I've been finishing up the section of my Education for Ministry class which looks at the Reformation in England. Oh, my!
Of course, the monarchs are key figures in the story of the birth of the Church of England as the Anglo-Catholic institution that is. King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen "Bloody" Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I all play roles in shaping the doctrine and governance of the Church of England. One of the men who wielded tremendous influence on the direction of the Church was the theologian Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer... and the one who translated the rites into English so all could participate and understand the church service. It was from Cranmer that we get the Thirty-nine Articles, the outline of our Anglican faith and understanding of the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist, Salvation, etc. etc. Cranmer was particularly influential on King Edward VI, a sickly child who relied on the Archbishop of Canterbury to continue reforms that were moving the Church of England in a more Protestant direction. When Edward died, his half-sister Mary, the one called illegitimate after Henry VIII's divorce from her mother Catherine of Aragon, ascended to the throne. She threw the train in reverse and returned England back to Roman Catholicism. Cranmer was locked in the tower of London to await death. He was forced to watch his best friends and loyal supporters, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, being burned alive as part of Mary's pogrom against the Protestants. Cranmer, under pressure and feeling the obligation to honor the crown, wrote several letters to recant his Protestant beliefs. The Queen didn't believe he was sincere and refused to stop his execution. Given one last time to recant in a sermon at University Church on the day of his scheduled death, Cranmer did an about-face, and denied his prior recantations. He said he would have his right hand, which had written the letters, enter the fire first, and--true to his word--Cranmer thrust his right hand into the flames until it was charred to a stump. His reported last words were, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit... I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God!"
My feelings as I read about England's Reformation (with occasional nods at Scotland, but not nearly as much as I thought ought to be in the chapters) was like reading a much bloodier version of the politics that still seem to be wreaking havoc on the church. The pushing and pulling and tugging and yanking that still exists with those who are more Protestant (read now the evangelicals) and those who are more Anglo-Catholic in their outlook. It's church gone crazy!
We are 455 years later from when Cranmer was burned for believing the pope to be the Antichrist. But we are still in the business of burning some people and declaring others to be the Antichrist. And sometimes the burning and the accusing seem to go hand in hand. First, we label a group as the "those people" who are the cause of a "problem". And then we devise schemes to root them out. We call those "Processes" and "Covenants". Back in the "good ol' days" of the 16th Century, much of what was happening had little to do with theology and a whole lot more to do with political power. Just like today. We can pretend that there is some "Biblical" reason behind our biases. But in the end, this is all about a power struggle, and irritation with those uppity North Americans. God? God?! Why bring up some trifling thing like God?!?!
My one hope is that inspite of all the madness that seems to consume the people of God at any moment in church history... somehow, against our own wills, the whole work doesn't come unraveled, and we aren't obliterated. I believe this is because God continues to be moving along with us, encouraging us to stay on the path even when we get very close to the third rail. I really believe in that statement at the end of the Matthew's gospel, a restatement of the messages throughout the Old Testament: "Remember, I am with you always until the end of the age."