The Church of England—An “Endangered Species”?
IN RECENT years so many churches have closed in England that a newspaper headline declared them to be an “endangered species.” About 1,000 unused churches and chapels have been demolished in the past 15 years. Now, reports the Associated Press, “an average of 85 Anglican churches a year” are declared “redundant,” that is, in excess of what is needed.
Why this steep decline in the Church of England? From London, Kansas City Star correspondent Brian Dunning answers: “The reason is sadly simple: There are not enough Christians to go around. Many churches that used to be full are now empty.”
Less than 10 percent of baptized Anglicans go to church even during such peak seasons as Easter. Why so few? Dunning observes: “One answer lies in the peculiar history of ‘official’ Christianity in England. Ever since King Henry VIII broke with Rome, the Church of England has been the state or ‘established’ faith.”
How has this contributed to its decline? Church of England clergyman Ronald Michaels states: “Many people today find this alliance between church and state suffocating.” He notes that even the archbishop of Canterbury “admits that his church is trapped by history.”
What is the history that has played its part in the Church of England becoming an “endangered species”? A look into the past will help to explain.
The roots of the Church of England go back nearly five centuries, to the time of King Henry VII, a Roman Catholic. Henry’s elder son, Arthur, was married to Spain’s Catherine of Aragon. But then Arthur died. Seeking to keep the royal tie with Spain, King Henry VII determined to have Catherine marry his second son, Henry, who later became Henry VIII.
However, according to the law of the Catholic Church, it was illegal to marry young Henry to his dead brother’s wife. Yet King Henry VII was on very good terms with the then pope, Julius II, and asked him for a special dispensation. Seeking to please the British king, the pope granted it, paving the way for the marriage.
After his father’s death in 1509, young Henry inherited the throne, becoming, as mentioned, Henry VIII. Soon afterward, he married Catherine and had several daughters by her. Only one, Mary (later to be known in history as ‘Bloody Mary’), lived beyond early childhood. Desperate for a male heir, Henry wondered how he could legally rid himself of Catherine and marry a younger wife who could give him a son.
In 1527 Henry appealed to the new pope, Clement VII, asking that his marriage to Catherine be set aside on the premise that it had been illegal in the first place. Clement had no desire to offend Henry, who was a loyal Catholic. Likely, he would gladly have annulled the marriage.
But just at the crucial time of Henry’s request, Clement VII was a virtual prisoner of the German emperor, Charles V, who had sacked Rome and had the pope in his power. To make matters worse, the German emperor was the nephew of Catherine, Henry’s wife! Catherine knew that she could count on her nephew’s support to maintain the marriage, and the pope knew it too. So it was very difficult for the pope to meet Henry’s demands, as reprisals from the German emperor could have been disastrous for both the pope and the papal possessions.
Henry’s Unilateral Action
The course the pope took was to play for time, hoping that his political situation might change. But Henry’s patience was becoming exhausted. He already had his future queen in view, an attractive lady of his court named Anne Boleyn.
Henry felt that it was intolerable for the English throne to be put at risk by two foreign powers—the German emperor and the pope. So he decided to take drastic steps to resolve his matrimonial problem. He stripped Catholic Cardinal Wolsey of all authority, and then called on all the clergy to support him, Henry VIII, as the head of the Church and clergy in England.
A number of acts of Parliament followed, each designed to cut the ties that bound England to Rome. Tax payments to the pope were stopped. Another act prevented anyone from appealing to Rome against a decision of the king. Thus, Catherine was effectively isolated from the pope, and papal power in England was broken.
Henry, still Catholic, secretly married Anne on the assumption that his marriage with Catherine was invalid. On June 1, 1533, Anne was crowned as queen. In July, Henry was excommunicated.
Reformation Takes Shape
During all this time, the Church in England remained basically unchanged. It was still Catholic. It had yet to become the Church of England, with its own doctrines and character.
During the final 14 years of Henry’s reign, the consolidation of the English Catholic Church as a national church became a reality. With the Act of Supremacy, Henry declared himself to be the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England.
Yet Henry was proud of his Catholic faith, and by an act of Parliament in 1539 he reconfirmed Catholic doctrines. Sincere reformers were bitterly disappointed by this, but their opposition met with no success. They had to wait eight more years until, in 1547, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, a child by Jane Seymour, the third of his six wives.
Edward VI had been educated by Protestant teachers. He ruled only six years, but this was long enough to permit Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to press ahead with reforms.
However, with the premature death of Edward VI in 1553, the crown passed to Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon. Like her mother, Mary was a staunch Catholic and supporter of the pope. Her policy was to return the Church of England to the authority of the pope. Earlier reforms were reversed. Liberal Church leaders of the Reformation were deposed. Nearly 300 Protestants were burned to death, including Archbishop Cranmer.
Since Mary was childless, at her death in 1558 the crown passed to Henry VIII’s other daughter, Elizabeth, born of Anne Boleyn. Catholic in name only, Queen Elizabeth soon repealed all the religious measures taken by Mary, restoring the ones that had been in force at Edward’s death.
But in 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth. He also absolved her subjects from allegiance to her, and even declared the English throne vacant. Faced with such a conflict of loyalties, many Roman Catholics met untimely deaths. Now there could be no hope of reconciliation.
However, the pope did not give up. As a last resort, the pope turned to the king of Spain, Philip II. With financial inducements from the papacy, Philip prepared a great armada and in 1588 set sail against Elizabeth and her Protestant country. But his fleet met defeat and was later wrecked by storm.
Thus the Reformation was secure. The split from Rome was complete. Now there was a national Church completely separated from papal authority. Such a State-Church relationship, however, progressively alienated sections of the community. The formation of “Free” and “Nonconformist” Church groups over the years is but one evidence of this. As Church of England clergyman Michaels said: “Many people today find this alliance between church and state suffocating. The church must set itself free. It cannot be the church militant if it is looking over its shoulder at the government . . . if it appears to be acting as an agent of government policy.”
The existence today of the Church of England, so strictly controlled by the State that the appointments of its highest dignitaries and even its form of prayer book are determined by Parliament, is something of an anachronism. This situation has proved to be a contributing factor in the unrelenting drift of its members. Is it any wonder that the Church of England is today described as an “endangered species”?
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THE CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL