Watch Services

Close Menu X

The English Reformation & You

Have you ever tried to understand the Reformation in England? I have thought about it and believe it’s a lot like the following experience: someone grabs you from behind and slips a blindfold on you. They put you in a car and take you on a drive to an unknown destination. It seems to take forever to get there. The car finally stops and someone takes your hand and leads you on what seems to be an endless walk. When you stop, they make you turn around in a circle six times, then suddenly remove the blindfold. You hear these words, “You are in a maze and you must find your way out. Good luck.”

The English Reformation seems to be a maze of names, dates, and events that often appear on the surface to be unconnected. The first clue to help steer us correctly is the 1534 Act of Supremacy. With this act, Parliament recognized the ruler or monarch (king, queen) as the supreme head of the church in England.

What was the result of their decision? Reform in England was often from the top down. Monarchs and parliaments accomplished change with little or no concern for popular support. To put it simply: the monarchs determined the religion of the land. If the king was Catholic then England was a Catholic country. If the next ruler was Protestant then England was a Protestant country. So one of the keys to understanding the English Reformation is knowing who is on the throne during the time period you are studying. Over time the Protestant religion prevailed, it seems, because of the long reign of Elizabeth I.

Mary I, the so-called “Bloody Mary,” serves as an example of how things changed under a new monarch. She ruled only five years, from 1553-1558. She followed Edward VI who was Protestant. Her aim was to return England to the Catholic fold. As the supreme head of the church she established “holy laws” to make Catholicism the state religion. If you disobeyed these laws, you were punished because you were disobeying true doctrine and were, thus, a heretic. During her reign of five years she had almost 300 people executed for disobeying the “holy laws” she had enacted.

Some ask why Mary l is called “bloody” when Henry VIII is said to have executed 70,000 people during his long reign and he isn’t called “bloody”? It seems that in the providence of God, John Foxe lived during Mary’s reign. He recorded and celebrated the martyrs of English Protestantism under Mary’s reign. He published them in his Acts and Monuments in 1563. The second publication of his work was in 1570 and by that time the acts of “Bloody Mary” had become part of the national story. In short, she became a demon in the eyes of history.

The second clue to help steer us through the maze of the English Reformation is understanding Thomas Cranmer. Mark Galli, the editor of Christian History Magazine in 1995, reached the following conclusion, “Thomas Cranmer was the most cautious, even indecisive, of reformers-until his final hour.” These words are an understatement. Cranmer was up and down as well as in and out. He seems to have flip flopped at the drop of a hat. So at one point he recants of being a Protestant and then he turns around and renounces his recantation. What was going on with Thomas Cranmer?

I like the way Mark Galli summarizes Cranmer’s life:

Except for the last hour of his long life, Thomas Cranmer, made no heroic stands and lived no radical lifestyle. He just tried to work out his faith in one bewildering setting after another. One day Henry VIII, his first boss, would push in a Protestant direction, the next in a Catholic. In this tumultuous setting, Cranmer had to determine how best to forward the gospel without losing his livelihood, life, or soul.

The tension was too great sometimes, and sometimes he compromised himself—there’s just no other way to put it. Once, for instance, he persecuted married priests because Henry ordered it, all the while secretly hiding his own wife in Germany. And at the end of his life, he really blew it: six times he forsook in writing his Protestant faith.

But most of his life, he successfully muddled through the compromises with his faith intact. He managed to survive the perilous fortunes of sixteenth-century politics and push ever so gently, slowly, and patiently for a gospel reformation of England. As a result, he was eventually able to produce, among other things, a prayer book that has nurtured the lives of millions of Christians for over 400 years—the Book of Common Prayer. And, of course, when it really counted, he stood for what he believed, recanting his recantations and suffering death at the stake.

I believe we learn at least two helpful lessons from the English Reformation: first, the Act of Supremacy shows us we shouldn’t put God in a box. Yes, reformation doesn’t usually come this way. Yet, God is God and he can work whenever and however he chooses. So as we work for change, we must be careful that we don’t limit God.

Second, Thomas Cranmer reveals that God works through “ordinary heroes”. We struggle to live out the gospel in our lives as we often face confusing situations. We don’t want to lose our faith or our livelihood, so we obey Christ the best we know how. Oftentimes we feel like we are just getting by in both areas. Cranmer reminds us that God uses ordinary people like us.

May these lessons for history encourage you to persevere in following Christ.

Elder Jim Gordon