Britain’s History of Religious Disunity
By “Awake!” correspondent in Britain
For many years religious bodies in Britain have been discussing unity. They are not suggesting that any among them be extinguished but that there should be “union, without absorption.” Each would recognize the others’ distinctive methods of worship and service. Recently there have been two such ecumenical efforts: one between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church; the other between the Church of England and certain Free, or Nonconformist, churches. The following two articles will help in analysing what the probabilities are for religious unity in Britain.
RELIGIOUS disunity in Britain has been apparent from earliest days. No one knows how, in the second century, Christianity reached Britain. Later, two distinct churches developed—the Celtic, which was independent, and the Roman, under the pope’s control.
For several centuries there was no serious clash, mainly because the two churches were concentrated in different parts of the country. However, by the seventh century their missionary activities brought them into collision. Their differences were over ceremonial details, the date of Easter, and suchlike, rather than over doctrine.
In 663 C.E. the King of Northumbria invited both sides to the Council of Whitby, of which he was chairman. Though of the Celtic persuasion himself, he took the side of Rome, and the Council agreed. As a result, the Celtic influence on religion soon faded in most of Britain. Rome had triumphed. For almost 900 years she remained the dominant church, continually strengthening her religious control as well as her political influence. Her growing arrogance spawned deep resentment in the rulers and discontent among the people.
The Break With Rome
Church/State hostility reached a climax in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon had not provided him a surviving male heir, so he desperately wanted to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refused to dissolve the marriage by special dispensation, though this was a fairly common practice at the time. Apparently in this case political factors dictated the pope’s refusal. Henry then had Parliament enact a series of bills that severed all ties to Rome and made him supreme head of the church in England. Thus, in 1534, the church in England became independent.
Upon Henry’s death his nine-year-old son, Edward, became king. A council of regency was appointed to govern until he came of age. It was a reforming body, determined to remove idolatry and superstition from religious worship. But Edward died six years later, to be succeeded by Mary, Henry’s daughter by his first wife. As a devout Roman Catholic, Mary determined to return the Church of England to the bosom of Rome. In 1554 the anti-Rome laws were repealed. Full communion with Rome was restored a year later. Then followed the savage persecution of unrepentant Protestants, some 300 of whom were burnt to death at the stake.
Mary, however, ruled for only five years. Her half sister Elizabeth succeeded her to the throne, and Elizabeth determined to follow in the footsteps of Henry VIII, her father. Within a year, two Acts of Parliament restored the legislation repealed during Mary’s reign. The pope retaliated by excommunicating Elizabeth. He then attempted an invasion of Britain, supported by the Spanish Armada, but it failed disastrously. All of this, in turn, brought savage persecution upon the recusants, as Catholics who refused to attend Anglican services were known. About 250 of them were put to death.
The Church of England was once again freed from Rome but not from trouble. Internal division appeared. On one hand the Anglicans, or High Churchmen, wished to cling to Roman rituals, which had been left intact in spite of the break with Rome. On the other hand, the Puritans, or Low Churchmen, regarded such rituals as superstitious, unscriptural, and idolatrous. Among the Puritans were those whose revulsion was so strong that they left their homes and sailed away to the “New World.” The first of them left on the Mayflower on September 16, 1620.
In 1642 three years of civil war erupted. Charles I, claiming to rule by divine right, had dissolved Parliament and was ruling autocratically. Supporting him were the Anglicans. On the other side were Parliament and the Puritans, successfully led by Oliver Cromwell. In 1649 they beheaded Charles, and the nation became a commonwealth headed by a protector. During the next ten years, Parliament disestablished the Church of England and replaced the Anglican form of worship with the austere Calvinistic Presbyterian style. What churches and monasteries still stood after the war were either closed or destroyed.
Cromwell proscribed the Anglican and Roman rituals but otherwise allowed freedom of worship. Thus it was that many sects arose, most to flutter and die. A few, however, grew into modern-day religious bodies, among them the Baptists, the Quakers, and the Congregationalists. Then, in 1738, John Wesley founded Methodism.
The Puritans and their presbyterianism soon lost favor with the people, who grew tired of their austere form of worship. So in 1660, not long after Cromwell’s death, Charles II was invited to come from exile to take the throne. He and the Anglicans moved cautiously but positively and in two years persuaded Parliament to reestablish the Church of England. Eventually, in 1829, full civil rights were restored to Roman Catholics.
Thus, the almost three centuries from 1534 to 1829 were a turbulent period of religious conflict and division in Britain. It was a time of fragmentation, as various religious bodies were formed. The next two centuries up to the present were relatively quiet as each church went its own way. However, with the 20th century came serious talk of getting together again. What has happened?
[Pictures on page 15]
Henry VIII 1509-1547*
Elizabeth I 1558-1603
Oliver Cromwell 1653-1658
Mary I 1553-1558
Charles I 1625-1649
Charles II 1660-1685
Dates of rule