History of the Church of England

From Academic Kids

The specifically English church originates primarily from events in the late 6th century in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent, and the mission of Saint Augustine. The Church of England traditionally looks to these early events for its origins, rather than to Henry VIII's political schism with the Roman Catholic Church, or to the wider Reformation in mainland Europe. (See also Anglicanism)

Christianity had first arrived in the British Isles around 200 during the Roman Empire, developing roots in Wales and Ireland, and spreading to Scotland and north England, which endured after the Romans departed. But subsequent invaders and conquerors — the Saxons, Angles and Jutes — had followed Nordic pagan religions, which still leave traces in English Christian traditions to the present day.


The Augustinian Mission

Ethelbert of Kent's wife Bertha, daughter of Charibert, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks, had brought a chaplain (Liudhard) with her. Bertha had restored a church from Roman times to the east of Canterbury and dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours, the patronal saint for the Merovingian royal family. Ethelbert himself, though a pagan, allowed his wife to worship God her own way. Probably under influence of his wife, Ethelbert asked Pope Gregory I to send missionaries, and in 596 the Pope dispatched Augustine, together with a party of monks.

Augustine had served as praepositus (prior) of the monastery of Saint Andrew in Rome, founded by Gregory. His party lost heart on the way and Augustine went back to Rome from Provence and asked his superiors to abandon the mission project. The pope, however, commanded and encouraged continuation, and Augustine and his followers landed on the Island of Thanet in the spring of 597.

Ethelbert permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his town of Canterbury. By the end of the year he himself had converted, and Augustine received consecration as a bishop at Arles. At Christmas 10,000 of the king's subjects underwent baptism.

Augustine sent a report of his success to Gregory with certain questions concerning his work. In 601 Mellitus, Justus and others brought the pope's replies, with the pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, books, and the like. Gregory directed the new archbishop to ordain as soon as possible twelve suffragan bishops and to send a bishop to York, who should also have twelve suffragans. Augustine did not carry out this papal plan, nor did he establish the primatial see at London as Gregory intended, as the Londoners remained heathen. Augustine did consecrate Mellitus as bishop of London and Justus as bishop of Rochester.

Pope Gregory issued more practicable mandates concerning heathen temples and usages: he desired that temples become consecrated to Christian service and asked Augustine to transform pagan practices, so far as possible, into dedication ceremonies or feasts of martyrs, since "he who would climb to a lofty height must go up by steps, not leaps" (letter of Gregory to Mellitus, in Bede, i, 30).

Augustine reconsecrated and rebuilt an old church at Canterbury as his cathedral and founded a monastery in connection with it. He also restored a church and founded the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the walls. He died before completing the monastery, but now lies buried in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.

In 616 Ethelbert of Kent died. The kingdom of Kent and the associated Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which Kent had had influence over relapsed into heathenism for several decades.

Medieval consolidation

The Synod of Whitby in 664 forms a significant watershed in that King Oswiu of Northumbria decided to follow Roman rather than Celtic practices.

As in other parts of medieval Europe, tension existed between the local monarch and the Pope about civil judicial authority over clerics, taxes and the wealth of the Church, and appointments of bishops, notably during the reigns of Henry II and John.

Separation from Papal Authority

The English Church remained in union with Rome until the reign of Henry VIII. The first break with Rome (subsequently reversed) came when Pope Clement VII refused, over a period of years, to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, not purely as a matter of principle, but also because he (the Pope) lived in fear of Catherine's nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, as a result of events in the Italian Wars.

Henry first asked for an annulment in 1527. After various failed initiatives he stepped up the pressure on Rome, in the summer of 1529, by compiling a manuscript from ancient sources proving in law that spiritual supremacy rested with the monarch, and demonstrating the illegality of Papal authority. In 1531 Henry first challenged the Pope when he demanded 100,000 pounds from the clergy in exchange for a royal pardon for their illegal jurisdiction. He also demanded that the clergy should recognise him as their sole protector and supreme head. The church in England recognised Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England on February 11, 1531, however in 1532 he still continued to attempt to seek a compromise with the Pope.

