Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Re-Thinking the Anglican Reformation

Generations of students have heard roughly the same narrative about the founding of the Church of England: King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, but the Pope refused to allow this. Technically, we're talking about an annulment, not a divorce, and the Pope's decision was complex, because Holy Roman Emperor Karl V had imprisoned the Pope for a period of time, making communication between Henry VIII and Pope very difficult. But the broad outline of the story remains.

And the broad outline of the story is wrong.

It's a fun story, providing a juicy scandal and a simple explanation for England parting ways with the Roman Catholic Church. That's why the narrative is popular. But it's incorrect.

If we consider the details, we begin to see the problems:

First, are we really to believe that Henry would command millions of Englishmen to change their deeply-held religious beliefs merely to enhance his chances of having a male heir? And that these millions would cheerfully comply for the same reason? Vast masses of people rarely change their inner spiritual faiths merely because someone commands them to do so; often, embrace their religion all the more rationally in the face of such irrational attacks. And Henry didn't use force or violence to compel belief.

Second, if Henry wanted a new wife, there would be much easier ways to get rid of the old wife. Changing both the spiritual faith of the nation, and also the institutional church, was an effort of tectonic scale. It would have been much easier to have Catherine murdered or exiled, and Henry had shown himself willing to use both tactics in other cases. Why would he use such an arduous and circumlocutious method?

Third, Henry and his subjects were both aware of the text and the tradition of the Magna Carta. English kings weren't supposed to meddle in the functioning of the church. To be sure, Henry did meddle, but not in such a blatant way. Had Henry forced the Anglican Reformation, it would have been clear to everyone in Britain, and he would have faced the same wrath which bore down on King John in 1215.

So, for the above three reasons, we must reject the narrative that the English Reformation was driving by Henry's desire for an annulment. If so, then we must further ask, which other story might be more accurate? The following facts give us the elements for a veracious view of the Anglican Reformation:

* The Anglican Reformation was accompanied by a change in the operating language of the church: services and other church functions would be conducted in English instead of Latin

* The Pope had made no secret of his political involvements, and appointed church officials in England, even though he considered England unimportant, and even though he had never set foot in England.

* There was a steady stream of money, gold, and silver leaving England and going to Rome. This was a drain on the British economy.

Considering these facts, we can see a narrative which would explain why not only Henry, but large segments of the English aristocracy would favor a Reformation, for reasons which are more plausible than the king's desire for a divorce.