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Anglican Church History: 2000 Years of Faith, Love, and Truth

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Anglican Church History: 2000 Years of Faith, Love, and Truth
Anglican Church History: Ancient origins from Joseph of Arimathea to Augustine of Canterbury through Thomas Cranmer to Queen Elizabeth II

Anglican Church History: 2000 Years of Faith, Love, and Truth

Anglican Church History is usually dated from the Act of Supremacy in 1543 which made King Henry VIII the head of the church in England. But there is much more Anglican history before that.

The first use of the word we have comes from the Magna Carta in 1215:

Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, translated as "the Anglican Church shall be free."

When did the Anglican Church begin?

The common belief has been that Joseph of Arimathea came to England and founded the church at Glastonbury. (He is commemorated on July 31 in the Book of Common Prayer.)

Many orthodox Christians believe in this tradition which is celebrated by poet/artist William Blake in his famous poem/hymn And did those feet in ancient time.

Queen Elizabeth I used Joseph’s work in bringing the Gospel to England to validate her claim to the Roman Catholic bishops that the Church of England pre-dated the Church of Rome in England.

We do not know the details of how the Gospel came to what was then called Britain, but we have some documentary clues.

Tertullian (155-230), Christianity’s first historian wrote

"All the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons—inaccessible to the Romans but subjugated to Christ."

Eusebius (260-339) wrote of Christ's disciples that

"Some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain,” and

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (310-367), a bishop and Doctor of the Church, wrote that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain.

Writing much later, William of Malmsbury (1095-1143), the foremost historian of his time, wrote:

if Philip, the Apostle, preached to the Gauls, as Freculphus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he also planted the word on this side of the channel also.

(Philip is commemorated on May 1 in the Book of Common Prayer.)

Orthodox tradition identifies Aristobulus, mentioned by St. Paul* in Romans 16:10, as "bishop of Britain", and Catholic tradition says he ministered in Roman Britain and was martyred in Wales.

* after a name indicates that person appears in my book SPIRITUAL LIVES

Anglican history during the Roman Occupation

Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) conquered Britain in 55 BC, and it was occupied by Roman legions until 410. During this time Christianity slowly took hold.

Churches with baptismal fonts have been discovered in Lincoln and other places as well as a Christian burial ground. 3 dioceses from Britain attended the Church Council of Arles in 314, the bishops of London, York, and Lincoln.

Although the Romans withdrew in 410 and their military and governmental infrastructure collapsed, these dioceses continue to this day.

The last important figure in early Anglican history is St. Patrick* (415-494). Born in Cumbria, England, to a Christian family (his father a deacon, his grandfather a priest), Patrick was not a believer.

He was enslaved by Irish pirates and bound to shepherding work for 6 years,

He was miraculously delivered, saved, and called in a vision to evangelize in Ireland. His ministry was a success, and Ireland was won for Christ.

Anglican history in the Middle Ages

After the Romans withdrew, pagan invasions began. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes asserted their power and claimed territories everywhere south of Hadrian’s wall. Their pagan beliefs clashed with Christianity, and religion became a cause for war.

In 596, Augustine of Canterbury* (550-604) arrived in Kent with 40 monks to evangelize the pagans.

He was a man of great faith and had a miraculous gift of healing. In a brief time, he won over the pagan king, was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury, and was given authority over all other bishops operating in England.

Before meeting with Augustine, the English bishops met with a local prophet who advised,

“If he rises to meet you, accept him. If he remains seated, he is arrogant and unfit to lead; reject him.”

Augustine remained seated and the English church continued to resist Rome for hundreds of years!

Anglican history and its vernacular heritage

The outstanding Anglican figure in the Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede* (672-735), “the father of English history.”

His GREAT work, the Historia ecclesiastica, is a history of the church in England. It begins with the introduction of Christianity into England by the Romans and is the first book to use A.D. dating.

The most learned man of his time, Bede spent his life in constant prayer, obedience to the monastic discipline, and the study of the Bible. He wrote his first book when he was 30 and completed 60 throughout his life.

