We hoped you’ve benefitted from this rampage through the History of the Christian Church and we would like to take this opportunity to thank all those whose contributions have made this course possible, and of course to wish you all a very Happy Christmas.
Alan, Bertrand and Laura.
The Christian Church in England has not been cut off from the rapid flux and change which the rest of the world has experienced in the twentieth century. As a major influence on other nations of the globe, the United Kingdom of which England is a part, has continued to influence the sharing of peace and compassion with others, of course with occasional exceptions along the way.
The Churches in England have, however, become less influential in the rest of the world than previously: missionaries have been less abundant and we cannot fail but to be influenced by larger communities such as the United States, China and other parts of the world. This is all to be read as positive, in that we are part of a ‘global village’ and not isolated from our world neighbours.
Much has, however, remained firm and robust: notably the place of the Church within the State, known as the Establishment. The Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church ensures that faith remains central to the rule of law and order in the nation and that God is not eroded from public consciousness. Within this constant presence of the Establishment and a long serving monarch, however, comes some freedom for change and adaptation.
In England, the ordination of women to the priesthood within the Anglican Church and the rendering of public worship into modern accessible language instead of traditional 16th century English are two of the most significant changes to have happened within a very short space of time.
It is unlikely that there has been a period of time where we have seen as much change and development in the global world as seen in the 20th Century.
Between 1900 and today we have had two world wars and several other major conflicts; a major flourishing of science and technology, as well as a large degree of discovery of the planet earth and beyond: we have seen the first person in space and the first person on the moon. All since 1900.
Within this period of history, no longer does everyone automatically rely on the supernatural God for hope and guidance. Instead, we have to be convinced of how God interacts with us and how God appears in the world. The Churches throughout the world have, over the last hundred years tried to grapple with these challenges to help people understand more of how God is very much part of and present through these social changes.
Many different groups within the Christian faith have sought to come together in dialogue in order to understand how difference of expression does not necessarily mean difference of belief. In order to reach out to people, faith groups adapt themselves by relying on Holy Scripture and traditional wisdom for guidance as well as listening to the needs of people in different places.
Two very significant changes in the some branches of the Christian Church stand out as defining events of the twentieth century. The first is the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. This happened in the 1960s and saw Catholic church services almost overnight prayed and spoken in the local language (eg French, Chinese, Dutch, English) rather than Latin. The key Pope in this change was Pope John XXIII. This was a powerful Pope of equality and compassion, much like the current Pope Francis.
The second major change was the ordination of women to the leadership of many branches of the Christian Churches, mostly Lutheran, Anglican and some Protestant Churches. This has been the cause of much debate and pain, but the way forward is becoming clear: that women play a significant role in the governance of the Christian faith. And so, with powerful Popes and the emancipation of women, the Christian faith has sought to meet many of the challenges with which world history confronts it.
The early years of the 19th century brought a crisis for the Church of England. New laws gave greater freedom to non-Anglican churches and, for the first time since the Reformation, Roman Catholics were allowed to practice their religion publicly. The Church of England was itself going through a period of dullness. There was also a fear that England would be influenced by recent events in France with its threat of democracy and republicanism.
All these ingredients, shaken but not stirred, produced a powerful cocktail and led some priests into action. The trigger was the suppression of Irish bishoprics by the government in 1833. John Keble, a parish priest, preached a sermon in the university church in Oxford and, another energy of the Romantic Movement, the Second Great Awakening was under way.
John Henry Newman soon emerged as its natural leader. It sought to give the Church of England a distinct identity as the nation’s natural, apostolic and catholic church. Its priests were ordained within the historic episcopal succession and it looked back to the earliest Christian centuries for its beginnings. A later generation added a fondness for ritual and vestments and a revival of medieval architecture. And this was how “Anglo-Catholicism” came into being. Some of its most powerful proponents, almost overcome by the strength of their own arguments, converted to Roman Catholicism. Those who remained added a strong commitment to ministering in the poorest areas of our industrial cities. They also established a host of religious (monastic) communities. In these ways, they offered remarkable service to the needs of England’s proletariat in the second half of the century.