In May 1532 the Church of England agreed to surrender its legislative independence and canon law to the authority of the monarch. In 1533 the Statute in Restraint of Appeals removed the right of the English clergy and laity to appeal to Rome on matters of matrimony, tithes and oblations, and gave authority over such matters to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. This finally allowed Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, to issue Henry's annulment; and upon procuring it, Henry married Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII excommunicated Henry VIII in 1533.

In 1534 the Act of Submission of the Clergy removed the right of all appeals to Rome, effectively ending the Pope's influence. The first Act of Supremacy confirmed Henry by statute as the Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1536. (Due to clergy objections the contentious term 'Supreme Head' for the monarch later became 'Supreme Governor' - hence one cannot technically refer to the reigning monarch as the so-called 'head' of the Church of England.)

Such constitutional changes made it not only possible for Henry to divorce but also gave him access to the considerable wealth that the Church had amassed, and Thomas Cromwell, as Vicar General, launched a commission of enquiry into the nature and value of all ecclesiastical property in 1535, which culminated in the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536 - 1540).

Protestant Influences

Despite separation from Rome, the Church of England under Henry VIII remained essentially Catholic rather than Protestant in nature. Pope Leo X had earlier awarded to Henry himself the title of fidei defensor (defender of the faith), partly on account of Henry's attack on Lutheranism. Some Protestant-influenced changes under Henry included a limited iconoclasm, the abolition of pilgrimages, and pilgrimage shrines, and the extinction of many saints' days. However only minor changes in liturgy occurred during Henry's reign, and he carried through the Six Articles of 1539 which reaffirmed the Catholic nature of the church.

All this took place, however, at a time of major religious upheaval in Western Europe associated with the Reformation; and once the schism had occurred, some reform probably became inevitable.

Only under Henry's son Edward VI (reigned 1547 - 1553), did the first major changes in parish activity take place, including translation and thorough revision of the liturgy along more Protestant lines. The resulting Book of Common Prayer, issued in 1549 and revised in 1552, came into use by the authority of Parliament.

Brief reunion with Rome

Following the death of Edward, the Roman Catholic Mary I (reigned 1553 - 1558) came to the throne. She renounced the Henrician and Edwardian changes, first by repealing her brother's reforms then by re-establishing unity with Rome. She gained the common sobriquet of "Bloody Mary" because of her widespread torture and execution of many of those opposed to Roman Catholicism. However, such behaviour did not appear unduly severe in light of the standards of the time, and had she lived longer the English people might well have peaceably accepted the return to Rome.

The second schism

The second schism, from which the present Church of England originates, came later. Upon Mary's death in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth I (reigned 1558 - 1603) came to power. Elizabeth became a determined opponent of papal control and re-introduced separatist ideas. But the Roman Catholic Church did not excommunicate Elizabeth until February 25, 1570, when Pope Pius V acted after Charles V withdrew his protection. The Church of England officially broke with Rome again in 1559, when Parliament recognised Elizabeth as the Church's supreme governor, with a new Act of Supremacy that also repealed the remaining anti-Protestant legislation. A new Book of Common Prayer appeared in the same year. Elizabeth presided over the "Elizabethan Settlement", an attempt to satisfy the Puritan and Catholic forces in England within a single national Church.

Puritanism and the Restoration

During the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649 - 1660), the ascendant Puritans replaced the Episcopalian government of the Church with a Presbyterian form, but retained the principle of ultimate state control of religious matters. After Charles II came to power in 1660, his Restoration government re-established the Episcopalian structures, and issued a new revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662. The Church of England played a part in rebuffing James II's efforts to re-instate Roman Catholicism (1685 - 1688) and became a prop of the Tory Party and the social status quo.

18th century

The Wesleyan reformation ended in schism with the birth of Methodism.

19th century

The Plymouth Brethren seceded from the established church in the 1820s. From the 1830s the Oxford Movement became influential and occasioned the revival of Anglo-Catholicism.

Recent history

On March 12, 1994 the Church of England ordained its first female priests.

See also


William Hunt, The English Church: From Its Foundation to the Norman Conquest (597-1066), Volume I of a 7 volume set by various authors, AMS Press, reprint, originally published in 1899, hardcover, 444 pages


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