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Anglicanism: 2 Truths and a Lie, a series

Rev. Kyle Norman

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Published: Apr 26, 2022
Anglicanism: 2 Truths and a Lie, a series

...the worship of God is too serious to be left to the whims and desires of the moment. [Anglican] liturgy represents the well-thought, impassioned, and faithful worship of Christians throughout the centuries.

For more on this series, click here

The Anglican Church can be found in over 165 countries throughout the world. In fact, there is an expression of Anglicanism on every content of the globe. This makes Anglicanism one of the world’s largest Christian denominations. 

Given the vast spread of the Anglican church, due primarily to its colonial past, there is a wide difference in language, expression, and culture amongst Anglicans. The Anglican Church in England, for example, differs slightly from the Anglican Church in China, America, or Canada. Each country contains its own “flavor” of being Anglican. This makes the “Anglican Communion” a rich and robust community. 

Despite these cultural variations, however, there is unity within the Anglican style of worship. Anglicans throughout the globe worship together. Here are three important things to know about the Anglican Church:

Truth: Anglican Worship is rooted in Scripture.

A distinctive element in Anglican worship is the constant application of scripture. In Anglican worship, a person is continually immersed in the words of the Bible. The constant appeal to scripture is one of the foundations of the Anglican prayer book, known as the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). Since its first publication in 1554, Anglican worship has centered on the constant hearing of scripture. 

A typical Sunday service, for example, contains 4 separate readings from scripture: An Old Testament reading, a psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel reading. This formula is placed on a three-year cycle (known as the lectionary) which moves a congregation through most of the Bible. The BCP also contains a list of readings for daily prayers, as well as the entire Psalter.

The use of scripture in worship, however, extends much more than just the four readings assigned for Sunday mornings. The words of scripture also form many of the church’s prayers. For example, the liturgy of morning prayer contains the prayers known as the “Venite” and the “Jubilate”; these prayers are but portions of Psalm 95 and 100 respectively. Similarly, the evening liturgy includes a prayer known as the “Nunc Dimittis”, which is a recitation of Simeon’s words after holding the Christ child (Luke 2:29-32). Simply put, Anglicans pray the words of the Bible.

When Thomas Cranmer originally penned the BCP, his desire was to create a prayerbook that immersed the church in scripture. The BCP was published to instruct Christians in the biblical word, particularly in a time when many were illiterate. Thus, the BCP is not simply a prayerbook; it is also a devotional text. This reliance on the word of God to form the very worship of the church is part of a distinctly Anglican way of worship. 

Truth: Liturgy is important.

The Anglican church is a large community with many different expressions. Anglicans can be “High Church” or “Low Church”, “Evangelical” or “Liberal”. Despite these differences in worship style or practice, the importance of liturgy is a common element for all Anglicans.

Liturgy can sometimes be viewed as dry and lifeless. The emphasis on liturgical forms and structures can seem to deny one’s personal engagement in worship. For Anglicans, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason why Anglican worship is governed by a liturgical structure is because Anglicans take the worship of God incredibly seriously. Liturgy serves to focus the church upon the presence of Christ, and the task of worship.

The poet John Donne, who himself was an Anglican priest, once preached, “Let us not pray…slackly, suddenly, unadvisedly, extemporally, occasionally, indiligently; but let all our speech to Him be weighed, and measured in the weights of the Sanctuary….[Let us be] content to pray in those forms which the Church hath mediated for us, and recommended for us.”  Donne’s point is that the worship of God is too serious to be left to the whims and desires of the moment. The liturgy represents the well-thought, impassioned, and faithful worship of Christians throughout the centuries. In this way, the words of the liturgy serve an important devotional and directive function for the church.

Furthermore, liturgy ensures that the congregation prays together. One does not worship alone. The words of the liturgy become the words of the entire community joined together in worship. When the individual voices his or her personal prayers through the language of the liturgy, they are joining a company of worship that extends throughout time and space. This is the reason why Thomas Cranmer titled his book The Book of Common Prayer. Liturgy embeds the individual in the wider sphere of the church’s worship.

Liturgical worship also encourages a reliance upon the activity of the Holy Spirit. Praying via a liturgy does not deny that one is called to pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18). Using liturgy, the community of faith need not concern itself with “what comes next”, “what to say”, or “what to pray”; instead, the church is freed to focus its attention on responding to the movement of Spirit in its midst. 

Lie: Henry VIII just wanted a divorce!

It is often said that Henry VIII created the Anglican church because he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This is a vast oversimplification of the history of Anglicanism and the complex issues that surrounded its formation. While it is true that Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine, this is not the whole story.

Catherine of Aragon was a Spanish princess who was previously married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur. Arthur, however, died a few months into the marriage. To maintain important political ties with Spain, King Henry VII sought a marriage between Catherine and the next heir to the throne, Henry VIII. There is historical evidence that suggests that Henry never assented to this marriage, even pointing to the Biblical exhortation which reads “If a man marries his brother’s wife it is an act of impurity. He has uncovered the nakedness of his brother; they shall be childless” (Leviticus 20:21). Despite his objection, the Pope annulled the marriage of Arthur and Catherine, and Henry and Catherine were married in 1509. 

The desire for a divorce came after the inability to produce an heir to the throne. During their marriage, Henry and Catherine were able to conceive only one surviving child, a daughter named Mary (who later became known as “Bloody Mary”). Henry saw this as evidence of God’s judgment against his marriage to Catherine. Without a male heir, Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment. Importantly, such a request was not a rare occurrence amongst the nobility of the era.

Pope Clement II, however, refused to grant this annulment. This refusal was not based on any spiritual or moral conviction, but rather on political pressure from Emperor Charles V. Charles V, as it happened, was Catherine’s nephew. Charles pressured the Pope to deny Henry’s request, as this would demote his aunt from being Queen of England. Remember, this was the very reason the marriage occurred in the first place. 

It was this interference by Rome into the affairs of England to which Henry vehemently objected. Henry believed that the affairs of England should be governed by the church “of England”, and that familial ties to Rome should have no impact. In 1533, Henry’s marriage to Catherine was annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Henry married Anne Boleyn and had a son, Edward VI.

There is a lot more to this complicated story. After Henry’s death, Edward VI became King. Edward, however, died six years later, and the royal throne was transferred to Henry’s first child, Mary. Mary returned the church to Papal authority and began a widespread persecution of supporters of the Protestant Reformation. It wasn’t until the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558 that the Anglican Church was formalized and structured. Thus, the Anglican Church as it exists today is more a product of Elizabeth’s leadership than of Henry VIII’s. 

Sources:

Targoff, Ramie; 2001 Common Prayer: The Language of Devotion in Early Modern England. (University of Chicago Press).

www.churchofengland.org/news-and-media/media-centre/history-church-england

A History of Anglicanism: Part 2 – Henry VIII – Fedei Defensor; by Maple Anglican (https://youtu.be/eLsltso_6_c)

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Patrick Donovan


SWN authorReverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.

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