English Reformation

The English Reformation took place in 16th-century England when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. These events were, in part, associated with the wider European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that affected the practice of Christianity in western and central Europe. Causes included the invention of the printing press, increased circulation of the Bible and the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among scholars, the upper and middle classes and readers in general. The phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accommodated itself.

King Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage (first requested of Pope Clement VII in 1527), the English Reformation began as more of a political affair than a theological dispute. The reality of political differences between Rome and England allowed growing theological disputes to come to the fore.[1] Until the break with Rome, the Pope and general councils of the church decided doctrine. Church law was governed by canon law with final jurisdiction in Rome. Church taxes were paid straight to Rome and the Pope had the final word in the appointment of bishops.

The break with Rome was effected by a series of Acts of Parliament passed between 1532 and 1534, among them the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which declared that Henry was the "Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England".[2] (This title was renounced by Mary I in 1553 in the process of restoring papal jurisdiction; when Elizabeth I reasserted the royal supremacy in 1559, her title was Supreme Governor.[2]) Final authority in doctrinal and legal disputes now rested with the monarch; the papacy was deprived of revenue and the final say on the appointment of bishops.

The theology and liturgy of the Church of England became markedly Protestant during the reign of Henry's son Edward VI, largely along lines laid down by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Under Mary, the process was reversed and the Church of England was again placed under papal jurisdiction. Elizabeth reintroduced the Protestant religion but in a more moderate manner. The structure and theology of the church was a matter of fierce dispute for generations.

The violent aspect of these disputes, manifested in the English Civil Wars, ended when the last Roman Catholic monarch, James II, was deposed and Parliament employed William III and Mary II jointly to rule in conjunction with the English Bill of Rights in 1688 (in the "Glorious Revolution"), from which emerged a church polity with an established church and a number of non-conformist churches whose members suffered various civil disabilities until these were removed many years later. The legacy of the Roman Catholic heritage and establishment as the state church remained controversial for many years and still exists. A substantial but dwindling minority of people from the late 16th to early 19th centuries remained Roman Catholic in England. Their church organization remained illegal until the Relief Act of 1829.