One of the criticisms levied against Anglicans is that our tradition started because of the sexual promiscuity of King Henry VIII. However, this accusation falls flat when we really look at what happened. First, the caricature of Henry that is often used is historically inaccurate. He was not a particularly sexually promiscuous monarch by the day’s standards. Not perfect? Of course. But he was no exception. Second, even if the accusation were historically accurate, it does not matter. Henry had less to do with Anglican theology and doctrine as Pope Francis does today. He believed every Roman doctrine, arguably even more than one of the popes at the time.
What Actually Happened
King Henry VIII was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was faithful to the pope for the majority of his early life. He was such a defender of Roman Catholicism that Pope Leo X gave him the title, “Defender of the Faith.” The problem started in 1502 when Henry’s older brother, Arthur, died.
Henry married Arthur’s widow, Katharine of Aragon, in 1509. Henry normally would not have been able to marry Katharine, because she was Arthur’s wife. However, the influence of his parents convinced Pope Julius II to issue a dispensation allowing the marriage. After several failed pregnancies, Henry was convinced that God had cursed him and his seed. As historian Moorman argues regarding Henry VIII’s reasoning,
By marrying within prohibited degrees he had transgressed the laws of God and had been punished. To go on living with Katharine was to live in sin. Therefore the sooner it came to an end the better.A History of the Church in England by Moorman, p. 164.
To solve this, since Henry argued that the marriage should not have been allowed in the first place, he asked for an annulment—not a divorce proper—which the pope would have granted in most cases. However, this was not most cases.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII was put under house arrest by Emperor Charles V, who was Katharine’s nephew. Clement was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he could further anger his host and put his life in even more danger. On the other, he could alienate the King of England, who was his strongest supporter. So the pope did what any other person would have done: nothing.
After four years of inaction, Henry started extricating the already existing Church of England from Rome. Archbishop Cranmer granted the annulment, and Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1532, which then caused the pope to excommunicate Henry and all of England with him. As this was happening, the recognition that the foreign power of the Pope did not have jurisdiction in England. For example, as the historian Carwithen explains,
The convocation of York entered into an examination of the question, and came to an unanimous decision that the pope had no authority in England.History Of The Church Of England by Carwithen, p. 136.
Henry undoubtedly did some awful things, but the caricature that he was some sex-crazed monarch who created the Anglican Church because he wanted a divorce is simply inaccurate.
The Church of England Existed before Henry
A second reason this criticism of Anglicanism is nonsensical is that the Church of England existed far before Henry was even born. This is the meaning of the Ecclesia Anglicana: the Catholic Church (not Roman Catholic Church) in England with its own traditions and patrimony.
Henry did not create any new church. Instead, Henry, with the bishops, recognised that Rome had no authority and England. From this, the submission to Rome ended, which is similar to what happened in 1054 with the Eastern Churches. As we see in the Magna Carta, there was a recognizable, visible Church of England three hundred years before Henry. In fact, before Henry was born, there had been Christians in England for over 1,000 years.
As Moorman explains,
The first mention of any Christians in Britain is in Tertullian’s tract against the Jews, written about 208, in which he speaks of parts of Britain, inaccessible to the Romans, which had yet been conquered by Christ;Moorman, p. 3
Anglicanism is not like some of the other Protestant traditions in this way. Take the Ana-Baptists, for example. There is a very clear example of a group actively repudiating Rome and starting a new church. Anglicans simply did not do that. They were an already existing church that rejected the supreme authority of the pope.
Anglicanism beyond Henry VIII
In addition, Henry had almost no influence on the modern Anglican tradition. Henry did indeed separate from Rome, but this was negligible for two reasons. First, the Church of England had already been at least nominally independent since Magna Carta. The first and last parts of the Magna Carta both claim independence from Rome. In the first chapter, it says,
In the first place we grant to God and confirm by this our present charter for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church [Anglicana ecclesia] is to be free and to have all its rights fully and its liberties entirely.Magna Carta, par. 1
It Is Accordingly Our Wish And Command that the English Church [Anglicana ecclesia] shall be free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places forever.Magna Carta, par. 63
Since 1215, the Church of England had been free from Roman rule. While it did not always work this way in practice, the independence of England from Rome was not a novel or fringe idea. Had Henry not done anything, the Church of England still would have refused Roman rule, given that Edward VI, the successor, was a staunch Protestant. It is with Edward that much of Anglican theology is curated. Edward would have split from Rome if Henry had not, given that the bishops and clergy before Edward had already recognised Rome’s lack of jurisdiction in England, such as at the Convocation of York.
Second, Mary brought the Church of England back under Rome during her reign. Mary tried to undo everything that Henry and Edward had done. However, this did not involve any destruction and new creation of a church but a change in an existing one.
Henry VIII was not Anglican
Recognizing the Church of England’s existence with and without King Henry VIII, would he be considered an Anglican today? The answer is a resounding no. Henry wrote the King’s Articles which is a series of six short articles outlining his positions on various doctrines. In his first article, he writes,
in the most blessed Sacrament of the altar…is present really…the natural body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, conceived of the Virgin Mary; and that after the consecration there remaineth no substance of bread or wine, nor any other substance, but the substance of Christ, God and man.Article 1 of the Six Articles
Does this sound Anglican to you? It shouldn’t. While Anglicans do believe in a real presence in the Eucharist, we still believe there is the substance of bread and wine present after consecration. Henry VIII clearly held to the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. Furthermore, in his third article, he writes,
priests after the order of priesthood received, as afore, may not marry, by the law of God.Article 3 of the Six Articles
This is not Anglicanism; this is not catholic. King Henry was largely Roman Catholic in theology, though not in jurisdiction.
Henry was doubtlessly a dubious at best character. He killed tens of thousands of people, two of his wives, and did countless other morally despicable things. But not everything he did was evil, and he certainly had practically no influence on ancient, medieval, or modern Anglicanism.
The Real Origins of Anglicanism
The origin of Anglicanism is simple. What Henry did was largely insignificant. He did not start the Church of England; the Church of England was in communion with Rome after Henry, and Henry did not influence Anglican theology and doctrine. The real “father” of modern Anglicanism would more meetly be considered Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
If you carefully look at Cranmer though, you will see something very strange. He didn’t come up with any new doctrine. Calvin had double-predestination, Luther had ubiquity of the Lord’s body, and Zwingli had his memorialist view on the Eucharist. But Cranmer did not develop any new doctrine. He curated and wrote the first prayer book in 1549 to express the catholic faith in the Anglican tradition.
Anglicans claim that the Roman church had, over 10 centuries, slowly developed things not seen in the first two to four centuries of the early church. The Anglican reformers, like Cranmer, looked at the then-modern church and compared it to the early fathers. They saw there was a discrepancy in the two and started to reform back to the original fathers.
Considering all this, it is honestly astounding that Roman Catholics in particular will recognise and call the Eastern Orthodox churches “true churches” of ancient origin, yet they refuse to recognise that the Ecclesia Anglicana, which existed as long as some eastern churches, anything more than an “ecclesial community” and a creation of Henry VIII. It seems that some Romanists actually believe that there were no bishops in England then poof! Protestant bishops. However, this makes sense due to the challenge Anglicanism poses. The Ecclesia Anglicana stands as living testimony that there exists a Western church, grounded in ancient apostolic succession, with its own tradition, that does not exist under Rome.