The Galilee of Durham
Cathedral, site of the tomb
of the Venerable Bede
Popular opinion thinks of the Anglican Church as being founded by Henry VIII when he split the Church in England from the Pope so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, having tired of his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon—but that just shows us how little we know about the history of the Church, or rather, how much our understanding of the history of the Church has been shaped by religious opinions rather than historical facts.
The term “Anglican Church” was around for at least three hundred years before ol’ Henry ever got peeved with the Pope and the idea of a Church of England, if not the terminology itself, is even much older. Certainly the Venerable Bede, a Church historian (673-735) had a very clear idea of the English Church as a body with a distinct identity within Christendom that differentiated it from the Roman Church and the other distinct ecclesial communities that comprised the universal Christendom of his time. To Bede, the English Church was as different from the Roman Church as was the Greek or the Irish Churches of his day. Bede, in fact, wanted to smooth over some of the differences in religious practices, but he did not want the English Church to lose its unique identity. Of course the English Church—that is the Anglican Church for Ecclesia Anglicana means simply that, the English Church—was in communion with the Roman Church but it was in no way absorbed into it. While it held the Roman Church and its Bishop (the Pope) in honor, it had its own distinct rites and ceremonies, it chose its own bishops, it held its own synods and councils and it formulated its own canons. At the time of Bede, it was its own Church in full and free communion with universal Christendom represented by the five great Patriarchial Sees of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. As a Western Church it had its strongest ties to the See of Rome, the Western Patriarchate but like the other Churches maintained its autonomy.
Christianity had come to England before the end of the second century and perhaps as early as the last decades of the first century. What is today England and Wales was a province of the Roman Empire and even as the faith had spread to Rome from the Pentecost Preaching of the Apostles, it spread from Rome throughout its empire as merchants and soldiers and government officials and slaves and tourists and sailors moved about the wide empire, settling in countless places and bringing with them the religious beliefs of the Empire, of which Christianity was but one. There is even an old tradition that Joseph of Arimathea had comes as a missionary after the Ascension of Christ. Other legends talk about Philip the Apostle sending missionaries to Britain, or perhaps even one or another of the apostles going there themselves. None of this can be verified, however, and all of these stories have the stuff of legends more than facts about them. But that is not to say that Christianity may have arrived in Britain even as early as 50 AD, or perhaps a few years before. We simply do not know the earliest date but we can say that by 150 it is all but certain that there were Christian communities in the Roman towns of Britain. We know that there were three British bishops present at the Council of Arles in 314. One of these was Restitutus, Bishop of Londinium, today’s London. British bishops were also present at the Council of Sardica (Sofia, in modern day Bulgaria) in 347 and the Council of Rimini (In what is today Italy) in 359. This tells us that the British Church was not a stand-alone entity but was in communion with the Universal Church represented by the Emperor. (Yes, it was the Emperor, not the Pope, who represented the oecumene or Universal Oneness of the Church just as it was the Emperor, not the Pope, who had the right and duty to convoke Ecumenical (oecumenical) Councils. Bet you didn’t learn that in fifth grade.
You see, the “Church” of the first five centuries was not a single Church under a Pope but a communion of local Churches, each with its own bishop, who recognized the authenticity of faith and legitimacy of practice of one another. There were certain measuring sticks of orthodoxy—the Trinity, the divinity of Christ—as well as a unity of practices such as the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, baptism as the rite of initiation into the community, and an Episcopal system of leadership where deacons and presbyters assisted the bishop in his ministry. As the centuries moved on the rites of these Churches began to vary more and more in incidentals, but they used, for the most part, the same scriptures in their worship and common patterns, if not the rites themselves, for their liturgies. By the sixth century these local churches began to coalesce around one or another of the five great patriarchial Sees. Christians the West, both Europe and North Africa, began looking more and more to the Church and Bishop of Rome for leadership. Christians in the eastern parts of North Africa looked mostly to Alexandria. Christians in Greece and Asia Minor—what is today Turkey—as well as southern Italy and Sicily to Constantinople because they were under the political domination of the Emperor there. Christians in Syria and beyond the Eastern boundaries of the old empire, looked to Antioch. Christians in the ancient places of Palestine, looked to the Patriarch and Church of Jerusalem. This period of the history of the Church uniting around the five great Patriarchs is called the Pentarchy. It surprises us Catholics to think of a period of the history of the Church where the Pope wasn’t running the show but a universal jurisdiction of the Roman See only emerges in the eleventh century. But we can talk about that at another time; we are getting ahead of our story if we want to focus on England. Suffice it to say that by the fourth century Christianity was well established in Britain and the Roman Church and its bishop were held in honor but not acknowledged as having direct authority.