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The Origins of Anglicanism

By Rev. Caroline Osborne


Have you ever been talking to someone about your church and found yourself explaining that the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, only to have the person say, “The Anglican Church? Isn’t that the church that was started because Henry VIII wanted a divorce?”? I have. It’s frustrating, not just because it feels vaguely insulting, but because it, like so many one-liners, is a drastic oversimplification. So, to help you respond to all those one-line simplifiers, here is a quick, messy history of how the Anglicanism began.


In the early 1500s, the Protestant Reformation was in full swing. An English bishop named Thomas Cranmer, along with many other English clergymen, was very interested in Protestant theology but also convinced many of the continental reformers were throwing out the baby with the bathwater – eliminating good practices in their zeal to correct theological and liturgical issues. When King Henry VIII made Cranmer the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king wanted his marriage annulled (which the pope refused for political reasons), Cranmer took the opportunity to push for a more Protestant direction in the kingdom’s official doctrine. Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church and accepted some of Cranmer’s ideas, but refused to become fully Protestant.


After the king’s death, his young son was crowned for a few years before his own untimely death. During that brief period, Cranmer, among others, taught the young King Edward VI Protestant doctrine. Edward was a fervent believer and made the Church of England Protestant. However, when he died, his devoutly Catholic half-sister, Mary, became queen. She famously was not a fan of Protestantism, earning herself the moniker Bloody Mary for her executions of Protestants, including Cranmer.


Mary’s reign, too, was short lived, and she was succeeded by Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was Protestant in belief, but also wise enough to recognize her people were exhausted by the religious and political turbulence of the previous years. She reinstated Protestantism, once and for all founding the Anglican Church as we know it, but she allowed subjects to practice Catholicism. She also struck a careful balance within the Anglican Church, allowing some catholic liturgical practices while holding to Protestant doctrine. This balancing act, in many ways, laid the foundation for our reputation as the middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism.


If this piques your interest, or if you really want to put those one-liners in their place (in a godly and not at all vindictive way, of course), our previous bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Howe wrote a great little book called Our Anglican Heritage. Additionally, a great resource on the origins of The Book of Common Prayer – which inevitably covers the early days of the Anglican Church – is The Book of Common Prayer: A biography by Alan Jacobs.


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