Thomas More, Henry VIII, and the Future of Anglicanism
by Fr. Van McCalister
On July 6, 1535 Sir Thomas More was beheaded because he was unwilling to agree with the conscience of King Henry VIII, as enforced by the Act of Supremacy, since the King's conscience opposed the Conscience of the Church, as More understood it.
The 1534 Act of Supremacy declared, in part:
Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the King our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining.
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 (ie. body) 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. The audacity of Audley: we want it to be so, and so it is. 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. It may be that Sir Thomas viewed the “Corps of the Church” as protected by the Councils of the Church with the Pope presiding, or at least that the pope was the instrument of unity. And from that perspective, it must seem odd and historically impossible to defend Anglicanism. But the goal here is not so much to defend Anglicanism, as it is ancient Christianity and the inheritors of the Faith. Thomas was defending his faith as a Roman Catholic because he believed the Roman Catholic Church represented the root of Christianity. It is his defense of the root of Christianity, and his argument against those who would arbitrarily claim that root for themselves alone, to which we appeal.
Thomas More's act of conscience is still relevant today on at least two points: (1) as we view his argument from the knowledge that the Catholic Faith predates Roman catholicsm, and Anglican catholicism. (2) National expressions of catholicism are subordinate to the apostolic catholicism of the New Testament and Early Church, from which we receive the corps.
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 always 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 still 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.
Anglicans may be pleased to look back at the Act of Supremacy and see a moment of liberation and so find our identity as a distinct entity. And, it was a moment where the Church in England began a process of re-discovering her ancient Catholic roots, but it is not helpful to corporate Christianity to view that as our “birthdate”. It is helpful when we look through that moment and other historical moments as lenses through which we view the real birth of the Church at Pentecost. But to give the Act of Supremacy and King Henry the VIIIth, any more value than that, is not all that different from recognizing the illegitimate authority of The Episcopal Church and the Church of Canada. Henry never had the authority to redefine the Corps of the Church, nor do we.
. . . And, therefore, since all Christendom is one corps, I cannot perceive how any member therof may, without consent of the body, depart from the common head. And then if we may not lawfully leave it by ourself, I cannot perceive, but if the thing were a treating in a General Council, what the question would avail, whether the primacy were instituted immediately by God, or ordained by the Church.
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)
Note: The historical references are from lectures by Prof. Dale Hoak of Wm and Mary College; The Last Letters of Thomas More, Letter 5 “To Thomas Cromwell, Chelsea, 5 March 1534.” Edited by Alvaro de Silva, and Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More,.by Thomas Edward Bridgett
This article originally published: December 20, 2011 (Revised July 25, 2016)