Henry VIII Did Not Start the Church of England
By The Revd Canon Chuck Collins
Henry VIII did (not!) start the Church of England. He pushed through the Act of Supremacy, January 15, 1534, that made him and all his heirs the Supreme Head of the Church of England. That’s true; his personal and political ambition was the “occasion” for the formal break with Rome based on his crazy-obsession to marry Anne Boleyn and to have a male heir to the throne. But, in fact, the unstoppable drive for the Reformation that resulted in the establishment of the Church of England started centuries earlier, the moment the English church wandered away from the Bible as its primary authority.
The Protestant Reformation in England began in earnest several hundred years before Henry in Oxford with John Wycliffe, “the Morningstar of the Reformation,” and with his followers, the Lollards. Wycliffe was the first of several to translate the entire Bible into English, and in the process he discovered and scandalously taught what became the central doctrines that had been lost in the Medieval church malaise. The English Bible and the invention of the moveable-type printing press,
Erasmus and the rise of humanism, a growing sense of national independence, and the writings of Martin Luther and other continental reformers illegally making their way into England, all contributed to the perfect storm that resulted in the English Reformation.
Exactly twenty-five years after the Act of Succession, Henry and Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, was crowned Queen of England and Ireland (January 15, 1559). In her 44-year reign, Elizabeth brought “settlement” to the Church her father started, landing it squarely in the evangelicalism (later called “Protestantism”) of the 16th century English Reformers. Anglicanism today is defined by the Elizabethan Settlement that once and for all grounded the church in the historic Anglican formularies (Articles of Religion, Book of Common Prayer, and the Homilies). Anglican identity today is based on the supreme authority of Holy Scripture as it’s found enshrined in its historic formularies.
As an aside, Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, was accused of “renewing the errors of Wycliffe” by making Holy Scripture his final authority.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.