The Reformation in England

While Protestantism tore apart European society, it took a far different form in England, retaining much of the doctrine and the practices of Catholicism. England had, for several centuries, an uncomfortable relationship with Rome. Two major movements in England-Wycliff had been the first to translate the Bible into a vernacular language and the spread of Northern humanism- prepared the foundations for English Protestantism.

The adoption of Protestantism, however, was a political rather than a religious move. King Henry VIII had originally married Catherine of Aragon; since she had been previously married to his brother, though, Henry had to get special papal dispensation for the marriage. The marriage, however, produced no male children to occupy the throne at Henry's death. Henry began to doubt both of the marriage and the spiritual validity of the marriage. In the mid-1520's, he met and fell in love with Ann Boleyn, a lady in waiting to Catherine. He wished to annul his marriage to Catherine and marry Ann; not only did he love Ann, he feared leaving the throne of England without a male heir.

In order to marry Ann, the marriage with Catherine had to be annulled by the pope. Circumstances, however, were working against him. First, in order to marry Catherine, he needed special papal dispensation. Annulling the marriage would imply that the first papal dispensation was in error, something the pope was not willing to admit. Second, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had recently invaded Rome and captured the pope. While the pope was allowed to stay pope, he was the virtual prisoner of Charles. The answer to Henry's request, then, was no and no again.

When he met with failure, Henry fired his closest advisor. This was an important move. His closest advisor on the matter was Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England. The negotiations with the papal court were largely carried out by Wolsey. When he failed, Henry dismissed and arrested him and replaced him with Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. Both these men were sympathetic to the new ideas of Martin Luther. They gave the king some radical advice: if the pope does not grant the annulment, then split the English church off from the Roman church. Rather than the pope, the king would be the spiritual head of the English church. If the King wants an annulment, then the King can grant his own annulment.

In 1529, the English Parliament began to debate this question; this debate would occupy the English Parliament for seven years and so gave it the name, the "Reformation Parliament." It did not settle the matter all at once, but steadily granted powers over the church clergy to the king. In 1531, the clergy of England recognized Henry as the head of the church, and in 1533, Parliament passed the "Submission of the Clergy," a law which placed the clergy completely under Henry's control. In that same year Henry married Ann Boleyn, who was already pregnant with his second daughter, Elizabeth. In 1534 Parliament stopped all contributions to the Roman chuch by English clergy and lay people and, in the same year, gave Henry complete control over all church appointments. Finally, the Act of Succession declared the children of Ann Boleyn to be the heirs to the throne and officially declared the king the supreme head of the church. In 1536, the dissolution of the monasteries allowed Henry to give the land to a loyal aristocracy.

Despite all this storm of activity, the English church didn't really change. It was still for all practical purposes a Catholic church; the only real difference that anybody would notice was the use of English Bibles in the church. In 1539, Henry reaffirmed his commitment to Catholic practice by passing into law the Six Articles. These articles affirmed the transubstantiation of the Eucharist (that is, that the Eucharist was mystically transformed into the body and blood of Christ), confession, private masses, celibate vows, and the sanctity of the Eucharistic cup. The only substantive change Henry made merely involved the head of the church. The English church, however, would radically change under Henry's successor, Edward VI.

Edward VI (ruled 1547-1553) was Henry's third child, born by his third wife, Jane Seymour. Edward was only a teenager when he became king, but he thoroughly sympathized with the Protestant cause. Edward and Thomas Cranmer set about turning the church of England into a thoroughly Protestant church. Two versions of the Acts of Uniformity standardized Anglican worship along Protestant line. These Acts repealed the Six Articles, allowed clergy to marry, and imposed Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer on all church services. Edward also ordered any and all images and altars to be removed from churches. Had Edward lived, England would have become a more or less Calvinist country.

Edward, however, died only six years into his reign. He was succeeded by Mary (1553-1558), who was Henry's first child by Catherine of Aragon. Mary had been raised in France and was devoutly Catholic. When she assumed the throne of England, she declared England to be a Catholic country and assertively went about converting churches back to Catholic practices. Images and altars were returned, the Book of Common Prayer was removed, clerical celibacy was reimposed, and Eucharistic practices reaffirmed. She met opposition with steely-eyed defiance; because of the sheer number of executions of Protestant leaders, the English would eventually call her "Bloody Mary." Had she lived longer, England would probably have reverted to Catholicism for another century or so.

Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Ann Boleyn. who assumed the throne in 1558 and reigned until 1603. Elizabeth was perhaps the greatest monarch in the history of England, She understood that her country was being torn apart by the warring doctrines. While she repealed Mary's Catholic legislation, she did not return to Edward's more austere Protestantism. Rather, she worked out a compromise church that retained as much as possible from the Catholic church while putting into place most of the foundational ideas of Protestantism. In 1559, in The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, control of the Church was restored to the monarchy and the second Prayer Book was adopted

The pope excommunicated her and this created intense internal difficulties in England. For it was incumbent on any Catholic to attempt to assassinate or overthrow her if possible, and a large part of the English nobility was Catholic. Despite this, she managed to avoid assassination because of her brilliant political skills and her pervasive network of spies. The Catholic plots on her life finally met their end when she executed her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587.

Mary was a cousin of Elizabeth's and the next in line for the English throne. She was a committed Catholic, but ruled over a country, Scotland, that had become and still is fiercely Calvinist. Catholic extremists in England understood that Elizabeth could spell the end of any hopes of a Catholic revival in England, so they began to plot Elizabeth's assassination. Mary, for her part, feeling justified by the Pope's excommunication of Elizabeth, foolishly took part in several of these plots. Elizabeth eventually brought her to trial and condemned her, reluctantly, to death.

Elizabeth's aim was to unify the kingdom and end the religious conflict between her Protestant and Catholic subjects. But more radical Protestants-returning from Geneva and other centers of the Reformed faith-wanted the religious revolution to continue. Their goal was to "purify" the church of doctrines and practices they believed were still tainted by Roman Catholicism. These "Puritans," as their opponents named them in 1563, criticized Anglican liturgy and the state church's lack of spiritual discipline.

What did the Puritans believe? They were visionaries whose Reformed faith centered on the sovereignty of God. This God was in confrontation with humanity, and every church had to submit to his will as revealed in the Bible (and interpreted by the Puritans). The Church of England would never be purified until it abandoned all traditions-like the office of bishop and Catholic ceremonies that survived in the Book of Common Prayer-which the Puritans abhorred as the idolatrous remnants of "Popery." Puritan zeal conflicted sharply with the established church. Bishops were afraid of losing control, and Elizabeth's conservative government wanted to stabilize society after years of exhausting religious conflict.

Anglican Puritans, in the beginning, were the first Puritans. They were content to work within the system, and leave bishops in place, but purge the church of "Popery" which had been left over by the political compromises of Elizabeth.

Presbyterian Puritans wanted to get rid of the bishops and institute a Presbyterian system as known in Scotland already. Their first forceful representative was Thomas Cartwright, who in 1570 lectured at Cambridge on the Book of Acts from a Presbyterian standpoint. He was driven from his position.

Independent Puritans, later called Congregationalists, wanted each church to govern itself and be independent.

Elizabeth had no heir, so England turned to the ruling Stuart family in Scotland to find its next king. The Scottish Reformation had been strongly influenced by Calvinism, so the Puritans expected great things from the new monarchs. But they were disappointed. The first ruler in the Stuart line, James I, continued Elizabeth's moderate policies, defended the institution of bishop and demanded conformity to the Book of Common Prayer. He was, like Elizabeth, a religious conservative who disliked radical reform and believed bishops were needed to maintain control over the church. But there was one great advance for the Reformation during his reign-publication of the "King James Bible" translated by the best Bible scholars of the day, and, along with the Book of Common Prayer, a decisive influence on the development of the English language.

