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The Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church:
a brief historical overview

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon

In the first thousand years of the Church's existence, there was only one Church. The Church of England was a part of that Catholic Church, having existed in Britain since the second century A.D. Until the seventh century, the Church of the British Isles enjoyed considerable independence from Rome. After the great split between the Eastern Church and the Western Church, commonly dated at 1054 A. D., the English church was still very much a part of the Western portion under the Pope's authority as chief bishop. The first hint that the English might not consider themselves totally under Rome's dominion is the famous line in the Magna Carta: "The English Church (Ecclesia Anglicana) shall be free."

What really set the stage for the development of Anglicanism were the problems of the succession to the English throne. After Henry VII crushed his rivals in the horrendous civil war known as the War of the Roses, he and his descendants of the Tudor family developed a deep fear of the return of the instability of that time. His son Henry VIII married a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, after her husband, Henry's older brother Arthur, died. Eventually she produced a girl, Mary. Henry, a deeply religious man, came to believe that taking his brother's widow to wife had incurred God's wrath, since the union had produced no son, no proper heir to the throne. He began to consider his options, especially after he had met a beautiful courtier, Anne Boleyn.

The papacy's strongest supporter of the time was Henry VIII, who had plied the Pope with money, furnished troops in the Pope's wars, and issued his own erudite and ringing condemnation of Lutheranism. In 1521, Henry earned the title "Defender of the Faith" for his efforts, a title that all subsequent English monarchs have kept. When he determined that his marriage to his brother's wife was theologically inappropriate, he turned to the Pope for an annulment. Unfortunately, Pope Clement VII, a Medici, had lost a war to Charles V, Henry's bitter enemy and Catherine's nephew, and was his virtual prisoner when the petition was first put to him.

Propagandists on both sides have tried to make either Clement or Henry look honorable in this affair. Both men contributed to the eventual outcome, which was Henry declaring himself Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England, getting his annulment from Thomas Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, and continuing his descent into a murderous megalomania. There was ample precedence for granting the annulment that Henry sought. Clement could have done so had he not been caught in his own machinations. The fact that princes like Clement were routinely made Pope is a major reason for the Protestant Reformation.

The Church of England and the Church of Rome
This tawdry affair, animated by the ruthless politics of both Henry and Clement, began a spiral of diplomatic and military struggles between the Tudor monarchs and the papacy that set the stage for the development of Anglican Christianity as it is today. As Henry separated the Church of England from Rome's dominion, he inadvertently gave hope to people in and out of England who wanted to reform the church according to Luther's ideas. Once Henry was dead, his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, issued the first Book of Common Prayer in December 1549. It is the classic attempt of a Catholic church, the Church of England, to reform itself. The first Prayer Book represented several developments of the Reformation as the English adapted them: reaching back to the early church for a model for liturgy and theology, worship in the language of the people, a strong emphasis on hearing the Scriptures read and expounded in English, communion for all of both Body and Blood, and giving Christians a structure of daily prayers. A second Prayer Book, much more influenced by continental reformed theologians, came out in 1552.

Mary Tudor, Henry and Catherine's daughter, succeeded Edward and returned England to Roman Catholicism. She had Cranmer and many other churchmen burned at the stake for heresy, hence her nickname 'Bloody Mary'. Upon her death, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, became queen. She immediately began a struggle to maintain the legitimacy of her claim to the throne. The course she plotted was to accede neither to the Catholic supporters of the papacy, nor to the second-generation Protestants enamored of John Calvin's theology. She reinstated the Prayer Book of 1552, with a few changes backing away from the reformed emphasis of that Book. Since then, The Book of Common Prayer has been a mainstay of Anglicanism.

After a last failed attempt to remove Elizabeth from her throne by force, Pope Pius V excommunicated her in 1570. This made his English supporters into her de facto foes. In 1588, at the papacy's urging, Spain sent an armada of ships and troops to conquer England. Its defeat confirmed Elizabeth's supporters that her church had divine favor. It also intensified the persecution of Roman Catholics in England. A deep enmity developed between the two churches that has lasted into our era.

Elizabeth directed the Church of England back to the reformed catholic model fashioned during Edward's reign. While she would not (in her words) "make windows in men's souls," she did demand outward conformity to its liturgy. This eventually developed into the tradition of considerable freedom of belief and conscience that Anglicans enjoy today. It also was the first instance of the successful development of a national form of Western Christianity. Today's Anglican Communion is comprised of 36 independent national churches, each representing a local adaptation of the reformed catholicism that is Anglicanism.

