Anglican History

March 3, 2005 · updated February 15, 2022

The churches of the Anglican Communion have their historical roots in the English Reformation, when King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) wished to obtain a divorce that the pope would not grant. Through the Act of Supremacy of 1534, the king made himself the "supreme head" of the Church of England in place of the Pope.

After this dramatic move, King Henry dissolved England's monasteries, destroyed Roman Catholic shrines, and ordered the Great Bible (in English) to be placed in all churches. However, Henry allowed few doctrinal changes and very little changed in the religious life of the common English worshipper. Under Henry VIII, and the Church of England remained almost fully Catholic with the exception of loyalty to Rome.

A power struggle between English Protestants and Catholics ensued during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Under King Edward, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer contributed a great deal to the Protestant movement, including the first two versions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) and the 42 Articles (1553). After the ascension of the Catholic "Bloody Mary" to the throne in 1553, England was restored to Catholicism, much of the reforming work under Kings Henry and Edward was undone, and Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake.

Protestantism finally emerged victorious under Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603). It was under Elizabeth that "Anglicanism" took shape, established on the notion of a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism (specifically Reformed Protestantism). Elizabeth appointed Protestant bishops, but reintroduced a crucifix in her chapel, tried to insist on traditional clerical vestments, and made other attempts to satisfy conservative opinion.

The 42 Articles were reduced to 39 and the Book of Common Prayer was reissued. The 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, which together expressed the faith and practice of the Church of England, were sufficiently vague to allow for a variety of interpretations along the Catholic-Protestant spectrum.

After Elizabeth, Calvinist influences were dominant for a time, but High Churchmen regained control of the Church of England in the Restoration of 1660. In the latter 17th and early 18th centuries, Anglicanism was characterized by its emphases on reason, simple devotional religion and moral living. After about 1690, the controversy quieted down and the Church of England settled into the form that still characterizes it today.

Evangelicalism arose in 18th century in part as a reaction against the lack of spiritual fervor and enthusiasm in the Church. This had a balancing effect on Anglicanism (and there remains a strong evangelical group within the Church of England), but evangelicals also went beyond the bounds of the traditional Anglican outlook and many, like Methodism under the direction of John Wesley, broke away from the Church of England.

Another important development in the history of Anglicanism, the Oxford Movement, began in 1833. Also known as the Catholic Revival, this movement sought to restore the sacraments, rituals and outward forms of Catholicism to the Church of England. By the mid-20th century, many of the practices advocated by this group had been incorporated.

Also in the 19th century, the Church of England found room for the new German biblical criticism and liberal theology. Scholarship is still highly regarded in Anglicanism, and Anglican scholars have generally been free to adopt views ranging from conservative to radical while remaining in the Anglican fold.

Anglicanism expanded along with the British Empire, creating a network of autonomous churches that were loyal to the faith and forms of the Church of England. After the American Revolution, Anglicans in the U.S. called themselves Episcopalians (the name reflecting the role of the episcopate, or bishops) to distinguish themselves from the British crown and the Church of England. Today, the Episcopalian Church in the United States and many other Anglican churches in former British colonies are members of the Anglican Communion.

The 21st century has proven to be an important point in history for Anglicanism. The recent ordination of a gay bishop in America and the disapproving reaction from the Communion will have great implications for the question of how much variation can be tolerated within Anglicanism. And, as always, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops and the priests in Anglican churches must decide how to react to the continuing influences of biblical criticism, liberal theology and modern ethical values.