Monday, 11 January 2010

Henry V111, The Divine Right of Kings and The Church of England

A Window in Bristol Cathedral


When did the Church of England begin? Some people claim that the Church of England, extending to the Anglican Communion, is part of the world-wide Catholic and Apostolic Church. Some will say that it is a continuation or development of the ancient Celtic Church (at least up to the Synod of Whitby), and some say that it is the Church of St. Augustine of Canterbury. There are still those in the Anglican Communion who see their Church as part of an ecclesiastical trinity: The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion. There are many questions here, but I want to discuss what most historians, secular and ecclesiastical, will agree was the actual beginning of the Church of England; Henry VIII's break with Rome and the declaration of his Royal Supremacy in matters spiritual.

One of the best recent books on Henry is, "1536", subtitled, "The Year that Changed Henry VIII", by Suzannah Lipscomb (Lion 2009). Historians have long puzzled over the changes in Henry's character that occurred in that year. But the aggressive and moody behaviour that became more obvious had a long history, and the two years before 1536 saw events which had a profound effect not only on Henry's emotional stability but on the whole country. Lipscomb writes that it was when Sir Thomas More and Archbishop John Fisher were beheaded that the break with Rome was complete. In a particular way their deaths signalled the final rejection of Papal authority in England.

Henry's rejection of the Pope was tied in with his need to divorce Queen Katherine, but it would be a mistake to simplify by saying; "It was all about the divorce". Lipscomb makes clear that Henry was a scholar and something of a theologian. Although it is clear that he sought advice from others, he also meditated, read and annotated the Bible and thought through his ideas in great detail. He is known to have sent for theological opinions from some of the best places of learning in Europe. He became utterly convinced of his position as the divinely appointed King of England, and he saw this kingship embracing the spiritual well-being of his people. However he began this enquiry, there seems little doubt that he became convinced (or convinced himself?) of the rightness of his position. He was heavily influenced by Tyndale's "The Obedience of A Christian Man" (a gift from Ann Boleyn) which argued that a Christian prince ought not submit to the Pope or any church authority, since he was "ordained" by God and was answerable to Him alone. Henry said that all kings ought to read this book.

In exalting his position Head of the Church, Henry was going against the book he had written (with help) against Luther, Assertio Septum Sacramentorum. This book was also a defence of Papal authority. The Pope gave him the title "Defender of the Faith" which was strangely kept by the English crown after the break with Rome. Henry turned about face. He so exalted his own position that he was soon to correct the Bishops' catechism, and the front piece of the Great Bible of 1539 shows Henry sitting immediately below the glorified Christ, handing out the Word of God which then, as from his hands, descends from both ecclesiastical and secular authorities to the people at the bottom. It is an hierarchical order with Henry clearly taking the place of the Pope, but no Roman etching had quite exalted the Papacy in such fashion. In that front piece, Henry, like a giant on his throne, is more prominent than the Pope ever was in England. This fits in with Henry's need to enlarge almost everything about himself (including his codpiece in the famous Whitehall Mural and subsequent copies). There could be no opposition to Henry's rule over the English Church. Everyone had to be told - it had to be preached in every church - that he was the divinely appointed Head of the Church in England.

Where did the theory of the "Divine Right of Kings" come from? Is it truly scriptural? Is it truly Christian? It seems to me that these are important questions when thinking not only about the Anglican Church, but the the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the position of the Tsar.


The doctrine of the divine right of kings has a long history. It is impossible to focus on one date or event as a beginning. It is tempting to go back as far as the Emperor Constantine who called the Council of Nicaea. There seems to have been an understanding, taken from Holy Scripture, that Christians were expected to honour and obey the emperor or the ruling authority (1Peter 2: 13-17). The Lord Jesus Himself told Pilate that his authority had been given by God (John 19:11). However it is also clear from Scripture that no earthly ruler has absolute authority in all things. Whatever side of the Reformation fence people choose, Christ's own authority was passed to the Apostles and through them to the whole Church. The order in which authority was given by Christ is important. Although in Chapter 10 of St. Matthew's Gospel Jesus gives the authority to cast out demons and to heal to "his disciples" the "power of the keys" is given first to Peter (Chapter 16: 13-19). It is clear that teaching authority (including overseeing the local Church) was passed on from one to another, and it is also clear that this involved the "laying on of hands", so there was a physical expression of this. Not wanting to digress, the physical expression of what came to be called Apostolic Succession is important. The Word became flesh, and the full implications of the Incarnation for the life and organisation of the Church include the physicality of the transmission of the Gospel, from the use of the voice, to the actual active ministration whether that means baptising, healing or the laying on of hands in the sense of ordaining someone.

