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Biographical Insights into the Evolution of Theology

Theologians need to be aware of literature in many languages in the broadest possible sense. Biographies, in particular, can be instructive. Sometimes reading an individual’s life can tell you a great deal about the period in which the subject lived and worked, what was happening in politics, and what the key debates in theology and ecclesiology were at the time.

Consider, for example, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. I cite from the sources I am most familiar with as an Irish Anglican, but the universal can be seen in the particular. The Articles aimed to affirm the Church of England’s position amid the controversies of the Reformation era in the 16th century. The Thirty-Nine Articles were the last in a series whose tone and tenor reflected the varying fortunes of various dominant groups at different stages and the views of particular monarchs. In the earlier stages, there were Ten Articles (1536), the “Bishops’ Book” (1537), the Six Articles (1539), the “King’s Book,” and the Forty-Two Articles (1553). These Forty-Two Articles were the prototypes of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which achieved their final form in 1563 and were promulgated in 1571. To put all these in perspective, one needs to remember the reigns of particular monarchs. Their biographies provide insight.

Henry VIII (1509-47) received the title Defensor Fidei (Defender of the Faith) from the Pope for his arguments against the German Reformer Luther. This title has been held ever since by British monarchs, who have, with the exception of Mary and James II, all been Protestants. Henry broke with the Pope over his unsuccessful attempt to have his marriage with Catherine of Aragon annulled and had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England, “so far as the law of Christ allows.” That title was later modified to Supreme Governor, another position the monarch still holds in England, though not in any part of Ireland, or Wales, or Scotland, whose Anglican churches are independent although in full communion with the Church of England. The Church of Ireland was disestablished and disendowed under the Irish Church Act of 1869.

Edward VI (1547-53) was a boy king, with the country being ruled by regents (successively the Earls of Somerset and Northumberland). He was a passionate Protestant, as were those who were ruling in his name, and under him, an Order for Communion was inserted in the Mass (1548), including features such as the Comfortable Words and the Prayer of Humble Access, which were to be incorporated into the various editions of the Book of Common Prayer. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549 and, much later, influenced prayer books in some parts of the Anglican Communion. It was the form introduced into Ireland on Easter Day 1551 at a service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (it was the first book ever printed in Ireland). The second (revised) prayer book of 1552 was never authorized in Ireland because of the death of Edward VI, although it was used unlawfully by the controversial Bishop Bale. Only five bishops in Ireland were prepared to use the prayer book, and the Archbishop of Armagh, George Dowdall, fled from his diocese, saying he “would never be a bishop where the holy Mass was abolished.”

Mary (1553-58) was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and married King Philip of Spain, whose Great Armada, many years later (1588), was to be defeated by the navy of Queen Elizabeth. She was a passionate Roman Catholic and did her best, working through the papal legate Cardinal Pole (an Englishman) to reconcile the nation to the traditional faith — an enterprise in which she had much support from both clergy and people. Many of the reform-minded clergy fled to the continent and remained in exile there until Mary died. Under her, hundreds of Protestants were burnt at the stake, the best-known being Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer.

Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was the daughter of Anne Boleyn (whom Henry VIII had executed when she did not bear him a son), and was a cautious and pragmatic, though convinced, Protestant. Highly intelligent and immensely learned, she could hold her own in any company. Her aim was to have as comprehensive a Protestant Church as possible. She was very strongly opposed to those (mainly returned exiles) who wanted to move the Church of England strongly in a Calvinist direction, and there were those who wished to abandon episcopacy and to modify or even abolish the Book of Common Prayer.

In the event, the prayer book of 1559 was almost entirely that of 1552 (Cranmer’s second book) but with some significant alterations in the direction of a fuller eucharistic theology. The Thirty-Nine Articles were approved by Convocation (the ecclesiastical part of Parliament) as well as by the Lords and Commons and became law in 1571. The terms of assent were, three centuries later, to be modified to imply a general assent only (in 1865), and in the Church of England, more recently became part of an affirmation of faith in which they have been set in a wider context.

