This is part 12 of a 15 part series examining the historical antecedents of the Anglican Communion.
For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God.
Romans 14: 11-12
In July, 1553, Mary Tudor was crowned Queen of England. At that time, there were only four surviving descendants of Henry VII, who had been the first Tudor king. They were all females. Mary Tudor was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII. Another cousin, Mary Stuart, was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII.
Mary Stuart been crowned Queen of Scotland at the age of nine months. In 1553 she was in France, out of reach of the English crown, and betrothed to the Dauphin. They would be married five years later, when Mary Stuart was fifteen. Shortly after their marriage, the Dauphin’s father died and Mary Stuart became Queen Consort of France.
Lady Jane Grey held the English throne for nine days in 1553, but voluntarily gave it up to Mary. She was executed in 1554 after a Protestant uprising which her family strongly supported. Elizabeth was imprisoned as a result of the same uprising. She was suspected of plotting against her sister. Many of Mary’s advisers urged that Elizabeth be executed for treason. They were mostly concerned about what might happen if Mary were to die childless. Elizabeth was believed to be a Protestant. If she were executed, Mary Stuart would be next in line for the throne and she was known to be a Catholic. The only way to ensure the continuation of a Catholic monarchy would be to eliminate Elizabeth. But Mary was reluctant to sign a death warrant for her own sister. Elizabeth was released from prison and sent to live in the countryside.
Four years later, in 1558, Mary died childless. When informed that she was to be taken to London and crowned, she is reported to have recited a verse from Psalm 118:
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Elizabeth was 25 years old when she was crowned. She would rule England for nearly 45 years until her death in 1603. During her reign, England became the world’s greatest naval power. There was significant scientific progress. The New World was explored. Arts and culture, theater in particular, flourished. The government and the church became more stable.
Elizabeth’s sister, Mary, had attempted to forcibly steer England from the Protestant course it had taken under Edward VI, and return the country to Catholicism. When Elizabeth took the throne, she wasted little time in reversing direction, although with a somewhat gentler hand than that used by Mary.
In 1559 Elizabeth asked Parliament to create a Church of England independent from the Pope. A Reformation bill was introduced that was strongly anti-Catholic. Transubstantiation in the Eucharistic elements was explicitly rejected as a matter of law. A prayerbook with a litany containing explicit anti-papist language was proposed. The bill prohibited priests from wearing a surplice. Priests would be permitted to marry, images were barred from churches, and Elizabeth was named Supreme Head of the Church in England. There was strong resistance from the House of Lords, which contained a large number of Catholic bishops appointed under Mary.
Elizabeth tried again, and this time she succeeded. She would be called the Supreme Governor of the Church of England rather than the Supreme Head of the Church, since many objected to a woman being named head of the church. All English subjects were required to attend an Anglican church on Sundays, but the penalty for non-attendance was not harsh. A new version of the BCP was adopted, but it did not include language abusive to the pope and was worded in a way that accommodated belief in either transubstantiation or consubstantiation. Priests were ordered to wear the surplice. Wafers, and not ordinary bread, were used during the Eucharist. Harsh penalties for simply holding Catholic beliefs were abandoned. Elizabeth denied wishing to have “a window into men’s souls.” It was to be actions, and not beliefs, that were punished. Nevertheless, holding Catholic religious services and professing allegiance to the Pope, instead of Elizabeth, as governor of the church, was forbidden. Clergy were arrested, tried, and executed under her reign.
The Elizabethan settlement was a political compromise. It could never mollify rigorous Catholics, to whom it was unthinkable to abjure allegiance to the Chair of Peter. Nor could it possibly be acceptable to those Protestants who viewed the Pope as the anti-Christ and Catholic practices as Satanic. It was not in that sense a theological solution to the real and unbending differences between Catholics and Protestants. It was simply a way to move the country forward without alienating a majority of either the Lords or the commoners. As we shall see, it also gave rise to an entirely new set of tensions, resulting mostly from militant Protestants, that would boil over into perhaps the worst civil unrest that England, as a nation, has ever experienced.
Father in Heaven, we have sinned. We have refused others the right to follow their own consciences. We have participated in religious hatred. We have compromised our own heart-felt beliefs, and the truth you have handed down to us. We have done all of this in your name, as if you endorse our sinful actions.
Father, may we face up to our sin. May we understand our depravity and spiritual poverty. My we learn that we are utterly dependent on you, and not on our own strength. Forgive us, Father. Forgive our ancestors.
Have mercy, Father. Use the blood shed by Jesus on the cross to cleanse the sins of our ancestors and our own sins. Wipe clean this stain on our history. Restore us. Break the cycle of repeated sins. Free us from bondage to this history. Begin a new creation in which you are our God and we are your people.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord and true King.