The Persistent Myth of the Church of England’s Founding [Commentary on Browne: Introduction (1)]

There are few myths about Anglicanism more prevalent or persistent than “Henry VIII founded the Church of England because he wanted a divorce.” It is half-true, in that Henry’s desire to annul his marriage with Catherine was a primary impetus for the events that later became known as the English Reformation. However, to suggest that the Church of England as we know it came into existence solely because of the adulterous impulses of a capricious king, and that no genuine spirit or thirst for reform existed in England at the time, bespeaks either ignorance or disingenuousness.

In the Introduction to his commentary on the Articles, Bishop Edward Harold Browne, mindful of this myth, immediately moves to establish the integrity of the English Reformation: “Wickliffe,” he says, “had long ago given utterance to a feeling which lay deep in the hearts and spread wide among the ranks of thinking men. It was said of Wickliffe, that half of the secular priests in England agreed with him.”

In making this observation Browne is not discounting the role Henry played. Indeed, he notes that Henry’s decision to “call up and give strength to the spirit of reformation” stemmed directly from his “difference with the Papal see on the subject of his divorce with Catharine of Aragon.” Yet contemporary readers may note how tartly Browne assesses Henry’s motives:

This much alone we may observe, that Henry, if he acted from principle, not from passion, might have suffered his scruples to weigh with him when his wife was young and well-favoured, not when she had grown old and care-worn; when she brought him a rich dowry, not when he had absorbed and spent it; when he had hopes of a male heir to his throne, not when those hopes had been disappointed, the lady Mary being the sole issue of his alliance.

More importantly, Browne also makes clear that base motives coexist with, rather than cancel out, purer motives—even good things in this world are the product of both, and the Reformation is no exception:

Love of truth, reverence for sacred things, a sense of personal responsibility, a desire for the possession of full spiritual privileges, cooperated with the pride of human reason, the natural impatience of restraint, and the envy and hatred inspired among the nobles by a rich and powerful hierarchy, to make the world weary of the Papal domination, and desirous of reform in things spiritual and ecclesiastical.

Thus, to reduce the English Reformation to the wanton lusts of a single man, without recognizing the real desire for reform that existed at the time, is nothing but the sort of bargain-bin apologetics that so predominates nowadays in various Christian traditions.

James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'The Persistent Myth of the Church of England’s Founding [Commentary on Browne: Introduction (1)]' have 5 comments

  1. November 11, 2022 @ 10:48 am Bob Hauer

    Interesting comparison and contrast of motives


    • November 17, 2022 @ 8:33 pm +Lee Poteet

      The Cburch of England shall be ffde. So says the Magna Carta, so it can nor be an invention of Henry VIII. And the real movement for its reformation began then. And while it was slow, caj
      ucious and all bjt invisible. it left us a great intelectual a d litary heretige in the wfitings of English mhstics and poets.


      • November 18, 2022 @ 1:07 am Wesley Mcgranor

        The ecclesiastical manipulating the temporal for a dominating result.


  2. November 14, 2022 @ 10:11 am Josiah Spencer

    His assessment of the mixed motives is interesting. I think some Reformed folks idealize the Reformers and don’t appreciate the complexity of the Reformation.


  3. November 17, 2022 @ 3:43 am DRT

    Yes. Another very important factor is the political sphere where the question remained whether or not a female offspring of the monarch of England could actually reign in her own right(?). This was not a settled matter. Therefore, many supposed, Henry had to have a male heir (at least in his mind and others) in order to keep the realm firmly in English hands. Could the English Crown suffer the possibility of a civil or international war where a Spanish monarchy took control? Surely, such a real or perceived catastrophe could not be left to the whims of a Pope who himself was under potential threat of Catherine of Aragon’s nephew Philip of Spain.


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