Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thomas More, Henry VIII and the Future of Anglicanism

On July 6, 1535 Sir Thomas More was beheaded because he was unable to agree with the conscience of King Henry VIII, in opposition to the Conscience of the Church.

Thomas More defended his refusal to sign the oath acceding to Parliament's Act of Supremacy because:
  • The Act of Supremacy contravened God's Law.
  • English subjects could not be removed from the corps of Christianity by an act of parliament.
  • That corps is represented by the General Councils of the Church (over king and pope).
Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley ruled against More stating, “if the Act of Parliament be not of unlawful, then the indictment is not in my Conscience invalid.” In other words, with some obvious sarcasm, if the acts of Parliament were valid, than the verdict stood. Audley ignored the entire point of More's argument, which was that neither the acts of Parliament, nor the King could overrule the corps of Faith, as held by the Conscience of the Church.

When More defended his inability to defy conscience, it was not in defense of an arbitrary personal conscience but the conscience of the Church, which was proclaimed and protected by the Councils of the Church. More did not elevate the Councils of the Church above Holy Scripture, but saw them as the guardians against the whims of individuals.

Contemporary Anglicans would do well to follow More's example. We rely too much on a sense of individual personal conscience, without first exploring and submitting to the conscience of the Church. North American Anglicans did well to recognize that the leadership of The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada abandoned the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church, and reoriented themselves back toward their Anglican roots where the authority of Holy Scripture is honored.

However, this reorientation is incomplete and confused. Some are reorienting themselves to the Reformation Movement with particular respect to Thomas Cranmer. Some are reorienting themselves toward the Roman Catholic Church. Some are orienting themselves toward a form of Evangelical non-denominationalism. Some are finding their identity in the Global South – so long as it doesn't require too much submission. And, some look to 1662 or 1928 as their defining ethos. Others look to Canon Law to define who they are.

Even as we endeavor to re-embrace a genuine and orthodox Anglicanism, we are struggling with our identity. We are so accustomed to being western individuals that we struggle to be authentically Catholic. In other words, submission to our ancient catholic corporate identity does not come naturally to us. We value Apostolic Succession in our catechisms but have difficulty honoring it in actual practice.

There is much that we can learn from all of the post-reformation expressions of Christianity. However, these are not our roots if we are a Catholic Church. Our catholic legacy did not begin with the Reformation Movement, but with Pentecost, and the Apostles, and was carried to us by the faithful Church Fathers. This is evident as we read the history of the Church in the British Isles from the Third Century onward, as well as from the writings of so many of the Anglican Divines, who constantly referred back to the Church Fathers as the source of Anglicanism.

Anglicanism is not the illegitimate child of Henry VIII. It is not the invention of Archbishop Cranmer. Anglicanism is no longer ethnocentric and imperialist. Anglicanism is not a pale reflection of Roman Catholicism, as though there never was an undivided Church.

The primary emphasis of Anglicans in North America over the past several years has been to re-establish Biblical orthodoxy, which must be our first concern. This led to a variety of Anglicans, with different identities, banding together for the sake orthodoxy – but not necessarily unity. While agreeing on Biblical orthodoxy, numerous debates have ensued over the Instruments of Unity and other Anglican distinctives. Discussions and meetings about canons and covenants occupy a considerable amount of attention throughout the Anglican Communion.

It is going to be extremely difficult to overcome these differences (if not impossible) until we come to an agreement on who we are and what our lineage is. If we continue under the mistaken identity that our patrimony is Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer and the Reformation Movement, then we will be hopelessly embroiled in all the personal conscience issues that those embody. If, however, we recognize, as did Thomas More and the Anglican Divines, that our identity and lineage is to be found in the corporate conscience of the Fathers and Councils of the Church, we will find an appropriate standard through which we can find catholic unity, not only for ourselves, but also with the Churches of Rome and Constantinople.

As for the general councils assembled lawfully, I never could perceive but that in the declaration of the truths it is believed to be standen to; the authority thereof ought to be taken for undoubtable, or else were there in nothing no certainty, but through Christendom upon every man's affectionate reason, all things might be brought from day to day to continual ruffle and confusion, from which by the general councils, the spirit of God assisting, every such council well assembled keepeth and ever shall keep the corps of his Catholic Church. (Thomas More to Thomas Cromwell – March 5, 1534)

- Fr Van McCalister

Note: The historical references are from lectures by Prof. Dale Hoak of Wm and Mary College, and The Last Letters of Thomas More, Letter 5 “To Thomas Cromwell, Chelsea, 5 March 1534.” Edited by Alvaro de Silva.

1 comment:

Dale Matson said...

Fr. Van,
A fine selection reminding us of our past and offering perspective on the future of Anglicanism.