He also translated the Gospel of John into the Anglo-Saxon language and became a pioneer in the long stream of faithful men whose lives were dedicated to putting God’s Word into the language of the common people.

He is commemorated on May 25 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Alfred the Great* (849-899) was the next champion of the vernacular in Anglican history. (He is commemorated on October 25 in the Prayer Book.)

He prefaced the 10 Commandments and other portions of Exodus to his code of laws and used the local language in primary education, reserving Latin for those going into the church.

This encouragement of Anglo-Saxon was a crucial factor in forming a national identity and culture.

Alfred encouraged education and believed Christian teaching and spiritual truth was essential to the success of young men in his kingdom.

He circulated many of his translated works to his bishops to use in their administration of the church and in teaching the clergy.

But the biggest step to putting the Bible in English came via John Wyclif* (1321-1384), a seminary professor at Oxford. He advocated the translation of the Bible into the people’s language, saying

"It helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence".

He himself began work on a translation from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English, completing the Gospels himself and assigning specific portions to others.

Because there were few people literate at this time, Wyclif sent out poor priests to preach the Gospel and encourage the people to read the Bible for themselves.

Soon these “Lollards,” as they became known, ignited a hunger for the Word of God and a transformation of western culture. Today, Wyclif is often called today “The Morningstar of the Reformation.”

Anglican history in the Reformation

Martin Luther*(1483-1546) ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (He is commemorated October 31 in Church of England Book of Common Prayer).

Thomas Cranmer* (1489-1556) imported many of Luther’s ideas and teaching into England, but not until he had been a faithful Roman Catholic scholar for 3 decades at Cambridge.

Cranmer’s life’s work was to transport these reforms into England where King Henry VIII was a strong Catholic and ran a strong and despotic state that strictly enforced the power and teaching of Rome.

His opportunity came in a strange context, namely Henry’s desire to set aside Catherine of Aragon who was past childbearing and take another wife and thereby secure the succession to the English throne.

Cranmer also knew first-hand Anne Boleyn (1507-1536), whom Henry had in mind to marry, having been the chaplain to her father. She was a strong Protestant, a factor that also played into the dispute about the divorce.

The dispute ran on for some 6 years, with the pope vacillating and delaying until Henry removed Cardinal Wolsey from office and turned to Cranmer for advice. Once installed as Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer declared the marriage with Catherine invalid, and then proceeded to break the power of Rome by declaring the king the earthly head of the Church of England.

As long as Anne was queen, Cranmer was able to institute reform. Chief among them was the production of the Great Bible, an English translation approved by King Henry and installed in all churches in 1539.

But by this time, Anne was gone, and the king returned to catholic doctrine. Despite this, Cranmer remained committed to the reformed faith, even though Henry’s closest advisors were secretly and ardently working to restore the pope’s authority.

But Cranmer’s friendship with the king endured, and he was named to the Council of Regency for Henry’s young son Edward*. During Edward’s reign, Cranmer’s reforms were enacted, the separation from Rome confirmed, the English Church fully established as Protestant, and the Cranmer’s liturgy and Book of Common Prayer adopted.

When the young king died, his sister Mary took power, returned the church to Rome and had Cranmer and 300 other Protestants executed.

As his body was being consumed by the flames, Cranmer uttered these words reminiscent of those of first martyr Stephen:

"Lord Jesus, receive my spirit... I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."

(He is commemorated in the Prayer Book on March 21 Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Reformation Martyr, 1556.)

Anglican conflict with Rome continues

The conflict between the Anglican Church and Rome continued through the 16th and 17th centuries, but the high point of the Protestant Reformation in England came during the reign of James Stuart.

King James I *(1566-1625) was fiercely Protestant and called the pope the anti-Christ but was willing to be conciliatory to his Catholic subjects if they would recognize his authority.

One reason James so hated the pope was his belief in the divine right of kings and in their absolute power:

The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. Spoken to Parliament, 21 March 1610.

