The Church of England was the national and reformed church established and amended by parliamentary statutes during the English Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Its institutions included Governorship in the Monarchy, Prelateship in the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the threefold episcopal ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons.
Its theological doctrines and liturgies sought to absorb truths from the Bible, the early Christian tradition, and reason, and to comprehend Catholic, humanist, and reformed elements of the time. The Church of England was not a theocracy, because in these two centuries, the legislative authority belonged to “King in Parliament.”
The Church of England was established in 1534 by the parliamentary Act of Supremacy, which recognized Henry VIII (r. 1509–47) as the “only supreme head on earth” of the Church of England, or the Anglican Church.
The Reformation Parliament (1529–36) abrogated papal authority and declared royal supremacy, but made no attempt theologically or liturgically to break with the Catholic past. Rather, the Six Articles enacted by the Parliament of 1539 reiterated Catholic teachings and practices and put a check on the spread of the embryonic Protestantism in England.
The ambiguities left from the reforms were tested after Henry VIII’s death. Under Edward VI (r. 1547–53), antipapal rhetoric increased, the apparatus of worship became simplified, and the Parliament reformed the Church of England to meet Calvinist essentials. Then, Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58) restored Catholicism, persecuted Calvinist heretics, and pushed her Protestant subjects into exile, or confined their worship in rural cells.
Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) undertook the precarious task of reconstructing the Church of England according to Henry VIII’s blueprint and simultaneously finding a satisfactory settlement for the great majority of her subjects.
In 1559, her first Parliament enacted a new Act of Supremacy, which established her, using a slightly softer tone than her father’s, as the “supreme governor” of the Church of England. Despite the political independence from the papal authority, the church remained administratively and judicially the same. The convocations of Canterbury and York survived.
The diocesan hierarchy and administrative systems continued. The church courts, the ecclesiastic laws, and judicial proceedings followed basically medieval precedents and routines. Under the queen, one novel practice was to require Anglican clergy to take an oath of allegiance to the queen, as all her civil servants did.
In 1563, Parliament sanctioned the Thirty-Nine Articles. In 1571, under the queen’s personal instruction, a slightly altered version was approved by the convocation of the Church of England and was printed as an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer, a revision of Thomas Cranmer’s book of the same title issued originally in 1549.
While the Articles and the Book adopted some of the Protestant theological teachings and liturgical regulations (especially in the administration of baptism and Holy Communion) into the Church of England, they held firmly royal supremacy as the church’s foundation and episcopacy as its government.
The Book served as the textbook, compelling local people to weekly church attendance and other services in liturgical uniformity and in the English vernacular, which managed to mask the differences between Catholic and Calvinistic followers within the church.
Although the queen’s sincere and meticulous compromise won the people’s broad acceptance, she could not pacify ardent opposition to her settlement. Neither was she able to persuade all her subjects to conform to the national and reformed church required by the Act of Uniformity of 1559.
The Marian bishops and their followers adamantly rejected her breach with Rome and her governorship of the church. After Pope Pius VI issued a bull in 1570 deposing her and absolving her Catholic subjects from allegiance, a series of plots were carried out against her life, including one led by her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586.
At the same time, radical Calvinists refused to conform to the Church of England because of their resentment of its episcopal structure. To a great extent, the Catholic conspiracies confirmed the Calvinist conviction that the Church of England had to be purified of the accreted institutions, doctrines, and liturgies inherited from medieval Catholicism.
King James Bible
In the 17th century, both the popish plots, real or imagined, and radical movements of the Puritans would test the vitality of the Elizabethan Church of England. At the Hampton Court conference of 1604, the first Stuart king, James I (r. 1603–25), met his Puritan subjects to receive their petition for purifying the Catholic remnants from the Church of England. The king commissioned a panel of 54 to produce an authorized English Bible.
The so-called James I Version was finished in 1611, and the Church of England began to have its own standardized book for centuries to come. However, at the same conference, the king was displeased by the demands of the Puritan nonconformists to reform the episcopacy, and later responded to it with his succinct statement “No bishop, no king.”
Afterward, the Gunpowder Plot by Catholic extremists, aiming at blowing up all of royalty at the opening session of Parliament of 1605, further inflamed anti-Catholic sentiment in England, and helped the Puritan cause to gain growing support from its popular base.
The leading Puritan parliamentarians under King Charles I (r. 1625–49) became infuriated when the king refused to transform the Church of England toward congregational structure, and they linked the episcopal structure of the church to the king’s personal tyranny.
Although the Puritans’ frustration alone might not have caused the breakout of the Civil War in 1642, the uncompromising antipapal and antiepiscopal attitude of the Puritan politicians and military men undoubtedly shaped the fate of England and its church in the next 20 years.
After the regicide of 1649, General Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan providentialist and a pragmatic politician, was forced to suppress his fellow Puritan extremists, the levellers and the followers of the fifth monarchism, in order to preserve the episcopal organization in his Puritan-styled Church of England.
During the Restoration (1660–88), endeavors were made among different religious leaders to find a new settlement, but King Charles II (r. 1660–85) and the Anglicans now in power refused to recognize the nonconformists who had been previously ordained to serve in their congregations.
The king expelled about 2,000 of them from the church after they refused to pass the test, defined by the Act of Test of 1673 as taking oaths of allegiance and receiving Holy Communion in the Church of England.
The national church became schismatic, and the specter of the Civil War loomed. When the nation faced a very real possibility of the restoration of Roman Catholicism under James II (r. 1685–88), Parliament met in 1688 to contemplate how to contend with the crisis.
In Parliament, the majority of the Tories supported royal authority, but cared about the future of the Church of England more than King James II; the Whigs favored parliamentary supremacy, but were willing to work with the Tories in order to prevent Catholic resurgence.
After suffering military defeats at the hand of the king’s opponents, James II abandoned the throne and fled to France at the end of 1688. In 1689, Parliament offered the Crown jointly to Mary (r. 1689–94), the Anglican daughter of James I, and her husband, William III (r. 1689–1702), the Calvinist duke of Orange.
In the same year, Parliament required William and Mary to accept the Bill of Rights, which was designed to guarantee the members of Parliament freedom of speech and immunity from prosecution for their opinions presented in parliamentary debates.
In 1689, the Parliament also adopted the Toleration Act, which offered some freedom of worship to the nonconformist Protestants; their right to hold public offices, however, was still technically restricted by the Act of Test of 1673, which would be finally repealed in 1828. But the Catholics did not gain religious freedom until 1829.
Political and religious struggles continued to disrupt the English life from the Glorious Revolution in England to the succession of the first Hanoverian king, George I (r. 1714–27), when the restoration of Catholicism became not only barred by law but also less and less realistic. However, the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 was the great landmark in the history of the Church of England.
In general, the religious strife and bloodshed that had troubled England for more than a century began to subside, and the national and reformed church began to operate within the Elizabethan framework of the church constitution. Moreover, the church spread throughout the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and hundreds of episcopacies all over the empire lived under the governorship of English monarchs.
Today, the Church of England is still the religion of the English monarchy but no longer enjoys any privileges over other religions in the British parliamentary democracy. The archbishop of Canterbury, as St. Augustine’s successor, is honored as the universal primate among the Episcopalian believers in more than 400 dioceses all around the world, but he exercises no authority over them. At the same time, the church is currently playing an important role in women’s ordination, Christian ecumenical dialogue, and interfaith communications among world religions.