Church and State Part Four: The Reformation

This is the fourth and last installation of a series of articles in which I present my view of church history with a focus on the relationship between church and state. In my last article, I covered the middle ages. Today I cover the Reformation.

Because excommunication was being used so much as a punishment inflicted by man rather than an edict given by God through man, the tide of Protestantism came about in the sixteenth century. The frustrations so many devout church members who disagreed with the corruption and abuse of the church—particularly from the papacy—fermented for many years and ultimately culminated in the Reformation. The Reformation began in Germany because local rulers protested the papal abuse of power. Although it ended up looking more like a revolution than a reformation, the Protestant Reformation originally began as a movement by the local, grassroots churches to purge the internal corruption of the church. When the papacy and the judicial branch of the church did not budge, but continued to excommunicate enemies of the corruption, the Reformation broke out from internal dissent into a new, unmanageable heresy. After all, had not the Catholic Church deemed these reformers no longer part of the true church? What else had they to do but start their own?

Such was the story of the Reformation in Germany. The local churches that had largely been suppressed and silenced finally broke out in full opposition to the authority that held them in their smoldering position for centuries. And thus it was revealed that the “church” had never truly been represented well by the papacy, that the “church” was a difficult reality to maintain, one that required an enormous amount of power, because it was truly more of a concept than a reality. The church was composed of many local churches, and the alienation of those with strong disagreement proved to be an unsustainable practice. So the power of the autocracy of the papacy was split partially to the tyranny of the majority that often took over in Protestant circles.

Even so, many became Protestants not because of theological conviction. Henry VIII desired to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, but when Pope Clement VII did not grant it, Henry VIII put forth the Act of Supremacy of 1534, removing England from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church followed much of the same doctrine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was led by the King of England, not the pope. While the surface reason for converting England to Protestantism was for Henry’s divorce, the divide between England and Rome had a long history and Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy was an act largely for political independence. Thus, religious independence in England counted as political independence from Rome. Because the Church of England was a national church formed more for political and personal motives than for religious convictions, Henry VIII persecuted other brands of Protestantism that contradicted the Anglican Church—most notably the Puritans. This was, in a sense, a return to caesaropapism, but more localized, as the Roman Empire had fallen and England was its own independent nation.

The transformation resembled somewhat of a return to the Orthodox relationship between church and state, in which the monarch was the head of the national church. This formed both a local church on the international level and a “universal” or unified church on the national level. Still, the truly local churches that were not part of the national church received heavy persecution from Henry VIII, who dubbed himself the “Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England.” [1] The Act of Supremacy was not concerned with intellectual openness or religious freedom so much as it was with political independence from the grip of the pope, who had made himself political. Thus, the rise of the papacy to the political realm also caused the pope’s loss of authority in England, which could not tolerate his political strings. The Act of Supremacy ended with putting the king above “any usage, custom, foreign law, foreign authority, prescription, or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.” [2]

Henry grew into a tyrant in his old age, and anyone who would oppose his rule or power “would be instantly crushed.” Because of this, as head of the Anglicana Ecclesia, Henry even had say over church doctrine, an immense power in the church for a king. In 1537, The Institute of a Christian Man was issued to the bishops and parish priests as “an attempt to help parish priests to know what the teaching of the Church was and so to aid them in their ministry. But,” writes John Moorman, “it had little success.” So, in 1539, Henry passed the Six Articles Act, which put forth official doctrine as required for all Englishmen to believe and made doubt and heresy a felony. The act dealt with the six most controversial religious issues in England at the time: the Sacrament of the altar and transubstantiation, whether one needed both flesh and blood at this Sacrament, the celibacy of priests, vows of chastity or widowhood, private masses, and articular confession in the Church. [3] The English Protestants who hoped to reform the Anglican Church called this Act a “bloody whip with six strings”; those who criticized the Act were burnt. For this reason, many local clergy, priests, and theologians quit and left England for Germany or took up secular occupations. [4] It must be noted that it would be a gross oversimplification to dub all this turbulence between King Henry and the reformers of England as a conflict between the state and the church, for the very reason that Henry was the head of the Anglican Church. Rather, this was an internal struggle between the head of the Church and dissenting parish priests and theologians within the Church; the state only happened to take one side of the conflict.