And the pope, of course, wanted James to submit to the authority of Rome. But James was also under pressure from the other side of the religious spectrum, the Puritans, whom he also hated.

They wanted him to abolish confirmation, the sign of the cross in baptism, the bowing at the mention of the name of Jesus, wedding rings, and the term "priest". They also demanded a new translation of the Bible, which James granted.

He took a personal hand in overseeing the work of the 47 scholars he assembled in 6 teams to do the translation. They all were believing Christians belonging to the Church of England, and all but one, clergymen.

He gave them specific instructions that the new translation be familiar to its listeners and readers and that the familiar proper names of the biblical characters would all be used.

The Bible was authorized to be read in churches, and soon became the standard throughout the English-speaking world, and remains so today in much of it.

This work is James’ enduring achievement. He loved the Bible and feasted on it daily recognizing it as God’s Word and the highest standard for living:

"You cannot name any example in any heathen author, but I will better it in Scripture."

Anglican Church history during the 17th century

The Anglican Church was at the center of history during the 17th century. James’ son, Charles 1 (1600-1649) held on to his father’s “divine right of kings” principle adamantly and made it a central doctrine in the Church of England despite growing and furious opposition from the Puritans.

This conflict turned into the English Civil War (1642-1651) which the Puritans won. Charles was the first major tragedy for the Church when he was executed in 1649. The monarchy was abolished, and the Anglican Church was disestablished.

But the republic installed by Oliver Cromwell*(1599-1658) did not survive him, and Charles’ son Charles II (1630-1685) restored the monarchy and reestablished the Church of England, with himself as the head.

This was welcomed by the people at first, but when the king began to persecute dissenters and put preachers like John Bunyan*(1628-1688) in jail, opposition to him and “the divine right of kings” grew.

This opposition fit its high point when Charles died, and his Roman Catholic brother ascended to the throne as James II (1633-1701).

When a son was born and christened as a Roman Catholic, riots broke out in London and James was forced to abdicate. His sister Mary and her Husband William were invited to take the throne which they did as William III and Mary II, reigning from 1689-1702.

Anglican Church history during the 18th century

With the end of the Stuart dynasty, the monarchy passed to the German Hanover line, beginning with George I in 1714. Two more George’s filled out the century, and the Anglican Church began to change. It spread outside of England, first to Scotland, then Bermuda and America

Anglican churches had been established in America in the 17th century, but after the Revolution of 1776 severed ties with the Church of England.

When Americans elected a bishop in Connecticut, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to ordain him.

The Scottish Episcopal Church did, and he returned to America and was instrumental in establishing the Episcopal Church and American Prayer Book in 1785.

The spread of Anglicanism outside of England continued through emigration and missionary efforts.

Missionary Societies were established to bring Anglican Christianity to the British colonies. By the 19th century, such missions were extended to other areas of the world.

Anglican history in the 19th century

Two powerful dynamics were at work during the 19th century in England. In the 1830s the Oxford movement, which sought to reestablish Roman Catholicism, and the Evangelical movement promoting Bible study, missionary efforts, and social reform.

Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) (Priest, 1882 16 September) introduced practice of confession in the Church of England and the idea of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which, says Wikipedia “became largely the basis for the theology of his devotees, and transformed the practices of Anglican worship.”

This change did indeed stimulate the ritualism and sacramentalism of Anglican worship. But Pusey remained faithful to the Protestant Church unlike John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton who converted to the Roman Catholic Church

Opposing Pusey and everything he stood for was Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, KG (28 April 1801 – 1 October 1885) leader of the Evangelical Anglicanism. He was a reformer, and president of the Bible Society:

"Of all Societies, this is nearest to my heart... Bible Society has always been a watchword in our house."

The evangelical outreach moved with England’s growing empire under Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and soon there were Anglican churches in every part of the Empire.

