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Image: The arrest of Thomas Cranmer
On January 28, 1547 Henry the Eighth, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth Supreme Head died. And when he died, all hell broke loose.
All six of his marriages had produced only one male heir, Edward VI (from his 3rd wife, Jane Seymour), and two – less than desirable – daughters: Mary (from his first wife, Catharine of Aragorn, and Elizabeth, from that nasty woman, Anne Boleyn. When Henry died, Edward – at the ripe old of age of nine – became king. He died at age 15, but during his reign and through those that were “handling” him, many protestant reforms were implemented in the church. When it was discovered that he was terminally ill, the lines of succession were muddy, so those same handlers drew up new documents that declared Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and named Lady Jane Gray (the great-granddaughter of Henry VII) as heir to the throne. She was enthroned on July 10, 1553 and removed by Mary and her supporters on July 19, 1553 (hence, she is known as the Nine Day Queen). Mary, unlike Edward, was a devout Roman Catholic and abhorred all things Protestant including the Protestant leaders; therefore, during the five years that she reigned, she had 280 of those leaders burned at the stake, gaining her the infamous title, Bloody Mary. She was followed by her much more tolerant sister Elizabeth, who would then reign for forty-four years, although there were still executions approved by Elizabeth. Under Elizabeth, the church was protestant, while maintaining much that was catholic. It is with Elizabeth that we see the via media, the middle way between protestantism and catholicism beginning to emerge. And this via media is one of the defining characteristics of our church.
Later this month, on October 31st, the protestant churches will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther tacking his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, which is considered by many to be the birth of the Reformation. Part of this back and forth between protestantism and catholicism in the English church is a direct result of Luther’s action, while the other part stems from greed and the desire to be in charge, for the reformation in England began as a political reformation much more so than a religious, because Good ol’ Henry was more interested in who would be his wife and who could decide if he could divorce than he was in the religious arguments for or against. Which means that all the animosity between the protestants and Catholics in England did stem from religious concerns, but it also stemmed – perhaps even equally – from which group could obtain for you what you wanted. In other words, a good bit of the reformation in England was politics and if you happen to find yourself on the wrong side of those who were presently in power, you could lose your head or be burned at the stake.
Today, we remember some of those who were burned, the Oxford Martyrs: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer. They were leaders of the protestants when Mary ascended the throne. Yet, for each protestant Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer that were put to death, we can name others who were Catholic (John Fisher, Thomas More, Anne Line) and were put to death under the reigns of protestant monarchs. Bottom line: the history of the church is not pretty.
So how can we perform the work of the church without repeating all the ugliness? The Apostle Paul wrote, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” I am confident that almost all of the individuals in our history truly believed that they were building on the foundation of Jesus, so – without playing their judges – let’s just pray that the history we are leaving behind is filled with more light than darkness, so that future generations won’t have to apologize for our actions.