The early fervour of the Puritans in North America had waned and religion had become a marginal activity for their second (or third) generation descendants. It took the preaching of a man named Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, to shake them out of their slumber. He was a phenomenally learned man and he drew his ideas from Jean Calvin. He denied free will and taught a severe doctrine of God. Somehow, multitudes flocked to sermons that preached this stark message. And an Englishman, George Whitfield, came under the direct influence of Edwards at the very height of his powers. He brought its energy and its appeal back home and it was he who challenged John and Charles Wesley to be more adventurous in the evangelical faith they had only recently entered.
And so the Methodist (or evangelical) Revival began. The Wesley brothers had already met Whitfield while studying at Oxford. It was there that the methodical way they dealt with the use of their time gave rise to the sobriquet “Methodist.” But they differed radically on doctrine. The Wesley’s fiercely rebutted Whitfield’s teaching on free will. For them, God’s grace was for all and not, as Calvinists declared, for an elect. They simply could not subscribe to a doctrine of predestination. This led to a parting of the ways. But the revival went on. The Wesleys preached out of doors. They brought lay people (and women) into the preaching ministry. And they linked personal piety with social holiness – a commitment towards transformative action in the social sphere. They were a Eucharistic movement but, despite their best efforts, the century saw developments that would lead to the separation of Methodism from the Church of England. And so, regrettably, it has remained.
The Church of England was shaking itself into existence during this period – a creepy crawly emerging from the chrysalis of the Reformation. Some parts of it were content to continue with various versions of their Catholic religion under the governorship of the Monarch (rather than the Pope). Others were fiercely opposed to any such a thing. They wanted their new church, freed from foreign control, to be pure. And, in looking for this purity, they turned mainly to the Bible with a sidelong glance towards John Calvin’s reformed church in Geneva. No bishops for them – unscriptural; no vestments or rituals – all vestiges of Roman Catholicism; no kneeling for communion – that implied that bread and wine were somehow magically transformed into the body and blood of Christ himself. And so much more in similar vein.
Presbyterianism, Congregationalism and Anabaptism began to emerge from the pack as identifiable and separate entities. Since it was often impossible to hold the views being put forward by these puritans, their adepts fled the country for places more conducive to their beliefs. Many ended up in Holland. Many more took their beliefs to America where they played a foundational role in shaping and colouring public morality as well as laying the basis of constitutional life in the colonies and commonwealths coming into existence down the eastern shores of this emerging behemoth.
Puritans achieved political dominance in England for a time after the Civil War (1642—1651) and moral dominance for a still longer period after the Glorious Revolution (1688). Eventually, it lost its hold on society at large and hardened out and petrified within a variety of separatist bodies.
England joined the European reformation movement after the separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, completed in 1537. However, religious changes in the English national church proceeded more conservatively than elsewhere in Europe. Reformers in the Church of England alternated, for centuries, between sympathies for ancient Catholic tradition and more Reformed principles, gradually developing into a tradition considered a middle way (via media) between the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.
In 1534, the Act of Supremacy made Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England and, between 1535 and 1540, under Thomas Cromwell, the policy known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries was put into effect. Large amounts of church land and property passed into the hands of the Crown and ultimately into those of the nobility and gentry. The vested interest thus created made for a powerful force in support of the dissolutions.
Opponents to this English Reformation, such as Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, were executed. There was also a growing number of reformers influenced by the Zwinglian and Calvinistic doctrines now current on the Continent.
When Henry died he was succeeded by his nine year old Protestant son Edward VI, who ordered the destruction of images in churches, and the closing of the chantries. In his time, the reform of the Church of England was seen as a matter of doctrine.
But religion in England remained in a state of flux. There was a short Roman Catholic restoration during the reign of Mary. It is the “Elizabethan Religious Settlement” which largely formed Anglicanism into a distinctive church tradition, one which was able to encompass extreme Calvinism on the one hand and Roman Catholic piety on the other, a relatively successful compromise until the Puritan Revolution or English Civil War in the 17th century.