Friday, October 21, 2011

See-Saw Reform: The Church of England's confused course...

The duck-billed platypus pictured here has been proposed by some as a sort of "patron" mascot of the Anglican Church, inasmuch as the odd looking creature is hard to define.  Bird, mammal, reptile?  Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox?  By in large I appreciate the intent of the analogy, that being that there is nothing incompatible between that which is truly small 'c' Catholic and truly Protestant.  Yet I wonder if this depiction might, unfortunately, be apt for another reason:  that it's a metaphor for unresolved tensions in Anglicanism that have their origins in the 16th century reformation of the English Church.  What I'm referring to is the battle for the doctrinal soul of the Church of England that began with Thomas Cranmer becoming the Archbishop in 1533 and the subsequent years of reform and compromise in both doctrine and practice.

By the time of his appointment, Cranmer had already had come to accept the essential doctrines of the reformation.  Over the next several years he would leave behind the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, as well as accepting only two sacraments (holy communion and baptism) as of the gospel and instituted by Christ.  The other five so-called sacraments (confession, marriage, confirmation, anointing of the sick, holy orders), though valid and godly in nature, were not biblically instituted as such nor had they two parts (outward material sign and inward grace) necessary for a sacrament.

Cranmer's reformed path was quite distinct from a large percentage of the bishops who served throughout England at that time.  Many of those men were still Roman Catholic in outlook, if not in doctrine and practice.  The years leading up to the death of King Henry VIII were marked by a kind of see-saw slow-motion reform... three steps forward, two steps back, so to speak.  This was clearly seen in the first attempt at a church confession, the Ten Articles, which was a compromise between the Roman Catholic party and those favoring  reform.  King Henry as monarch had become the Supreme Head of the Church when England threw off the Pope's authority.  As was his wont when deciding doctrinal questions, he selected the committee bishops by appointing equal representation from the Catholic conservatives and the evangelical reformers; the perfect formula for doctrine compromise based on a political consensus rather than Holy Scripture alone.

This was to be the pattern throughout the latter part of Henry's reign.  It reflected his own theological ambivalence and ever-changing political concerns.  This course set the stage for three developments that stayed with the English Church for the next 100-plus years of back and forth reform.  One, it unofficially institutionalized a doctrinal see-saw battle between the Evangelicals and those of the more Catholic/medieval persuasion.  Two, it validated a kind of rear-guard action by the Catholic conservative bishops (often in sync with the King or Queen)  to preserve or reinstate certain medieval doctrines and practices and resist a fuller reformation of the English Church.  Three, the involvement of the Monarch as both head of State and Church guaranteed that political calculations as well as personal religious preferences would intrude themselves in matters of Church doctrine, practice, and further reform.