Soundings

The genesis of Anglicanism

Sep 2009    

16TH CENTURY REFORMS

“From its genesis, the Anglican Communion has embraced the reforms introduced by the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther.”

THE ENGLISH REFORMATION had an unlikely beginning when England’s King Henry VIII declared unilaterally the Church in England to be under his control, and not that of Pope Clement VII. Henry VIII made this declaration not because of some profound doctrinal controversy with Rome. Rather it was because the pope would not allow the king to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon and marry the much younger Anne Boleyn in order to have a male heir.

In 1533, Henry went against the pope, married Anne Boleyn, and issued the Act of Supremacy that made the king the head of the church in England. A series of impor-tant and swift measures were implemented to transfer control of the church to the king. Subsequently all churchmen were required to swear an oath of supremacy.

The history of the Church of England cannot be told without mentioning the three Thomas-es, who played significant but different roles. The first is Sir Thomas More, an English lawyer and statesman, who was executed for refusing to swear the oath of supremacy.Th omas More was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, and in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared, “Motuu Propio” (on his own authority), him as the Patron Saint of politicians and statesmen. The second Thomas is Thomas Cromwell, who served as the king’s chief minister, and who was responsible for drafting the legislation that severed the English church from Rome. And finally, there is Thomas Cranmer, the theologian who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, and who ensured the Protestant character of the Church of England. It was Cranmer who wrote the Book of Common Prayer, one of the most profound documents of the theology of the Anglican Church.

Anglican theology is embodied in two very important documents. The first is the
Book of Common Prayer. Under Edward VI, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury produced the first and second Books of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). In 1549, the British Parliament passed an Act of Uniformity which required clergy to use “the Booke of the Common Prayer and Administracion of the Sacramentes and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church after the Use of the Church of England”.

In the Preface of the 1549 edition, Thomas Cranmer explained that the book is to provide common prayer in two senses. The worship of the Church of England will be conducted in the common tongue (before this, worship was conducted in Latin), and the prayer book will be used in every diocese. Following the ancient principle of “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief” (lex orandi, lex credendi), the Book of Common Prayer became the stan-dard embodiment of Anglican doctrine, which affirmed the Scripture as the Word of God, and which accepted as authorita-tive the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed. The Book of Common Prayer is one of the most important theological documents of the English Reformation.

The second important theological document of the Anglican tradition is the Thirty-nine Articles, which began life as the Forty-Two Articles of Religion (1533). The latter document, which sought to state the basic tenets and principles of the continental Reformation, was revised to its current form by the convocations of 1563 and 1571. The Thirty-nine Articles in essence is a thoroughly “Protestant” document in the sense that they affirm the teachings of the 16th century Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin on the one hand, while repudiating some teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the other. For instance, the articles emphasise that the justification of the sinner is based on faith in the merits of Christ (XI). They roundly reject Roman Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation (XXVIII), the sacrifice of the Mass (XXXI) and the immaculacy of Mary (XV).

The articles also present a balanced view of the relationship between Scripture and the tradition of the Church. While rejecting the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which places tradition at par with Scripture, the articles do not dismiss the important role of tradition in the theology of the Church. They teach that Scripture is the final word on matters of faith and practice, not the only word (XXXIV).

Although Anglican worship varies widely from church to church, it usually follows the liturgical calendar. In more traditional forms of worship, the lectionary readings are followed closely, and through these prescribed lessons the church is reminded of the story of salvation in Christ. By following the Christian calendar closely, the church commemorates significant events in the history of salvation like advent and the nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The celebration of the Eucharist is seen as the central in Anglican worship. Anglican worship therefore can be said to be decisively biblical and sacramental.

The Anglican Communion today is a worldwide fellowship of churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury (England). From 1867, the Archbishop of Canterbury would hold the Lambeth Conference in London once every decade, and bishops from across the Communion are invited to attend. Although the Communion today is beset with many problems, especially those related to matters concerning human sexuality, Anglicans hold that theirs is the church that is profoundly related to the church of New Testament times. From its genesis, the Anglican Communion, under the theological leadership of Thomas Cranmer and others, has embraced the reforms introduced by the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther. The Communion today longs for a true ecumenicity to emerge as a result of which Christians of every denomination would be reunited with it.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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