A couple of months ago, I went through the site and added a bunch of new categories, one of which was the “Anglican News” section. The Anglican Communion is in deep trouble these days, and I’ve been keeping tabs on it since I converted to Anglo-Catholicism back in 1995. I haven’t really said much about the matter on this website, though. And when I set up the “Anglican News” category, I kind of just “jumped right in” to the fray, without giving you much of an explanation as to what was going on.
The Church of England began as the Church in England (the Roman Catholic Church). In the year 597, Saint Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England and established the first “official” Catholic Church. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his actions caused the Roman church to become the “official” church of the island of Great Britain.
Things were groovy for the next 1000 years, but by Henry VIII’s time, the Roman church was in deep trouble. In Europe, Calvinists and Lutherans ran amok, threatening the Roman church throughout Northern Europe. This horrified King Henry, who wrote a book called Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defense of the Seven Sacraments), against both sects, for which Pope Leo X gave Henry the title Fidei defensor (“defender of the Faith”), which to this day appears on British coins as Fid:Def.
The Protestants made several good points, though. The medieval Church was overrun with… earthiness, for lack of a better word. Monasteries owned huge tracts of land, which gave them considerable power. Priests, bishops and the Pope were everywhere involved in secular disputes. Some clergymen had mistresses, some had many mistresses, and a surprising number of them had children. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Martin Luther were indulgences. Basically, the Roman Church sold slips of paper as “get out of hell free” cards. If you were an unimportant little farmer that cheated on his wife, you could give your local bishop a little bit of money and you’d be officially forgiven. If you were a prince that led a life of whoring, drinking and slaughtering your enemies, you could pay your bishop a lot of money and you’d be off the hook as far as the Church was concerned.
While Henry was decidedly Catholic, he wasn’t insensitive to these issues. He allowed the seeds of Protestantism to flow somewhat freely, as long as they weren’t “too extreme”. And then, of course, Ann Boleyn happened. You probably know the story: Henry’s older brother Arthur was in line for the throne. Henry’s father, wanting an alliance with Spain, had Arthur marry Katherine of Aragon of Spain. Arthur ended up dying, and Henry, wanting the alliance with Spain to continue, convinced his son to marry her. But they had to have a special dispensation from the Pope, as the Book of Leviticus clearly forbids a man from marrying his brother’s wife. The Pope was more than happy to make the dispensation, as that was basic SOP for Popes and Kings at the time. Katherine, of course, never produced a male heir, and Henry became convinced that the Lord was punishing him for marrying his brother’s sister. Henry then met and fell in love with Ann Boleyn, and thereafter sought an annulment from the Pope. The only problem was that Clement VII was a virtual prisoner of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V… who was Katherine’s nephew. The Pope then stalled as best he could, not wanting to offend the English king, but not wanting to lose his head to Charles, either. Henry eventually got sick of waiting and named himself head of the newly independent Church of England.
After Henry’s death, England went back and forth between being a “Protestant nation” and a “Catholic nation”. This continual to-and fro worked something like an “idea sieve”, and by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, the doctrine and organization of the Church of England was more or less set. And of course, at around this time, England became a sea-faring nation, with colonies stretching across the globe. Wherever the English went, so too did the Church of England.
The American Revolutionary War would create the first “independent” Anglican church, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America. In time, other colonies would either go independent too, or would be built up to such a point that a “national” church was necessary. So you have a loose network of national Anglican churches “in communion” with each other. Unlike the Catholic Church – which is a hierarchy if ever there was one – the Anglican churches work on consensus. Meetings of bishops from all countries happen every ten years at something called the Lambeth Conference. Consensus is there reached (or, as is the case lately, not reached) on issues that affect the entire Communion.
And for a quick summary of what’s happened in the last 50 years, and why it’s tearing the Communion, see this incredible piece from Australian Anglican Dr. Mark Thompson. It’s really not that long, but it’s a fantastic summary of recent events that’ll quickly get you up to speed. If you’re one of those that prefers hearing to reading, you can download an MP3 of Thompson reading the speech here.