Anglican history in the 20th Century

The Anglican Church increased its visibility and cultural influence in the 20th century through the lives of three prominent people:

  • Poet T.S. Eliot*(1888-1965),

  • Writer/theologian C.S. Lewis (1898-1962), and

  • Queen Elizabeth II* (1926-2022)

Eliot shocked the world when he announced his conversion to Christianity in 1927 and was publicly baptized in the Church of England. Raised in America in a Unitarian family, he could not accept the idea of sin.

He poured his life into his literary work and became famous as the author of “The Wasteland,” a poem in which he described his time and age in despairing terms of hopelessness.

But Eliot came out of that Waste Land and stepped into the church where he was cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ.

He changed the direction of modern poetry, singlehandedly rejecting the godless Waste Land of 20th century verse by resurrecting the GREAT Christian poets of the past, like John Donne* and the other metaphysical poets, and by writing award-winning verse (Nobel Prize in 1948) filled with Christian themes:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

– 4 Quartets, 1943

C.S. Lewis (1898-1962) was a scholar of English literature and a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Born and raised in a Christian home and baptized in the Church of Ireland, Lewis lost his faith and became an atheist at 15.

He returned to Anglicanism at the age of 32, owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, and he became an "ordinary layman of the Church of England.” Lewis's faith profoundly affected his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts about Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

Lewis wrote more than 30 books translated into more than 30 languages and sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularized on stage, TV, radio, and cinema. Christian scholars from many denominations widely cite his philosophical writings.

Elizabeth* was born on 21 April 1926 and baptized by the Archbishop of York at Buckingham Palace on 29 May. Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, the coronation televised world-wide and photographed beautifully in National Geographic.

The coronation service was steeped in tradition developed from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.


  • Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?

  • Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?

  • Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? -

Queen Elizabeth: All this I promise to do.

As Queen, she receives this title and position: ‘Elizabeth II Dei Gratia Regina Fidei Defensor.’ These words are in Latin, and they mean: ‘Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith.’

She is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which has 25 million members in England. But she does not see herself as Supreme, and in a recent book calls Jesus Christ, “the King she serves.”

‘For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role-model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.’

Over her 70+ years as queen, she has been faithful to Jesus and Biblical truth, and steered the Church of England according to His Word.

Concluding thoughts on Anglican Church History:

2000 Years of Faith, Love, and Truth

Jesus once asked,

when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? – Luke 18:8

Anglican Church history testifies, “Yes.” And He will also find Love and Truth.

Is this because its head is anointed with oil by an archbishop, in a Christian church, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? This public declaration of faith and promise to Honor the Scriptures is unique in a world hard at work to remove God from our lives and culture. I pray it might be so.

I am thankful for the Anglican Church and its faith and faithfulness. Three words come to mind describing its character: Remembrance, Respect, and Reverence.

This church is not adrift in contemporary culture. It remembers where it has been and those who have loved it. And there is respect for those. The Anglican church is anchored not just in the past, but in the Holy Scriptures.

All of this can be seen not just in its history, but in its worship honoring Jesus in every way, practicing His ordinances with dignity, filling His house with praise, coming into His presence with singing, knowing He is God, and approaching Him with reverence.

Worship with me now in song: or listen here:

Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven;

To His feet thy tribute bring.

Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,

Evermore His praises sing:

Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!

Praise the everlasting King.

Praise Him for His grace and favor

To our fathers in distress;

Praise Him still the same as ever,

Slow to chide, and swift to bless.

Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!

Glorious in His faithfulness.

Fatherlike, He tends and spares us,

Well our feeble frame He knows;

In His hands He gently bears us,

Rescues us from all our foes.

Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!

Widely yet His mercy flows.

Frail as summer’s flow’r we flourish,

Blows the wind and it is gone;

But while mortals rise and perish,

Our God lives unchanging on.

Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!

Praise the high Eternal One!

Angels, help us to adore Him,

Ye behold Him face to face;

Sun and moon, bow down before Him;

Dwellers all in time and space,

Praise Him, praise Him, alleluia!

Praise with us the God of grace.

Henry Lyte, 1834

Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. Psalm 47:6

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