The Henrician Act of Supremacy and Other Matters

On this day in 1534 Parliament passed the first Act of Supremacy. The Act recognized Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England and required an oath of loyalty from his subjects regarding the legality of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. My ancestors were no more given to martyrdom than I am, but some were just as obstinate as their descendant and preferred to stick to their principles rather than obey the king’s will. Over the next few decades they paid the price, which leaves me with a slight conundrum. Do I forget them and their sacrifice, taking the lofty view that we understand things differently now? Or do I allow them to prick my conscience and ask myself what it was they thought they were defending, and why they considered it so important? As often happens, we end up with a question of ecclesiology when we thought we were merely considering politics.

The question of ecclesiology (how we understand the Church) was given fresh emphasis yesterday when Pope Francis announced a commitment to seeking a resolution of the differences between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Excellent, one would say — except that commentators have homed in on two points that are going to cause some confusion and much theological heart-searching. Pope Francis reaffirmed the othodox Catholic view that it is impossible for a woman to be ordained to priest’s orders, then later talked about working towards a shared Catholic/Lutheran Eucharist. As some Lutheran Churches permit the ordination of women, there is clearly a major difference in the understanding of Holy Orders which will inevitably affect our understanding of other sacraments, including the Eucharist.

At this stage, it is difficult to see how such differences can be resolved; and if they are resolved, what the implications would be for the Catholic Church (I am not qualified to ask what the implications would be for the Lutheran Church). Already we have received a trickle of questions from ‘confused Catholics’ of various kinds. One thing I think we can assert with some certainty is that the resolution of Catholic/Lutheran differences will take a long time. It will not be ‘top priority’ for many people; and though it may not be so evident in Rome, it is not possible to pursue a policy of liberalism (if it is fair to call it that) in one area while demanding strict conservatism in another without some unintended consequences. Maybe the all-male panellists of tomorrow’s Core Values Conference in Rome will provide us with some indications of how the circle can be squared? Whatever happens, much prayer, deep learning and serious thought is required.

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6 thoughts on “The Henrician Act of Supremacy and Other Matters”

  1. Ecumenical progress has been slow but positive. Pope Francis has more desire than any previous pontiff to recognise the worth of bringing together the disparate branches of Christianity. He recognises that there is much more in common to bring about greater unity than there is dispute. However the insistence on reserving the priesthood and espiscopy to heterosexual males is something that the Vatican must review. A significant number of Catholic priests are homosexual, particularly in Europe and North America. They have to hide their inclination even though the Lord made them as they are.
    Equally the role of women in other Churches recognises the fact that females are also God’s children. Why should anyone be barred from the priesthood if they have the calling from God. Are we not equal before Him? He made and loves all of us. All He asks is that we love Him and our neighbour.

    • I don’t think the Pope would necessarily agree with you, I’m afraid; and I’m very sure many heads of Dicasteries wouldn’t! I admire your enthusiasm and zeal, but I don’t think we can reduce the questions to anything less than they are. It is easy to dismiss theology as being unnecessarily complex, but it is truth we seek when we do theology; and we are going to have to do a lot of theology to deal with these questions.

  2. I wonder if the initiative with the Lutheran Church will be any easier than the work going on between Catholic and Anglicans?

    The decision by Anglicans to Ordain Women as Priests and Bishops gives exactly the same effect as the Lutherans have – and for the Church of England, this is a relatively new thing within discussions that have been going on for a very long time.

    I don’t anticipate an agreement that brings full communion, but perhaps one that allows us to work mutually for all of God’s people. I would be nice to have full communion, but it mustn’t get in the way of the good work that goes on between different denominations and even interfaith locally.

    I pray for unit, not with an expectation that those prayers will be answered immediately, but with a hope and joy in what we already have, and what the Holy Spirit might bring in the future. Thanks be to God.

    • Thank you: this is a deep and complex question I think I had better reserve for a fuller post. Personally, I am glad that relations between our Churches are friendlier, but I know that it is only in the Catholic Church that I can find the fullness of faith I seek — and it isn’t an easy option! Let us continue to work and pray together.

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