31 May 2018

Anglican history, part III: Who founded Anglicanism?

The following completes my series on Anglican history. Part I can be found here, and Part II can be found here. The text of this was originally posted on Quora in answer to a question there.

As I alluded to in Part II of this series, the common misconception is that Henry VIII “founded” Anglicanism (or at least the Church of England). That is actually completely false. The true founder — if we discount St. Augustine of Canterbury founding the English Church in 597 — was not Henry, but his daughter, Elizabeth. This is something of a pet peeve of mine…

Elizabeth I was formally the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, technically the first to hold that title. (Her father, Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI, had been Supreme Head, but many loyal English Catholics were offended by it and Elizabeth changed the title to appease them.) All British monarchs ever since Elizabeth have held that title.

The pet peeve is that it is commonly (and wrongly) said that Henry VIII “founded” the Church of England. He did not. The existing English Church simply cut ties to Rome. These ties were restored by Mary I, and again cut under Elizabeth.

It is also commonly (and wrongly) assumed that Henry dramatically reformed the Church of England, and that he left a lasting mark on it. Actually, Henry stoutly resisted any attempts at reforms, and feuded with Luther and the Reformers on the Continent. Priests were still required to be celibate, the Mass was still usually in Latin (though an English Bible was published), belief in transubstantiation was required by law (see Six Articles), prayers for the dead were still said. And anyway what little he did change was restored by Mary. (She was unable to reverse the Dissolution of the Monasteries for political reasons, but otherwise wiped out the few small changes Henry did allow.)

The Church of England — and with it the Anglican Communion as a whole — was reformed not by Henry, but by Elizabeth. The hallmarks of Anglicanism are not to be found in Henry’s church, but in Elizabeth’s, and broadly speaking, the essentials of the Elizabethan Settlement are still what makes Anglicanism unique in uniting Catholicism and Protestantism in a single body.

So if anyone could be said to have founded Anglicanism (besides Jesus Christ and St. Augustine of Canterbury), it would be Elizabeth — not Henry VIII. Her vision of a single church uniting all Christians regardless of denomination is what makes Anglicanism what it is today.

Hence I would argue that the only real service Henry VIII did for Anglicanism is fathering Elizabeth. She is the true central figure in Anglican history, and really should get a lot more credit for it.