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.