The joke in church circles is that the Episcopal church is the only denomination that started because of a divorce. In fact, as part of an advertising campaign in the 1980s, the Episcopal church designed a poster featuring Henry VIII that stated: “The Episcopal Church welcomes divorced people.” (The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. is, of course, part of the global Anglican Communion, rooted in the Church of England.)

The English Reformation is far more complicated, however, involving not only the marital woes of much-married Henry, but also a turbulent theological and political situation in England.

Rumblings in England

When Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, they did not go unnoticed in England. In 1521, young King Henry wrote (probably with assistance) a book attacking Luther’s view of the sacraments. The pope graciously replied by bestowing on Henry the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title still used by British monarchs.

Like the rest of Europe, however, England was restless with its church situation. Many bishops were rich landowners, priests and monks were often scandalously immoral, and the religion of the common people was woven with superstition. Earnest leaders like John Colet of Oxford called for reform. At Cambridge, a group of scholars met to discuss Protestant ideas; they became known as “Little Germany” because of their affection for Luther’s teachings. In addition to these theological rumblings, there was a growing feeling of nationalism, a higher devotion to England than to the Roman church. The stage was set for a break with Rome.

Rumblings in the King’s Marriage

Henry VIII, a lustful, selfish ruler, justifiably feared for England’s stability ...

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