26 October 2011

Anglican history, part II: Royal supremacy and the English Church

For the first installment of this series, about Henry VIII and his reasons for wanting to annul the marriage with Catherine of Aragon, please click here. Part III, about the “founding” of Anglicanism, can be found here.

In the previous installment, we examined the series of events surrounding Henry VIII's marital and dynastic problems that led to the break with Rome. In this installment, we shall look at the break itself and dismiss the common claim that Henry "founded" a new church, while also examining historical precedents for Henry's action in breaking off relations with Rome.

The decline of Empire, the rise of the Church

Today, many Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, tend to think of the Roman Catholic Church as always having been the way it is now – with a strong Papacy dominating the global church, independent of any national or temporal interference. But historically, this is actually something quite new, arguably as recent as the 1870s and the First Vatican Council.

Before the Great Schism of 1054, when what are now the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches were still nominally united, the Church was in fact organized at a national or regional level. Indeed, the very structure of the church quite intentionally mirrored boundaries and structures of the civil authorities. For example, the word diocese originally was simply a political subdivision of the Roman Empire that had nothing to do with the Church. A presbyter (which in Catholic terminology is a more technical term for a priest) was simply the title of someone who was a local leader, and simply means "elder", hence the Methodist use of the latter term.

This is also the reason Protestant churches generally use different vernacular words for the equivalent offices in the Roman Catholic church, such as "superintendent" instead of "dean", since the reformers wanted to get rid of the Roman influence on their respective churches. Similarly, vestments (clerical clothing) in the Western Church are generally adapted from Roman Imperial badges of office, and were not originally religious at all.

By way of analogy, suppose in some distant future a new religion were to arise in the United States just as America's government was falling apart, and this religion set itself up subdivided in church states and counties, with each church state led by a governor, perhaps wearing a suit and tie or police uniform on formal occasions. Then the United States crumbles and disappears from the scene entirely, but the new religion's leaders are still called governors, the church is still divided in states, and the leader of each local club still wears early 21st century business clothing during religious observances, even though it has long been obsolete and is no longer worn in daily life. Services are still celebrated in early 21st century English, even though that language is long gone and few understand it any more, in spite of it once having been the people's language. That's pretty much what happened in the Western Church in the late Roman and early medieval periods.

The evolution of East and West after 1054

When the Empire began to crumble, the Church did its best to maintain the old structures, but eventually adapted to the new situation by erecting churches within each of the emerging kingdoms, each having its own metropolitan (i.e. chief bishop for that kingdom) and council of bishops. You can still see vestigial signs of this in the Roman Catholic Church today: Each country has its own conference of bishops, and each country has one bishop or archbishop who is considered the lead bishop for that country, called a metropolitan. However, these subsidiary levels of the Roman church were gradually weakened and reduced in importance, so that today they are little more than talking shops with barely any authority of their own, at least when compared to their counterparts in the Orthodox and Anglican communions. Once we examine the issues around royal supremacy in the West, we will see why.

You can see this original structure most clearly in the Orthodox Church today, since there it was preserved from the pre-Schism Church more or less unchanged. This is why people speak of "Greek Orthodox", "Serbian Orthodox", "Russian Orthodox" and so on. The various respective Orthodox churches are in fact one big church, but they are fully autonomous from one another, each led by its metropolitan. Each of these only accords the Orthodox Church's formal leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a place of honor without being subordinate to him. Think of the Patriarch as being a kind of chairman who sets the agenda, but doesn't have any authority to enforce decisions and has to seek consensus. This is essentially how the Papacy was originally conceived and put into practice, but as time went on, Rome's claims of authority over the others became ever stronger, and West and East were ever more alienated from each other as a result.

Precedents for royal supremacy in the late Roman and early medieval periods

The aspect of the Orthodox Church that is most relevant to our discussion, however, is the fusion of church and state that took place once Constantine the Great made Christianity the state religion in 313 AD. This fusion existed in the East right up to the end of the Byzantine Empire (i.e. the last remnant of the Roman Empire) in the late 15th century. There are numerous examples of the Byzantine Emperor appointing and deposing bishops and patriarchs practically at will. If there was ever a sign that royal (or imperial) supremacy of the Church was normal, the Church in the Byzantine Empire is it.

In the West, too, this fusion existed, albeit in a somewhat different form. The Holy Roman Emperors in Germany – who saw themselves as a reconstituted Roman Empire in the West – freely interfered in affairs of the Western Church, with Emperors often appointing or imposing Popes and bishops as they saw fit. But Popes sometimes returned the favor, appointing and deposing Emperors. On the one hand, Charlemagne, arguably the first non-Roman Western emperor, was crowned and given the title of Emperor by Pope Leo III. On the other, at least before 1059, Popes were just as often chosen and appointed by the Emperor, sometimes as an arbiter, or sometimes making the choice independently. Some of the many Popes who were appointed by the Byzantine or Holy Roman Emperors are Vigilius and Pelagius I, Eugene II, John XIII, and Benedict VI. In all these cases, it demonstrates just who was really in control. Not the Pope, but the supreme secular ruler.

