18 January 2010


An Associated Press story of 16 January 2010, used by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, unfortunately repeats a misleading and simplistic historical claim, that “Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused marriage annulment.” I appreciate any true news story, but it is an error to supply a simplistic historical background to an issue that is religiously complex.

The Anglican Communion of Churches, including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, has long been different and separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The popular and juicy story of Henry VIII and his obsession for a male heir (not just an annulment from Catherine of Aragon), while fun to repeat, can not be used as the point of separation between Roman and Anglican Christianity.

For instance, kings of England long before Henry VIII called themselves the Head of the Church in England, including William the Conqueror after 1066. Remember, too, that conflict between local versus Roman authority in the Church of England was the reason Thomas a Beckett was murdered in 1170. Finally, readers might recall that the Church of England returned to obedience to the Roman Catholic Church after Henry VIII and his son Edward died, when Queen Mary I ascended the throne in 1533. It was actually Elizabeth I, not Henry VIII, whose rule finally separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church (Elizabeth was not excommunicated by the Pope until 1570).

Today, what is referred to as “The Anglican Church” is more accurately referred to as “The Anglican Communion of Churches,” and not as a centralized and universally hierarchical structure like the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Communion of Churches traces its historical roots to England, for sure, but, more importantly, to an ethos of local authority and respect for indigenous spirituality. This is why The Episcopal Church established itself separately from the Church of England in 1789. The Episcopal Church, for better or worse, is not under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury; neither are the Churches of Nigeria or Uganda, for better or worse, under the authority of the Church of England or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

One can argue whether this “communion of churches” structure succeeds in proclaiming and serving the Christian gospel, just as one can argue whether a more centralized and universally hierarchical structure like the Roman system succeeds. In fact, I have no problem with the Roman Catholic Church providing a spiritual home for Anglican Christians who want a more centralized ecclesiology (which was the point of the AP story on 16 January 2010).

My own opinion is that God uses both church structures; different gifts of different Christians can be inspired by either structure, or by both systems. However, please do not confuse the two ecclesiologies, either historically in their development, or presently in their contemporary attempts to proclaim the Christian gospel.

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