was an institution of the Antichrist and arguing that it was the God-given responsibility of secular rulers to reform a corrupted church. The fact that criticism of Wyclif was relatively muted during his lifetime (he died in 1384) suggests a far broader range of acceptable theological opinion in England than in other Catholic countries in Europe during the fourteenth century. Indeed, a follower of Wyclif put to death in 1401 was the first person to be executed for heresy in England since 1216—a remarkably tolerant record given the nature of religious affairs in those times. Although Wyclif's teachings were not an immediate cause of the English Reformation, his ideas certainly helped foster the intellectual atmosphere in which later church reforms were nurtured.
One of the most heated debates among modern-day scholars concerns the character of religious faith in England immediately preceding the Reformation. On the one hand, widening educational opportunities in the sixteenth century helped create a relatively literate laity within the ranks of leading landowners and merchants. This group became increasingly aware of both the criticisms of conventional piety and the demands for church reform that were then surfacing in the great centers of learning on the European continent. On the other hand, traditional Catholicism still retained a strong hold on the English population as a whole. As historian Eamon Duffy has argued, the beliefs and practices of most English Christians on the eve of the Reformation were remarkably conservative. Despite inroads made by the earliest Protestants, much of the older imagery and forms of reverence in English parishes remained largely unchanged in the early sixteenth century. Because this liturgical and theological conservatism was so strong, the unwarranted secular privileges of the church, rather than any defects in traditional Catholic piety, tended to motivate the first ecclesiastical changes that occurred in England.
Although the medieval ideal of a unified Christendom was still officially intact when Henry VIII ascended the English throne in 1509, the long-standing symbiosis of church and society in Europe was about to be destroyed. This unity was irrevocably sundered on December 10, 1520, when Martin Luther publicly burned both the papal bull condemning his teachings and the books of canon law binding Western Christianity to the authority of the pope. Yet despite the religious revolt led by Luther in Germany and by Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland in the 1520s, English church leaders initially resisted the spread of Protestantism into their country from the Continent. The bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury both condemned William Tyndale's groundbreaking translation of the New Testament into English, and Henry himself received the title "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X for his opposition to Luther's teachings on the sacraments. Thomas More also rose in the king's favor at this time and took an active role in suppressing Lutheran ideas in England. Thus, when Henry's break from Rome finally did take place, those who favored the independence of the English church advanced their arguments primarily in political, not theological or liturgical, language.
THE REFORMATION ERA
Although Henry originally had no intention of encouraging the growth of the Reformation in his realm, an unplanned series of events effected a profound revolution within the church in England. The process of ecclesiastical change began during the reign of Henry's father, Henry VII. In an effort to secure a useful diplomatic alliance, Henry VII gave his eldest son, Arthur, into marriage with Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the powerful King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. When Arthur died after only a few months of marriage, the English king offered his second son, Henry, to the young widow. Since church canons forbade such a union on the basis of biblical passages in Leviticus (ancient Israelite laws that equated sexual relations between a man and his brother's wife with incest), a special papal dispensation had to be obtained from Pope Julius II.
Julius allowed Henry and Catherine to be married in 1509, but despite receiving the pope's blessing, the English royal couple saw only one child (Mary Tudor, born in 1516) survive from Catherine's numerous pregnancies. By the time Catherine reached age 40 in 1525, Henry believed that his wife would no longer be able to conceive or bear children. Because he needed a male heir to secure the stability of the Tudor reign, and because he may genuinely have believed that he had committed a grave sin by marrying his brother's wife, Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine. The pope, however, refused. Since he was a virtual prisoner of the most powerful ruler in Europe—Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and Catherine's nephew—Clement was in no position to grant the English king's request.
The pope's understandable rebuff set the stage for Henry to declare the independence of the English church from obedience to Rome. In January 1533, Thomas Cranmer, the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury, pronounced Henry's marriage to Catherine invalid, and at the same time he officiated at the king's marriage to his mistress Anne Boleyn, then pregnant with the future queen, Elizabeth I. Meanwhile, a series of parliamentary acts culminated in the 1534 declaration that the king was "the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England." At the same time, the English clergy officially affirmed that no foreign bishops, including the pope, had any right to exercise jurisdiction over ecclesiastical affairs in Henry's realm. Although Thomas More, the former lord chancellor, and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, were later executed for refusing to accept the royal supremacy in church matters, most religious and secular leaders in England acquiesced because they did not think that ecclesiastical independence implied the repudiation of Catholic doctrine. Indeed, Henry's Six Articles act of 1539 upheld such traditional Catholic teachings as transubstantiation (the substance of the communion bread and wine is miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ), private confession to a priest, and mandatory clerical celibacy.