Religious divisions were increased by the extraordinary misjudgment of Pope Pius V in excommunicating Queen Elizabeth and declaring her subjects released from obedience to her. This action turned every Roman Catholic in England into a potential traitor. It led to a vigorous persecution of members of that faith who, in their own minds, were simply following that of their forebears. Many people, especially priests, were executed, some by the frightful punishment of being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

James I reigned from 1603 to 1625. Having experienced Presbyterian rule in Scotland, he reacted with horror to the idea of making the Church of England anything like that. He insisted on retaining episcopacy, saying, “No bishop, no king!” There was a modestly revised edition of the prayer book in 1604. It was under him that the so-called Authorized Version of the Bible was produced in 1611. His religious outlook was that of a moderate episcopal Calvinism that used the prayer book.

Charles I reigned from 1625 to 1649, when he was executed following a trumped-up trial, having lost the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell introduced a Republican form of government that lasted until 1660. Charles was a passionate Anglican, and under him, his agents Archbishop Laud of Canterbury in England and the Lord Deputy, Wentworth, Earl of Strafford in Ireland, sought to strengthen the position of the church and to enforce higher standards of Anglican worship.

The Thirty-Nine Articles were introduced to the Church of Ireland in 1634, the church previously had an immensely long set of 104 Articles produced in 1615, which may have been drawn up by James Ussher, later Archbishop of Armagh, which were ultra-Calvinist in tendency. Since even the persuasive force of John Bramhall (who became Bishop of Derry and later Archbishop of Armagh at the time of the Restoration) was insufficient to get agreement to drop the 104 Articles, the remarkable solution was to accept the Thirty-Nine and to make no further mention of the 104, and the latter ultimately disappeared from history. Church of England and Church of Ireland worship and church order were entirely removed during what was called the Commonwealth — the Republican form of government by Cromwell, and those who tried to maintain their Anglican ways were subject to persecution, the clergy who refused to conform to Cromwell’s system being driven out of office.

However, in 1660 when Charles II, the son of Charles I, returned from exile, the Anglican religion was restored along with the other aspects of national life that had been abolished under Cromwell. A new and for several centuries largely definitive form of the prayer book came out in 1662. It was adopted by the Church of Ireland, which made no changes in it until 1878, when there was a revision of the prayer book following disestablishment, and this was followed by further changes in the prayer book of 1926, which, with some modifications up to the year 1990, lasted until it was replaced by the current prayer book of 2004 containing both traditional and modern forms of worship.

The Articles have been unchanged since 1571. However, the kind of assent given to them has not been (since 1865) to their “literal and grammatical” sense but takes the form of a general agreement. This does not mean that they can simply be disregarded but that they can be understood in their historical and theological context. Nearly all the standard books on the Articles are, regrettably, long out of print.

The theological debates surrounding the formulation of the Thirty-Nine Articles exemplify how theology is conducted within a specific personal, historical, and cultural context. Monarchs’ theological stances and political agendas influenced the theological developments of their reigns, ranging from Henry VIII’s defense of Catholic orthodoxy against Lutheranism to Elizabeth I’s cautious promotion of moderate Protestantism. The Articles represent a theological synthesis of various Protestant perspectives, reflecting the theological diversity within Anglicanism. Clearly, the Articles must be placed and understood within their historical context, but there is much that is still highly relevant: for example, the definition of sacraments as efficacia signa gratiae — efficacious signs of grace, with the emphasis upon the efficacious.

This is an account with enormous gaps, but journeying through the lives of historical figures like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Charles I unveils the intricate connections between theology, politics, and personal conviction. By exploring their biographies, we gain profound insights into the evolution of theological thought, understanding the context in which doctrines such as the Thirty-Nine Articles emerged and continue to shape Anglican discourse. Invaluable gems of wisdom are woven into the fabric of personal histories. Such gems cannot be discerned from any source other than biographies.

Christopher West is an Irish Anglican priest and postgraduate student. His research focuses on decoding the implicit theology within contemporary liturgical practices.

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