A search for the roots of the doctrine of the Divine right brings us to the Papal Bull, "Unam Sanctam" of Pope Boniface VIII. This was issued in 1302. It is considered, by some, to be an extreme statement of papal authority. The so-called doctrine of the "two swords" is especially connected with this document. Boniface insisted that the secular powers must submit to the spiritual authorities and that this submission went beyond matters spiritual. He seems to have taken much of his theory from the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas. We could go farther back and look at St. Augustine's "City of God" which speaks of the "Two Cities", the spiritual being the most important.

Whilst the Pope and the King shared authority, the king or emperor being anointed and therefore authenticated by the Bishop, there was some sort of balance. Admittedly there was always a tension between authority given from above and authority accepted, or even granted, from below. This was resolved to some extent by the idea that a Christian monarch would be considered genuine only in so far as he was virtuous. This point was made by Erasmus in his, "The Education of a Christian Prince" (1516). The implications of this were to be historically far-reaching and opened up a wider debate about just how far a king (or queen) could go in asserting royal authority. The post-Reformation development of the divine right theory led to an imbalance. The monarch had to claim rights over both secular and spiritual matters, and given the widely-recognised accent on royal virtue this could only cause further problems. It might be argued that the extremes of Louis XVI (aided by Bossuet) have nothing to do with the Reformation, but they are rooted in a dispute between king and Pope and so, by way of reaction, there was an imbalance that led to further tragedy.

My main point in this essay is to focus on the beginnings of the Church of England in relation to the divine right theory as developed and expressed by Henry VIII. To lay the groundwork of my argument I want to ask whether we can agree that the theory is actually Christian. Henry deliberately identified himself with King David but, cutting the first part of my argument short, the Davidic kingship was fulfilled in Christ, and the Lord did not give His authority to a secular ruler - He gave it to His Apostles and to His Church. From that Christians are right to assume that the Church can, and should, recognise the legitimacy of secular authority. Problems may have arisen when the Pope or bishops, by virtue of a coronation rite, ritually and publicly recognised one ruler over against another. Fallen human nature being what it is, mistakes were made, and Popes and bishops were often manipulated, threatened or even bought. As long as a given ruler had the Pope on his side, he might be able to wave his sceptre over others when it came to disputed territories. The political corruption inevitably led to other forms. A strong Pope or bishop might well resist the threats and bribery, but it took a strong will and stomach, and some paid for non-compliance with their lives (as in the case of Becket) or through enforced exile and even captivity.

Leaving aside the dangers of political and spiritual corruption - because of human weakness and not necessarily because of the doctrine - we still need to ask how far Henry's idea of divine right can be squared with Scripture. If Davidic kingship is fulfilled in Christ, and Christ did not appoint a secular ruler, how can Henry's claim of spiritual headship be justified? To appeal to the Old Testament in this matter is as wrong as appealing to Holy Scripture to justify revenge. The old order changed. The new order is different. There is a strong argument to be put against Henry's exaltation of his own spiritual authority, and therefore an argument to be put against the legitimacy of the Church of England. In the end we can ask by what right, exactly, did Henry usurp the position of the Pope? By right of interpretation? I think this is the answer, and it reveals the Protestant root of the problem. The interpretation of Holy Scripture and the presentation of this as Scriptural truth is precisely at the heart of the problem. Henry's seeking of theological opinion regarding the divorce and the influence of people like Tyndale on his own understanding of royal authority are part of what became a national tragedy which still has far-reaching implications. In Europe we associate the Reformation with "The Diet of Worms"; in England especially, with Henry VIII we are still struggling with a "can of worms".

One of the problems now being faced by some Anglo-Catholics who are tempted to look to Rome is how to deal with long-held opinions and beliefs regarding "Popery" and the necessity of the Reformation in England. We know from our own recent experience that political spin causes more problems than it is meant to solve. Propaganda is not a new invention. I often think about Shakespeare's "Richard III" which is partly based on Thomas More's treatment, in support of the Tudor claim. Recent research has brought more balance to the Richard III debate, and it now looks as though More's portrait was not many miles from the truth. Still, it is a piece of propaganda, and Henry himself was heavily involved in embellishing his own image and acheivements. As the Tudor period advances we go deeper into this kind of illusion and trickery, especially with Elizabeth's re-invention as the "Virgin Queen". We are constantly in search of the truth in all these things, but if we are committed to Christ we must be committed to Truth, whatever the cost. Newman is one of the heroes of the Truth. When we discover it, it really does mean "buying the field" and giving all that we have. Those who truly commit tmemselves to the Truth know what interior peace is. In spite of persecutions, apparent doubts, lost friends and a thousand difficulties, there is always a still centre, and it is like standing on the Rock of Peter's faith.


About Me

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I was born in Sheffield and brought up in Halifax, Yorkshire.I was trained at Ushaw College, attended Durham University and was ordained in 1975. I am a member of the Marian Movement of Priests and a Secular Carmelite(ocds). I am also a reader of "True Life in God"