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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian


Written by: Russell P. Dawn

One of the defining characteristics of the spirit of early Anglicanism, perhaps the single most important, was that it was a via media, a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism.  Thus, both pre-Reformation Christianity and the Christianity of the Reformation fed profoundly into Anglican origins.

On the eve of King Henry VIII's severance of the English Church's relationship with the papacy, a prominent feature of western Christianity was the cult of purgatory, the "place" where those who die in a state of grace, but who have unforgiven venial sins, must suffer the purgation of those sins so as to be purified for entry into heaven.  The purpose of the cult of purgatory was to take action in this life in ways that would shorten one's stay in that place of suffering.  This could happen through various means, including indulgences, which were official Church documents usually given in recognition of a person's meritorious works, but which corrupt Church leaders had begun to sell.

Germany's Martin Luther sought to reform the Church's teachings, particularly its prevailing systems of beliefs about the afterlife.  Luther rejected not only the sale of indulgences, but the ideas about salvation that led to the need for indulgences at all.  Luther taught that all sins had been atoned for by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross of execution.  According to Luther, further purgation was unnecessary, and therefore so were indulgences and the rest of the cult of purgatory. 

Indeed, what one did had no bearing on one's salvation, for one could never do enough to merit salvation.  Rather, a person could be justified before God, and therefore enjoy eternal life with God, only through the grace of God (sola gratia) received by faith in Jesus Christ and in the forgiveness of sins secured by his sacrifice (sola fide).  And such faith was itself a gracious gift from God.  Also noteworthy among Luther's beliefs was that the Bible alone, rather than the Bible together with the traditions of the Church, was the final authority for Christianity (sola scriptura).

 Other advocates of theological reform emerged, some following Luther studiously, others drawing on his insights but moving in different directions.  Among the latter were those associated with what came to be known as Reformed Christianity, some of whom were influential on Anglicanism.  Among the Reformed movement's most important departures from Luther was its teaching on the Lord's Supper.  Luther had taught that the Lord's Supper was a means of grace, and that the body and blood of Christ were really and bodily present in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, albeit intangibly.  Although there was diversity among Reformed theologians, in the main they viewed the Supper as a seal of grace already conferred, and modified the notion of the Real Presence, positing instead that Christ was spiritually present only to believers through, or in conjunction with, the reception of the Eucharistic elements.  This Reformed perspective on the Supper was normative in Anglicanism by the time of Elizabeth's accession.


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