But the radical Puritans were no closer to their goals than they had been when Elizabeth was ruler. They were by now a divided though still influential movement. Most chose to remain in the Church of England. But a minority now decided that reform of the established church was a lost cause, and began to organize their own illegal congregations. Among these "Separatists" were congregations that later were evolved into movements we know today as Quakers, Baptists, and Congregationalists. Some fled to Holland for their safety and a goup of Separatists became known as Pilgrims and settled Plymouth Colony in 1629. The Masssacusetts Bay Colony in 1629 was made up of Puritans.

Then, during the reign of the second Stuart king, Charles I (1625-49), there was a sudden reversal of fortunes. Charles attempted to suppress the fractious Puritans and impose uniformity in the established church. But this was a mistake. The Puritans were essentially a middle-class movement and therefore influential in Parliament, infact in 1640 there was a Presbyterian majority. Rival armies were now organized by Parliament and the King. The parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell triumphed and captured the king. Charles was beheaded-an act of "regicide" that horrified the ruling classes throughout Europe and prefigured the violence of later revolutions. Parliament declared England a "Commonwealth" and Cromwell its "Lord Protector." He ruled England from 1649 to 1660 as "Lord Protector." These were 11 years of intolerance and excessive zeal. The office of bishop was abolished and the Book of Common Prayer replaced with a Directory of Worship. When Cromwell died, even Parliament had had enough. They petitioned the exiled son of Charles-Charles II-who returned on condition that the former Church of England with its bishops and liturgy was restored.

Westminster Assembly (1643-1648)

While the war was going on, Parliament set itself the task of making changes in the Church. This was done through the Westminster Assembly, which met from 1643 to 1649. During those years, the "Westminster Divines"-as they were called, because they were experts in "divinity," which meant "theology"-prepared the theological documents which form the basis for Presbyterian theology and practice to this day.

The history of the Westminster Assembly contains a number of surprises. For one thing, the Westminster Assembly met during time of war. Those were the days of the English Civil War, when Parliament was fighting against Charles I. As battles were won and lost all over Britain, the Westminster Divines patiently went about their work from one year to the next. Here is another surprise: The Assembly met at the request of Parliament. The Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland had joined forces against the Crown, especially because Charles I had tried to impose many Roman Catholic practices on the Anglican church. The Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans were allies; however, there were some theological differences between them, so Parliament asked the best theological minds in Britain to agree on a doctrinal statement for both countries. In the end, more than one hundred English pastors and theologians, aided by thirty members of Parliament (both lords and commoners) and a crack team of six scholars from Scotland, were named to the Assembly. Around seventy of them were able to participate on any given day, and they met at Westminster Abbey in London; hence the name: "Westminster Assembly."

The progress of the Assembly was slow, largely because their rules allowed for unlimited debate. Yet the Westminster Divines eventually produced five major documents:

  • a Form of Government to help organize the church in the Presbyterian way, which means "decently and in order" under the spiritual authority of elders;
  • a Directory of Worship to help praise God in the biblical way, conducting services "according to the Word of God"-by his design rather than man's desire;
  • a Confession of Faith to explain biblical doctrine in a systematic way;
  • two catechisms for teaching theology through questions and answers: the Shorter Catechism for those who were "common and unlearned," and the Larger Catechism for those "of understanding."

The Westminster Standards contain the essential biblical truths about God and man that all Christians everywhere have always professed: that there is only one God, who exists in three persons, who made everything there is, and who saves us by his grace. It is Reformed theology; that is to say, it is the theology of the Protestant Reformation. The Westminster Confession of Faith was written after the church had an entire century to spend learning and perfecting the doctrine taught by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other Reformers. Reformation theology, which is based on the Bible alone, teaches that salvation comes by grace alone(Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola fide), in Christ alone (Sola Christo), by Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), to the glory of God alone (Sola Deo Gloria.) The Westminster Standards are also covenantal in their theology. They are centered on God's covenant of grace with his people. Finally, they are evangelical in their theology. They proclaim the good news of salvation from sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is one final surprise about the Westminster Standards: Despite the fact that they were written in London, they never held very much influence in England. Eventually the monarchy came back into power, the Puritans were defeated and persecuted, and the church reverted to Anglicanism. Yet the work of the Westminster Divines has long remained the standard for Presbyterians and also many Baptists in Scotland, America, and many other countries.