What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, May 1, with the Anglicans, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
Christianity’s sixteenth-century reform movements—first Luther’s and then Calvin’s—swept across the continent of Europe like wildfire. In a short time nearly half of Europe had separated from the Roman Catholic Church to form their own churches, predominantly Lutheran or Reformed. Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway tended to follow Luther. Switzerland and France followed Calvin. Italy, Spain, and portions of France and Germany remained Roman Catholic. But it was the Reformation as it took place in England that would profoundly shape American religion in the years to come.
British monarchs were increasingly resentful of the outside influence of the pope in their internal affairs. While earnest people of faith were calling for reform in the Catholic Church in England, it was a king’s desire for an heir that ultimately led the English church to split from the Roman Catholic Church and become the Church of England.
You may recall the story, which began with King Henry VIII. At the age of eighteen, Henry married his brother’s widow, Katharine of Aragon. She had multiple miscarriages and one son, Henry, who lived for two months; but Katharine produced no male offspring who survived. Katharine’s difficulty in producing a male heir, coupled with Henry’s romantic interest in Anne Boleyn, led him to seek an annulment of his marriage, which the pope refused to grant. In 1533, Henry married Anne Boleyn without the pope’s annulment of his previous marriage. The pope responded by excommunicating him. King Henry and the British Parliament in turn removed the Church of England from the pope’s control and declared that King Henry VIII was “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.”
It is important to note that King Henry did not intend to change any of the church’s doctrines or practices, except to wrest oversight of the church from Rome. He understood the Church of England to be the Catholic Church of England. During his reign, a few Lutherans and other Protestants were even put to death. Nevertheless, the reading of the Bible in English was allowed and came to be encouraged.
Henry died in 1547; and his sickly son, Edward VI, succeeded him. Edward was only nine when he came to the throne, and he died at the age of sixteen; but during his short reign, influential Protestants—predominantly Calvinists—came to England, spurring reforms in the Church of England. Clergy were allowed to marry; and the first Book of Common Prayer, a book in the language of the people for daily prayers and worship, was prepared.
After Edward’s brief reign, his older half-sister Mary came to power. Unlike Edward, who was Protestant, Mary held strong Catholic convictions. During her five-year reign, she sought to turn back the Protestant reforms and bring the Church of England back under Roman authority. Married clergy were relieved of their duties, and some of the leading reformers were arrested and either beheaded or burned at the stake. It was this persecution that led some to call her “Bloody Mary.”
The Middle Way of Anglicanism
In twenty-five years, England had gone from being Roman Catholic to English Catholic to Calvinistic Protestant and back to Roman Catholic. The situation could have led to chaos had it not been for the strong and wise leadership of Queen Elizabeth I, the half-sister of Mary and Edward, who came to the throne in 1558 and reigned for forty-five years. It was she who negotiated what is known as the Elizabethan Settlement, and her approach to religion helped to shape the Anglican Church down to the present time. With large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants in the population, Elizabeth tried to forge, in the national church, what we know as a via media: a middle way. The church aimed to draw from both Catholic and Protestant traditions, never returning to Catholicism, but not fully embracing Luther or Calvin either.
After Elizabeth’s reign, King James I came to power. He had a measure of disdain for both Catholicism and the kind of Calvinistic Puritanism that was taking root in England. Noting that the most-popular English Bible, the Geneva Bible, was strongly influenced by Calvin’s thought, he authorized a new translation of the Bible that would navigate the via media between Catholicism and Calvinism. This Bible was finally published in 1611 and is known as the King James Version.
A Three-legged Stool
The early Presbyterians believed that Luther had not gone far enough in his reforms, so they sought to take the church a bit farther from Catholicism. But Anglicans believed that Luther and Calvin had gone a bit too far and sought to navigate a middle path between Catholics and Protestants.
Anglicans speak of a three-legged stool by which they determine what they believe and practice as Christians: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Scripture is the first and most important leg. The second leg is tradition: how Christians have understood their faith through the two centuries. The third leg is reason, as applied to the other two.
Anglicans invite us to take seriously the idea that saying we believe something is not enough. Our prayers and praise and worship are what shape belief, and true belief will manifest itself in these acts. They call us to bring discipline and order to our prayer lives. They invite us to have multiple times of prayer and praise and worship each day; at least two or three are suggested as a minimum. They maintain that doing this really does make all the difference. Through prayer, Jesus found strength. Through prayer, we find the peace that passes understanding. And in prayer, rejoicing always, giving thanks in all circumstances, we discover the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.