Luther and the English church: 500 years of influence

Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach. Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock
Published October 12, 2017

(This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of the Anglican Journal.)

This October, Lutherans around the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of an act that has defined modern history in the Western world: Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, disputing the Catholic Church’s practice then of selling indulgences.

Many Anglicans in Canada will mark the occasion, too—both in solidarity with their full-communion partners in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and because their own church has been deeply influenced by Luther’s fateful break with the Catholic hierarchy.

But what exactly is the relationship between Luther’s rebellious act of conscience in Wittenberg in 1517 and the Act of Supremacy of 1534 announcing that the King, rather than the Pope, was head of the church in England? And how did the development of Lutheranism on the continent shape what would become the Anglican faith?

According to Torrance Kirby, professor of ecclesiastical history and former director of the Centre for Research on Religion at McGill University’s School of Religious Studies, it’s rather complicated.

“The English like to think of their church as entirely homegrown, and this is balderdash…right from the beginning, England was radically dependent on continental influences,” he said in an interview.

Many are familiar with the story of how Henry VIII’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church soured after the Pope refused to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry believed his childlessness was God’s judgment on him for having married the wife of his brother (Catherine was the widow of his older brother, Arthur), and wanted to replace Catherine with Anne Boleyn.

Henry’s differences with the Pope were practical rather than theological: he felt he needed to divorce Catherine, but the laws (and perhaps more importantly, politics) of the Catholic Church at that time made it impossible for him to do so. It is one of the paradoxes of history that the first European monarch to formally break from Rome remained in many ways—including in his love for the Latin mass—deeply Catholic throughout his life.

Indeed, though he is now famous for being the first head of the Anglican church, Henry’s immediate response to the Reformation was, according to British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History, “wholly negative.” Henry “threw himself wholeheartedly behind the church’s campaign against Luther” in the years following 1517, and in 1521, he had Luther’s books publicly burned.

The same year, he commissioned a team of English theologians to help him write a critique of Lutheran theology. Published as The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, it won Henry the title of “defender of the faith” from Pope Leo X.

Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Image engraved by J. Cochran and published in the Gallery of Portraits with Memoirs Encyclopedia, U.K./Georgios Kollidas/Shutterstock

But while Henry and Luther “never laid aside their mutual loathing” (as MacCulloch puts it), Lutheran theology was exerting influence across England, with theologians, priests and high-ranking nobles and government ministers (including Anne Boleyn and the powerful chancellor Thomas Cromwell) developing an interest in Protestant ideas.  The most important of these was a young priest and diplomat named Thomas Cranmer.

Cranmer had initially been skeptical of Luther’s teachings, but this changed when he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Nuremberg in 1532.  At the time, the city was a hotbed of Lutheranism. Cranmer befriended the prominent Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander during his stay, and within a short time became so convinced of the Reformation’s vision of Christianity that he married Osiander’s niece, Margarete, thereby breaking his vow of celibacy. (The rejection of clerical celibacy was an important tenet of Lutheranism.)

Later that year, when Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, he had to sneak Margarete back into England to avoid revealing the extent of his rejection of Catholic teaching.  Cranmer was a trusted confidante and close personal friend of the King, and despite Henry’s own misgivings about theological developments across the channel, as the English Reformation took legislative shape and the rupture between Rome and Canterbury became official, Cranmer was given significant latitude to implement reforms.

Over the next two decades, Cranmer worked hard to transform the English church by placing English translations of the Bible in every church, compiling the English prayer book and installing continental Protestant intellectuals like Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli in important teaching positions at Oxford and Cambridge.

As time went on, however, the English reformers came more and more under the influence of thinkers like Jean Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, who disagreed with Luther on some sacramental issues. While Luther believed Christ remained present in the Eucharist, the fathers of what would come to be known as the Reform churches believed there was no real presence and that the Eucharist was symbolic.

“By the 1540s, a lot of the English reformers are moving away from the Lutheran view of the world, and they are embracing more the Reformed, continental view,” says the Rev. Daniel Graves, editor of the Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society.

It was a shift cemented later in the century when Henry’s daughter Mary took the throne and returned England, briefly, to the Catholic faith.  Cranmer was executed, but many of the other English reformers took sanctuary in Zurich, an important centre of Reformed theology. When they returned under Queen Elizabeth I, they brought a rigorous, Reformed Calvinistic theology with them.

A complicated legacy

For at least the next 200 years, the Church of England continued to wrestle with the complicated heritage the Reformation had bequeathed it. As Graves notes, some felt the reforms hadn’t gone far enough (the church held on to forms of Catholic polity, like bishops) and others felt it had strayed too far from a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist.

What they didn’t have, says Kirby, was a solid identity of Anglicanism as a distinct form of Christian faith.  “The way we often use ‘Anglican’ today, as a theological distinctive, is really a 19th-century accretion,” he says. “To think of Anglicanism as a theological position—a distinctive theological position—is not something that Cranmer would have recognized.”

As Kirby sees it, it was really the growth of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the 19th century that gave birth to the notion that Anglicanism represented a “middle way” between Catholicism and Reformed thinking.

It is an irony of history, in Graves’ view, that it is precisely this resurgent interest in Catholicism that brought the Anglican church closer to its early Lutheran origins.


“The modern [Anglican] understanding of our sacramental life has become much closer to the Lutheran view,” he says. “I think it is, interestingly enough, that notion of Catholicity that moves [the Anglican church] into the ecumenical movement…that allows us to get into conversation and communion arrangements with the Lutherans.”




  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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