Henry VIII’s successor, Edward VI, was himself a more religious man and let up on the persecution of non-Anglican Protestants as well as Protestants hoping to reform the Anglican Church—Puritans. His concern for the English Church was not clouded by his desire for using it as a means for political power, and thus he valued the freedom of discourse that Henry had worked to stomp out. Edward, only nine years old when he took the throne, issued a set of royal injunctions in the first few months of his reign that removed images and paintings reminiscent of the Catholic heritage of the Anglican Church. Under Edward VI, the Parliament repealed the Six Articles Act. Another act passed in which the most sacred words of the Eucharist (Hoc est corpus meum) were replaced with “Hocus-pocus,” a mocking insult to the Catholic Church. [5] England’s detachment from the Catholic Church took place under Henry VIII, but its reformation did not take place until Edward VI became king. It was Edward’s reign that made England a more recognizably Protestant nation. Yet Edward’s reign was not without persecution. Even though the Anglican Church had undergone increased openness and reform—or, perhaps precisely because of this—those outside the Protestant faith continued to be despised and persecuted. Thus began the long and bitter tradition of animosity between the two faiths in England. Even with the increased freedom (for those under the umbrella of Protestantism), Edward VI nevertheless remained the head of the Church of England. Local authorities, however, could now better voice their theologies and practices, unlike the iron fist that Henry VIII placed over England.

The relationship between Church and state has been one examined and studied for centuries, ever since Eusebius penned his History in the fourth century shortly after Constantine’s conversion. However, this dichotomy only truly existed during the period of the early church when the body of Christians, though wrestling greatly along lines of doctrine, were united together by the persecution the Romans imposed upon them. After Constantine, as caesaropapism began to flourish, the state became almost equivalent to the higher church leadership, despite differing local church traditions. When the church split into east and west, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, the Orthodox Church continued the model of caesaropapism. Especially as the Byzantine Empire began to crumble, the Orthodox Church applied this caesaropapism in a more localized way, applying it to individual countries instead of an entire Empire. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, starting with the Theory of the Two Swords, began to wade into politics. The Pope not only humiliated kings and emperors but started to take authority over the king and emperor even in secular matters, as the importance of the spiritual world trumped that of the secular world. But the Pope cannot be considered equivalent to the Church as a whole. His back-and-forth power struggles with the nations of Europe often did not represent the desires of the local bishops and even archbishops, not to mention the parish priests. In years to come, this conflict between the different strata of the clergy would become apparent as the parish priests of France sided with the peasants in the French Revolution while the higher church leaders were considered part of the nobility, and only the most liberal leaders would take part in the Revolution. The disconnect between the central leaders of the Church and the local priests and bishops continued through the Middle Ages, and manifest itself in the Reformation. The Reformation pulled away from the Catholic Church both for the sake of religious independence and, in the case of England, political independence. With Henry VIII’s conversion of England, however, the dissent within the Church over the authority of Henry VIII as head of the Church of England showed the hybrid nature of the Church. It was, to an extent, a conflict between Church and state, but, because Henry VIII was the leader of the Church, the efforts and reformation in England also represented a conflict within the Church itself—one between the national and local levels of church leadership. Just as the church contained many strata of power, opinion, and ideological movement, the dualism of church and state must be understood as an oversimplification. As Christianity took different forms of theology and held different positions of power over secular matters; and as the state varied in its control over the church; the pope and the state, the bishops and the state, and the parish priests and the state experienced a constantly changing, multi-layered relationship from the rise of Constantine to the spreading of the Reformation. The separation that existed between local bishoprics and the papacy stands in constant defiance to the dualism of “Church and state” language.

[1] John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England. (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1967) 179.

[2] Henry Gee and William John Hardy, Documents Illustrative of English Church History Compiled from Original Sources. (London: Macmillan and Limited, 1910) 244.

[3] Ibid. 304.

[4] John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England. 178.

[5] Ibid. 181-182.


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