When Henry died in 1547, he was succeeded by Edward VI, the child of his third wife, Jane Seymour. Since Edward was only a boy when he ascended the throne, his uncle Edward Seymour was appointed lord protector, thereby assuming control over the affairs of state. Since both Seymour and his successor, John Dudley, were avowed Protestants, significant changes began to occur in English church life during Edward's reign. All persecution of Protestants was ended, and a number of leading continental reformers, such as Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli, were invited to serve at university posts in England. In addition, laws prohibiting clerical marriage were abandoned, and the use of English (instead of Latin) in worship was strongly encouraged. The scholarly archbishop Thomas Cranmer proved to be the principal architect of church reform in this period. He was the author of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and when some militant reformers criticized his work as too "popish" and conservative, he helped produce a revised, more identifiably "Protestant" prayer book, which was mandated for use in English parishes three years later, in 1552. Cranmer also composed the Forty-Two Articles, a statement of faith that took a mediating position between the theological views of Martin Luther and John Calvin, repudiated papal supremacy and key medieval eucharistic doctrines, and vigorously condemned the radical, antinomian Protestantism espoused by Anabaptists on the Continent.
Despite the significance of the many church reforms introduced during Edward's reign, the young king's early death and the accession of his half-sister Mary in 1553 brought about the temporary restoration of Roman Catholicism in England. Viewed from Mary's perspective, the situation was extraordinarily serious, for the English people had fallen into a state of mortal sin when her father severed the nation's ties with Rome. Thus, in an effort to save souls, she employed her powers as supreme head of the church to forbid further use of the English Prayer Book, to depose any priest who had broken his vow of celibacy, and ultimately to repeal all antipapal legislation.
Although these actions were by no means unacceptable to the majority of the English people, whose hearts and minds were still strongly attached to Catholicism, Mary's religious zeal led her to make two crucial mistakes. First, to bring her country into a closer relationship with continental Catholicism, she married the son of Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, thus identifying her reign with the nation that was England's most bitter rival. Second, against the advice of even Philip and Charles, she revived the application of medieval heresy laws—a policy that occasioned the martyrdom of about three hundred Protestants, including leading figures such as Thomas Cranmer. The threat of martyrdom also forced many other Protestants to flee to the Continent, where in areas controlled by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Calvinists their theological views were further radicalized. Thus, contrary to Mary's fondest wishes, her actions succeeded only in turning her subjects against the faith in which she believed. Expressed most vividly in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (first published in 1554), a cultural mind-set developed during Mary's reign that for several centuries blended English nationalistic sentiments with a staunch anti-Catholicism. When the queen died in 1558, she had effectively destroyed the possibility that the English church would ever again swear loyalty to the pope.
The next monarch—Elizabeth I—was, like her father Henry, more Catholic than Protestant in her personal religious sympathies. She preferred the use of traditional vestments in worship, thought priests should be celibate, and believed in the corporal presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements. Unlike her half-sister Mary, however, Elizabeth was willing to make her personal liturgical and theological preferences subservient to the greater goal of peace and national unity. As a consequence, she sought to restore political stability by implementing a via media—a middle-of-the-road religious policy—that avoided the extremes that had marked the reigns of her two predecessors. In 1559 Parliament passed legislation that both recognized Elizabeth as the church's "supreme governor" (considered to be a more suitable term for a woman than "supreme head") and reintroduced the Book of Common Prayer, now shorn of the most extreme Protestant elements introduced in the 1552 book. Although the position Elizabeth assumed pleased neither radical Protestants nor diehard Roman Catholics, she held that, as long as her subjects' outward religious acts conformed with England's laws, she had little interest in probing their inmost spiritual thoughts.
Elizabeth helped formulate a distinctly "Anglican" solution for the various matters of doctrine, church discipline, and worship that had troubled England since Henry's death. The most overt threat to the ecclesiastical settlement she devised came from dissident Roman Catholics. In 1569 there was a Catholic uprising, quickly suppressed, that sought to advance the cause of her cousin Mary Stuart, and in 1570 a papal bull of excommunication formally relieved Elizabeth's Catholic subjects of all oaths of allegiance to her. The queen responded to these threats by having all Jesuits in England condemned as traitors in 1585, and two years later she ordered Mary's execution. However, despite the potential dangers posed by either a foreign invasion or an internal rebellion under the direction of Rome, English Catholicism looked considerably more subversive than it actually was. Although there was certainly a small minority involved in plotting against the queen, most Roman Catholics in England had little difficulty reconciling their religious and political loyalties.
Excerpted from The Episcopalians by David Hein. Copyright © 2004 by David Heim and Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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