As the Western Empire split up into numerous kingdoms, this was carried forward under the new kings in their respective realms. Each new kingdom generally had its own council of bishops, led by a primate bishop or metropolitan, with bishops also acting as secular lords and thus feudal vassals of the king. A last remnant of this still exists in the UK today, the Lords Spiritual, who are the senior bishops in England and therefore automatically are part of the House of Lords.

The royal involvement in the local church was a lucrative business for the monarchs, who generally sold bishoprics (technically termed simony) to the highest bidder. This was a major source of income. Of course, there was an ongoing power struggle between the Pope and the various kings and emperors, which came to a head in the Investiture Contest, whereby the Pope attempted to claim the right to choose bishops without outside interference. This still did not put a stop to the practice, only making it somewhat more difficult, and the various bishops still had to swear fealty to the local king as his vassal when taking office. So even after the Contest ended with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, kings still had considerable rights regarding the church in their realm, and formally at least the church's bishops were subordinate to him.

In addition to this royal prerogative, the Popes were not even masters of their own house like they are today. Right up to the eve of the Protestant Reformation, the bishops and kings across Europe generally believed the Pope should be subordinate to a general council, a movement which we call today Conciliarism. The defeat of the Conciliarists at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1517 was one of the sparks that led to Luther's 95 Theses that same year.

There are many other such examples of royal supremacy from the various countries of Europe, but one particularly interesting one for our discussion is the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, which was issued by the French King Charles VII (who was the king Joan of Arc helped to expel the English in the Hundred Years' War) in 1438, a mere 53 years before Henry VIII was born. This was very similar to the First Act of Supremacy of 1534 that Henry and the English Parliament passed, in that it essentially made the Gallican Church (i.e. the Church of France) independent from Rome and subject to royal authority, while also cutting off payments to Rome.

Papal reaction to royal supremacy, crisis and centralization of power

In reaction against all this, over the centuries the Popes tried to combat royal control over the various churches by asserting the right to appoint bishops, to claim jurisdiction, and receive donations from the local churches. In the early Middle Ages, the Pope was little more than the Bishop of Rome, and compared to the other four Patriarchs, relatively insignificant aside from its formal place of honor. Many of the early councils of the patriarchs were not even attended by the Pope. The Popes were totally dependent on the Emperors for protection, who in turn used the Church as their own tool.

It took centuries for the Papacy to develop an independent identity, and progress was extraordinarily slow, punctuated by controversies such as the Invetiture Contest noted above.

Historically, each time the Roman church was in conflict with temporal powers, the Papacy used the occasion to cement and strengthen its position within the Roman communion as a defensive measure, accumulating more power and weakening local churches and chapters, until the final coup de grâce: the twin dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility. These were promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870, and were themselves a reaction in part against the loss of the Papal States to Garibaldi's Italian unification war and the loss of papal influence in Italy. The true irony is that the Pope at the time, Pius IX, claimed that these were not new doctrines at all, but always were so from the beginning – almost Orwellian in its inversion of the actual history.

Royal supremacy in England prior to Henry VIII

This concept of royal supremacy was not new in England at all. In 1350, Edward III enacted a law, the Statute of Provisors, which forbade the English church from paying money to the Pope or other foreign church institutions.

A little later, Richard II enacted a law in 1392, the Statute of Praemunire, which essentially declared the English church free from papal interference, again long before Henry. There are numerous other examples of this in English history.

So we can see that Henry not only had ample precedent for his actions regarding Catherine of Aragon as we discussed in the previous article, he had ample precedents to call upon throughout the history of Christendom and within England herself to support his decision to cut ties to Rome.

So what did Henry found?

Strictly speaking, Henry did not found a church at all. The Church of England existed ever since the Irish missionaries from the north and Roman missionaries under St. Augustine from the south merged their churches at the Synod of Whitby in 664. So if any date could be given for the "founding" of the Church of England, it would either be 664, or 597, the year St. Augustine came to England to begin the Roman mission.

Some readers might argue that the English church had no identity of its own until Henry, but even that is highly unlikely. If we look at the Statute of Praemunire from 1392 mentioned above, there the church is specifically called (in Norman French) seinte eglise d'Engleterre – in English, that literally means the "Church of England", and that 200 years before Henry's crisis. The Pragmatic Sanction also spoke of a national church, the Church of France or Gallican Church, with its own identity. For that matter, even as far back the 8th century, the Venerable Bede refers to the ecclesia anglorum, which means the same. So the name "Church of England" was not new at all – in fact it was the logical name based on custom.

Ultimately, what Henry's Act of Supremacy of 1534 did was simply to tie together the existing law and customs his predecessors and counterparts had established – the two Statutes mentioned above – and formalize what had been claimed for centuries, that the already existing Church of England was independent of the Roman Pontiff, just like the various Orthodox churches in the East. Henry's actions fit squarely with centuries of precedent across Christendom, and we can comfortably state that the Church of England was not founded in 1534, 1559, or 1662, but rather 597 AD – or, through the apostolic succession, right back to Jesus Christ Himself.

In the next article, we'll explore the claim that Henry created a Protestant church and was most important in defining the Church of England. Click here to read it. Hope you're enjoying the reading so far, and I look forward to comments and discussion.