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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