6.1. The Henrician Reformation, Anglicanism and Puritanism



The Reformation in Britain began more than half a century after the Ninety-Five Theses and it had a distinct evolution compared to the one on the mainland. In fact, what happened in England’s religious life was not a reform, but a half-reform which degenerated into a movement of religious revival, renascence or awakening. It was a period of religious euphoria which later served as a model for the American great awakenings. The “Christian awakening” (or reawakening) is an expression which refers to a specific period of growing interest in the spiritual domain or a renovation of the life of a church or a congregation. The awakenings are seen as a restoration of the Church itself to a vital and ardent relation with God after a period of decline (here the Church refers to the mass of believers and not to an institution or a certain group).

The separation of the Church of England from Rome – started in 1529 and finished in 1536 – brought England alongside the general movement of Reformation. Nevertheless, the religious changes in the isle were made much more conservatively than anywhere else in Europe. Between a radical anti-papal tradition expressed by John Wycliffe and the Lollards since 1415,644 and the anti-Reformation promoted by Thomas More, the English theologians alternated, for centuries, between the Catholic tradition and reformatory principles, gradually forging an intercessory tradition (Latin: via media) between Catholicism and Protestantism.

In the German regions the Reformation occurred due to the need of ecclesiastical reorganization; in England, on the contrary, the Reformation was started due to the political intrigues of Henry VIII. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, gave birth to a single child, Mary. At the time England was in the shadow of a long dynastic conflict known as the “War of the Roses,” and the king feared that the lack of a male heir might endanger the throne for his descendants. Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage so that he could remarry and conceive a boy. But Clement categorically refused him; if he granted the annulment, then he would have tacitly admitted that his predecessor, Julius II, committed an error, and at the same time he would have confirmed the Lutheran accusation that the popes replaced God’s will with their own judgment. Henry was an honest Catholic, but the pope’s refusal made him realize that it was more convenient to take the religious power into his own hands and solve his problems alone. Accordingly, through the Act of Supremacy of 1534 he established the royalty as the supreme leader of the religious affairs and the Church of England became independent of Rome’s authority. Between 1535 and 1540, through an ample campaign, the veneration of the saints and some pilgrimage places were removed, the huge properties of the church were passed into the hands of the crown and nobility, and the dissidents, such as Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, ended up being executed or incarcerated.645

So, overall, based on Henry’s desire to annul the marriage, the English Reformation was, at least at first, a political affair rather than a theological dispute. But, despite the implementation of the Henrician Reformation, England was far from embracing Protestantism. The abolishment of papal authority generated violent reactions, radical religious changes and a lot of confusion. After a continuation of the Henrician ideas under Edward VI and a draconian Catholic restoration during Mary I, the prevailing consensus was put in place by the establishment of Anglicanism in 1559 by Elizabeth I. Anglicanism largely followed the lines established by Henry VIII, representing a very fragile, but viable compromise between extreme Calvinism and Catholicism.646

In the given context, some Protestants felt that the English Reformation was inconsistent because the Church of England continued to tolerate and practice Catholic doctrines. These Protestants came to be known as “Puritans” and their system of ideas…

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