In an attempt to modernize itself, the Church of England this week released new guidelines on remarriage. If the guidelines are approved by the church synod next year, divorcees will be able to get married in the Anglican church if there are no outstanding commitments from a previous marriage and if the new relationship did not cause the divorce. "I don't think we're selling out to the age," said Bishop Michael Scott-Joynt, who leads the group that drew up the new guidelines. "It's a matter of seeking to find a proper way of holding our beliefs in this age."

While the bishops' report, "Marriage in Church after Divorce," contradicts centuries of practice, the Anglican church's struggle with divorce is nothing new. After all, King Henry VIII's divorce is what led to the church's establishment, though an organized church in England had existed at least since 314. And while Henry's story is certainly familiar, it's also quite complicated (as all European church/state matters tend to be). Shortly after his accession to the throne in 1509, the popular and personable Henry married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Because Catherine was his older brother's widow, Henry had to get papal dispensation for the marriage, but he felt the extra effort was worthwhile because he got to keep her considerable dowry, and the new marriage maintained the alliance of England and Spain against France. However, Henry always wondered if the marriage was really lawful in God's eyes.

Henry first threatened to divorce Catherine after Ferdinand betrayed him and made peace with France. Henry's chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, patched up the quarrel, but then Ferdinand's grandson, Emperor Charles V, also abandoned England to ally with France. Henry lost his patience with Spain and with Catherine, who had only borne him one surviving child—a girl, who was therefore not a good candidate to continue the Tudor reign. Besides, Henry was now having an affair with a young lady at his court, Anne Boleyn.

Wolsey was sent to Pope Clement VII to fetch an annulment. However, the pope was firmly in the grasp of Charles V, who was not only England's enemy but also Catherine's nephew. Wolsey's quest failed, and he soon lost his office. Meanwhile, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, put the divorce question to the universities of England and the continent. Pretty much everyone outside Charles's territory sided with Henry. So Cranmer pronounced the annulment and formally recognized Henry's marriage to the already-pregnant Anne, whom the king had secretly wed a few months before.

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Following this marriage, Henry picked up speed on the slippery slope of immorality. Before long, he had his former mistress beheaded for adultery. Wife No. 3, Jane Seymour, died soon after giving birth to Henry's only legitimate son, Edward. Anne of Cleves was quickly divorced because Henry never liked her (Henry even executed Thomas Cromwell just for arranging the match). Next, Catherine Howard was executed for adultery (again the pot calls the kettle black). Only Catherine Parr managed to outlive one of history's worst husbands.

What gets lost in this soap opera is the confusing question of Henry's religious beliefs. In 1521 he had written a tract against Martin Luther, "The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments," and earned from Pope Leo X the title "Defender of the Faith" (which British monarchs still hold). Later, he broke all ties with the papacy and started (in 1536) suppressing Britain's monasteries to fund his extravagant foreign policy. He even authorized publication of Tyndale's translation of the Bible. But after all of this, he published his very Catholic-flavored "Six Articles," making belief in doctrines and practices including transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and auricular confession obligatory. Anyone confessing more Protestant beliefs had to submit, flee the country, or risk being burned at the stake. In a final reversal, he left the education of his son, the future King Edward VI, to Protestants.

Apparently, Henry never completely stopped wondering what was right in God's eyes. And the Anglican church continues to wrestle with some of the questions he raised.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a listing of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.netChristian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

Out with the Old? | As rumors of Pope John Paul II's retirement circulate, it's worth remembering the story of the last pope to resign (Jan. 21, 2000)

Roman, Lend Me Your Ear | When a bishop rebuked a Christian emperor, who had the final word? (Jan. 14, 2000)

Good King, Bad King | How Christian was the king whose name is almost always associated with the Bible? (Jan. 7, 2000)

Christian History's past issues on England's religious history, including William Tyndale (issue 16) and Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation (issue 48) are available for purchase online.

The report, " Marriage in Church After Divorce," can be purchased from Church House Publishing for £5 (about US$8.18), but expect to pay extra for shipping.

See yesterday's article about the Church of England report, " Anglican Report Urges End to Ban on Church Weddings for Divorcees." The article includes links to other media coverage of the proposal.

The Church of England's official press release on the report is available online.See more on Henry VIII at the official Web site of the British monarchy, Encyclopædia Britannica, the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia, and an article from the July 1999 Contemporary Review (republished on titled, " Anglicanism: A Dialogue Between Present and Past."

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