The shape of a reformed Catholicism
Elizabeth's very capable Archbishop of Canterbury, William Whitgift, set about raising up brilliant scholars to develop the theological rationale for this reformed catholicism. Within a generation, the Church of England had a large corps of theologians and biblical scholars who produced the King James Bible, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and masterpieces of theology like Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Anglicans have retained a tradition of maintaining excellent scholarship and being open to its fruits.

One of Elizabeth's  bright young men, John Jewel, in his Apology of the Church of England, enunciated the principle that has given Anglicanism its particular approach. The effect of the Reformation in the English Church was not to introduce theological novelties, he said, but rather to restore the Catholic Church in England to 'the primitive church of the ancient fathers and apostles, that is to say, to the first ground and beginning of things, as unto the very foundations and headsprings of Christ's Church'. Unlike the continental reformed churches, the Church of England and her independent daughter churches have never had a principal theologian whose thinking determined their structure and doctrine.

Finally, another facet of Anglicanism that Elizabeth brought into play is the role of the laity in the governance of the church. She refused her father's grandiose title of Supreme Head, preferring "supreme governor," the designation that her successor Elizabeth II still uses. As its lay governor, the monarch is responsible for the church's wellbeing, especially in temporal matters. (The Queen's authority ends, however, at the borders of England. Every Anglican Church is responsible for its own governance.) The role of laypeople in the governance of the American Episcopal Church at all levels, for instance, is a direct outgrowth of this principle, reviving the ancient church's custom of electing bishops by ballot of both clergy and laity.

Common roots, divergent paths
So to compare Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism is to compare two worldwide communions whose similarities reflect their common roots, and whose differences reflect the divergent paths they took in reforming themselves. Thus both churches use ancient liturgies, presided over by clergy ordained by bishops, themselves consecrated in the scrupulously conserved lineage of the bishops of the ancient church. Both churches read Bibles that include the Apocrypha. Both recite the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds as their basic statements of the faith. Both administer the seven sacraments. Both have monastic orders (they were revived among Anglicans in the nineteenth century).

Rome's ongoing reformation, begun at the Council of Trent, has aimed to purify and strengthen its catholicism by intensifying, in ever-stronger ways, the medieval concept of the role of the Pope as the central person on Earth who guards and interprets the Christian faith and order. The ongoing reformation of the Anglican churches has been to uphold the catholic faith and order by dispersing the Pope's role and authority among the bishops, clergy and laity. This represents their ongoing effort to restore the ecclesial life of the early church, as they understand it. In this sense, Roman Catholics and Anglicans represent opposite attempts to reform and uphold the faith of their common roots. In other words, the basic difference between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism remains "No Pope."

This is of course simplistic. Most Anglicans (though certainly not all!) today are ready to recognize the Bishop of Rome as having a pre-eminent role in Christianity, even allowing him to speak for them in basic matters. But they absolutely reject the papacy's claim to juridical power over them. This is to say that they would accord the Pope the same kind of role they give to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is that of symbol of unity and moral authority. Roman Catholics find this inadequate, since their tradition has evolved and maintained the notion that communion with Rome requires acceding to papal authority over local dioceses. They tend to be leery of the looseness of the Anglican Communion, its lack of a strong central decision-making figure or body (though some Roman Catholics long for a similar structure in their church).

Unity, distinctivness, and ecumenism
The other differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stem from this. Anglicans believe their distinctiveness to be essentially provisional, a way of being Christian when the unity of the Church is shattered. They look to solve issues of their national cultures through practical adaptations of what they think the early Christians did or would have done. Anglicans' strong sense of the need to unite the churches is why they started the ecumenical movement. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, believe they are the true Church, and need to maintain the faith throughout the world in as uniform a manner as possible. Re-uniting other Christians with Rome remains (despite some progress) basically a matter of encouraging them to recognize their need for the papacy as it presently exists.

Living with difference, in faith
The history of the two churches is one of struggle. Anglicans and Roman Catholics have killed each other in the past. They continue to repeat some of the propaganda of the past. Even today, many Roman Catholics believe that Henry VIII started a new religion because righteous Pope Clement refused to give him a 'divorce' to legitimize his lust. A few Anglicans still consider Rome to be the "whore of Babylon" of the Book of Revelation. But their similarities far outweigh their differences. Each has much to learn from the other's experience and reflection upon living the faith in myriad contexts.
It is tempting to wonder what might have happened had Henry VIII and Clement VII been better followers of Jesus. But God has allowed both churches to continue and indeed, to flourish. One can only hope that one day, Anglicans and Roman Catholics will learn to celebrate their differences as providential enrichments of the catholic faith they have always shared.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.