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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian


Written by: Russell P. Dawn

Anglicanism does not have a single founder; there is no Martin Luther of Anglicanism.  Instead, Anglicanism has a number of contributors, people who gave something new to the English Church, or perhaps simply dispensed with something old.  Among these, three individuals stand out above the rest.

In 1485, Henry VII was crowned King of England, commencing the reign of the House of Tudor that would span the 16th century.  Henry's victory and the end of the Wars of the Roses were viewed on the victor's side as signs of God's favor.  Henry's son, the eventual King Henry VIII, was one of the contributors to Anglicanism.  Born in 1491, Henry was yet a prince when his older brother, Prince Arthur, died.  Arthur had been married to Catherine of Aragon.  After Arthur's death, the King arranged for the young Henry to marry Catherine, which occurred in 1509, about two months after the elder Henry died and the younger was crowned king.

Because Henry and Catherine failed to produce a male heir, Henry became convinced that their marriage was biblically impermissible and therefore cursed.  He petitioned the papacy for an annulment, but was refused.  In an action motivated in part by emerging nationalism and a belief in the divine right of kings, Henry drove the Act of Supremacy of 1534 through Parliament, by which he became Supreme Head of the Church of England and broke from Rome.

Thus, Henry's first major contribution to the founding of Anglicanism was the English Church's independence from the Church of Rome.  He dispensed with papal authority.  Henry eventually got his divorce from Catherine, married Anne Boleyn and four more wives in succession after her.  He died in 1547.

Henry's second major contribution came in 1537 when he licensed an English translation of the Bible for publication in England, and in 1538, when through one of his agents, he ordered all parish churches to buy an English Bible.  Previously, only the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) was authorized in church services, but since Latin was not the language of the people, the Bible was inaccessible to most.  The vernacular Bible has been part of Anglicanism ever since.

Of course, what Henry gave to Anglicanism should not be viewed as if in a vacuum.  Henry was a bloodthirsty tyrant and is more of an embarrassment to most Anglicans than a hero.  Still, his contributions cannot be denied.

The second main contributor to Anglicanism, and the one perhaps most likely to be named if a single founder be demanded, is Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer was born in 1489 and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge.  Cambridge of the 1520s was a hotbed of underground Lutheran dissent, although it seems unlikely Cranmer adopted those views until the 1530s.  By the 1550s his doctrinal leanings moved discernibly away from some of Luther's views, particularly on the Lord's Supper, toward what would come to be called the Reformed branch of Protestantism.


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