A is for Anglican: Anglican History

by Rene Jamieson

Welcome to a new section of the St. John’s web site. This is the place to find answers to your questions about Anglicanism in all its diversity. Send your questions to St. John’s via the Contact Us link. Because there are no specific questions requiring answers at this point, this first ‘issue’ will provide some background about the history of the Anglican Church.

While the Church of England, the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, officially dates from 1534 when the English parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making Henry VIII the Supreme head of the Church in England, the Church in England has existed since Roman times. Apart from the charming (and no doubt fallacious) legend that has Joseph of Arimathea landing at Glastonbury in the year dot, we know that there have definitely been Christians in what is now the UK since the second century CE.

While the Church of England, the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, officially dates from 1534, the Church in England has existed since Roman times.

The first British martyr, Alban, is variously suggested to have been martyred anywhere between the early years of the third century to sometime in the early years of the fourth century. The prevailing theory among scholars nowadays is that Alban was martyred in 209 during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus.

The story goes that Alban was a Roman soldier who gave shelter to a Christian priest who was being sought by the authorities. One version of the legend of Alban has the priest spending two days with Alban before his whereabouts became known. In that time, the two men talked about Christianity and the upshot was that Alban renounced his pagan ways and was baptized by his guest. By this time, the priest’s hiding place had been discovered and Alban exchanged clothes with the priest and urged him to flee while he (Alban) held off  the searchers. The priest headed out the back door just as the soldiers burst in through the front door. Seeing Alban dressed in ecclesiastical gear, the soldiers arrested him. He was tried and sentenced to death, steadfastly refusing to abandon his faith. In another version of the story, the soldiers slaughtered Alban on the spot and he became an instant martyr.

In 598, St. Augustine arrived in Kent with a group of Benedictine monks, charged by Pope Gregory I to spread the gospel among the Saxons. The story goes that Gregory had seen Anglo-Saxon slaves for sale in the Roman slave market and was struck by their blond, blue-eyed appearance. He asked who they were and was told that they were Angles, to which he gave the now famous replay, “Non Angli, sed angeli.” (“Not Angles but Angels.”). Augustine’s job was made a little easier because Queen Bertha, wife of  the Saxon king Ethelbert was the daughter of King Charibert of Paris and she was already a Christian. Augustine is generally regarded as the founder of the Christian church in the British Isles.

Until 1534, England was solidly Roman Catholic in its Christian practice, until the reign of Henry VIII. We’ll save that story for another edition of A is for Anglican.