Tomb of Edward VI (and his grandparents
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, in
As I pointed out in previous postings, the English Church had a unique identity within the Catholic Communion from the very beginning. Christianity was brought to England with the expansion of the Roman Empire into Britannia, possibly as early as the end of the first century and certainly by the midpoint of the second. The ancient Christian Church in Britain was in communion with but not subject to the authority of the Roman Church and its bishop. I say “not subject to” because for the first four centuries or so of the Church, the Church was a communion of local Churches and not an international hierarchical ordering with the Pope at its summit. The various local Churches—what today we would call “Dioceses”—were autonomous self-governing Churches that recognized each other in Eucharistic fellowship based on accord in key doctrinal matters: most notably the Trinity and the Incarnation. Bishops were elected by the clergy and faithful and the election was ratified by the neighboring bishops who would then consecrate the new bishop and receive him—and his Church—into Eucharistic fellowship. The Roman Church was recognized as “the gold standard” of orthodoxy because it was founded on the Apostles, Peter and Paul, but there was no claim to a universal jurisdiction. Because of its apostolic foundation, disputes of doctrine or discipline were often referred to the Roman Church and its bishop—such as when the Church at Corinth tried to remove its presbyters and an appeal to Rome for advice received the admonition of Clement, third Bishop after St Peter, that they did not have the power to do so. (I should say that scholars dispute whether or not Clement actually wrote this letter, though the dating is thought to be about his time, c. 95 AD). The ancient Church in Britain was all but wiped out with the Anglo-Saxon invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries and the survivors of the ancient Britons took refuge in the western part of the Islands where they were sustained by their co-religionists from Ireland. Consequently the ancient Church in Britain picked up the unique customs of the Irish Church, especially regarding the dating of Easter and the monastic tonsure, and so differed in practice from most of western Europe. There also was a particularly strong flavor of Pelagianism among British Christians which is only fitting as Pelagius himself was British. In the seventh century the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain were won to Christianity by missionaries sent from Rome and this led to a conflict over the various matters of discipline where some followed the Celtic and others the Roman discipline—and again, especially the dating of Easter—which were resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664.
The Roman missionaries brought the English Church more deeply into the Roman Communion and these ties were strengthened by the deep loyalty of the Anglo-Saxon people to St Peter and consequently to his successor. English pilgrimages to Rome in the seventh through the tenth century were so common that the village immediately to the east of the Vatican Basilica was known as “Sassia” (a corruption of the Latin, Saxonum) or Saxony because of the concentration of Anglo Saxon pilgrims. In the early eighth century King Ine of Wessex established a pilgrims’ hospice there which still functions today as the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia. Nevertheless the English Church continued to have its bishops elected by the local Cathedral Chapters and even more significantly developed its own liturgical practices in various rites peculiar to England, notably the Sarum Rite, the York Rite, the Hereford Rite, and the Bangor Rite. This independent liturgical tradition persisted up until the time that Thomas Cranmer abolished them in favor of his 1549 Prayer Book.
As I wrote in my last posting on this subject, I had always favored the idea that Cranmer’s liturgical reforms were genuine reforms and while drastic, were in continuity with the Catholic faith passed down from the Apostles, but reading for this blog has made me seriously rethink that position. I no longer think that Archbishop Cranmer was simply cleaning the liturgy of the accretions that had crept into it over the centuries of bad theology that had followed upon the Eucharistic controversies between Ratramnus and Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century. Rather there is no doubt that Cranmer was replacing the traditional Catholic understanding of the Eucharist with a doctrine that was a hybrid of Calvin’s over-enthusiasm for Augustinian neo-platonism and the even more radical—and heretical—doctrines of Huldrych Zwingli. While Cranmer’s elegant texts are replete with theological ambiguities, it is clear that at the end of the day the English Church saw the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament as a mere remembrance of what Christ had once done for us in a long distant time and a far, faraway place. Sad. However, we must remember that with the biblical and patristic tools with which 16th century theologians had to work, this was a sincere effort to be faithful to the scriptures.
There is no other way than to say that by the end of the reign of King Edward VI, the Church of England had snapped the cords that bound it not only to the Church Catholic, but to its own 1400 hundred year history. By this, I am making no claims against the validity of its sacraments and particularly against the sacrament of Orders. These are complex theological matters that in the past have too often been dealt with from a political point of view rather than from a strict theological perspective. Scholars on both sides of the issue have argued over the sacramental forms for both the Eucharist and for Orders and, as we shall see when we get (eventually) to Leo XIII’s rejection of Anglican Orders in his Bull, Apostolicae Curae, the grounds of form and matter have shifted over the centuries leaving the conclusions of Apostolicae Curae somewhat uncertain. But while Catholic ritual—and theology—have been restored, at least in some sections of the Anglican Communion, there is no doubt that the Church of England was wholeheartedly committed to Genevan Protestantism when Edward VI was laid in his grandfather’s vault in Westminster Abbey. There would be a Catholic renaissance however with the accession of his sister, Mary. More about that in the near future.