Trends in the History of the Church of England

Note:  In the centuries between Henry’s separation of the Church of England from Catholicism, several trends have ebbed and flowed in the history which shape the context for the change of the church in Wesley’s day. Forces for change, whether Protestant or Catholic, had led to death and revolution; forces for stability in English culture saw Wesley as a threat to national stability and well being.

HENRY: Henry maintained a strong preference for traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of the Church of England. Indeed, this part of Henry’s reign saw the trial for heresy of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

A PROTESTANT CHURCH OF ENGLAND EMERGES: Under his son, King Edward VI, more Protestant-influenced forms of worship were adopted. Under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a more radical reformation proceeded. A new pattern of worship was set out in the Book of Common Prayer(1549 and 1552). These were based on the older liturgy but influenced by Protestant principles. The confession of the reformed Church of England was set out in the Forty-two Articles (later revised to thirty-nine).

RETURN TO CATHOLICISM UNDER QUEEN MARY: The reformation however was cut short by the death of the king.Queen Mary I, who succeeded him, returned England again to the authority of the papacy, thereby ending the first attempt at an independent Church of England. During her co-reign with her husband, King Philip, many leaders and common people were burnt for their refusal to recant of their reformed faith. These are known as the Marian martyrs and the persecution led to her nickname of “Bloody Mary”.

Mary also died childless and so it was left to the new regime of her half-sister Elizabeth to resolve the direction of the church.

THE MIDDLE WAY EMERGES UNDER QUEEN ELIZABETH: The settlement under Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558), known as the Elizabethan Settlement, developed the via media (middle way) character of the Church of England, a church moderately Reformed in doctrine, as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, but also emphasising continuity with the Catholic and Apostolic traditions of the Church Fathers. It was also an established church (constitutionally established by the state with the head of state as its supreme governor). The exact nature of the relationship between church and state would be a source of continued friction into the next century.

CONFLICT WITH PURITANS EMERGES during the Stuart period:

For the next century, through the reigns of James I, who ordered the creation of what became known as the King James Bible,[13] andCharles I, culminating in the English Civil War and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, there were significant swings back and forth between two factions: the Puritans (and other radicals) who sought more far-reaching Protestant reforms, and the more conservative churchmen who aimed to keep closer to traditional beliefs and Catholic practices. The failure of political and ecclesiastical authorities to submit to Puritan demands for more extensive reform was one of the causes of open warfare. By Continental standards, the level of violence over religion was not high, but the casualties included King Charles I and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Under the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of England from 1649 to 1660, the bishops were dethroned and former practices were outlawed, andPresbyterian ecclesiology was introduced in place of the episcopate. The 39 Articles were replaced by the Westminster Confession, the Book of Common Prayer by the Directory of Public Worship. Despite this, about one quarter of English clergy refused to conform to this form of State Presbyterianism.

STABILITY RESTORED: With the Restoration of Charles II, Parliament restored the Church of England to a form not far removed from the Elizabethan version. One difference was that the ideal of encompassing all the people of England in one religious organization, taken for granted by the Tudors, had to be abandoned. The religious landscape of England assumed its present form, with the Anglican established church occupying the middle ground, and those Puritans and Protestants who dissented from the Anglican establishment, and Roman Catholics, too strong to be suppressed altogether, having to continue their existence outside the National Church rather than controlling it. Continuing official suspicion and legal restrictions continued well into the 19th century.

NOTE: the religious atmosphere in Wesley’s day is in a threefold context of tension between the Anglican established church, which sought to provide national stability to the status quo, and dissenters and Catholics. Protestants outside the Church of England were known as Dissenters; laws were put in place to control both dissenter churches and Catholics. As Wesley sought to change the nature of the church, he was frequently accused of being either a dissenter or a “papist” (Catholic).

Resources:

This post is provides material from Wikipedia with links to articles and information on English History which forms the background for the development of Methodism. While it is lightly edited, the source is Wikipedia unless noted below. Major articles quoted have links, but can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_England (quoted from the section on History)

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