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The Church of England: Britain's State Church

The Road to Privilge: A Short History of the Church of England

"I accept Your Majesty as the sole source of ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal power."
The oath of loyalty sworn by Church of England bishops

A Church of England (of the Christian tradition) is said to have already existed throughout the various small kingdoms of England when St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in England in 596 CE on his mission, at the behest of Pope Gregory, to evangelise the English. This newly founded Catholic Church became officially regarded as the established church in England when in 973 the then Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Dunstan, anointed the first king of all-England, Edgar I, in the first state coronation ceremony.

Subsequently, even after the Norman conquest in 1066, the English Catholic Church consolidated its position within the English state and increased its influence in state affairs. The Archbishops and other senior Church figures joined the assorted noblemen in the prototype Parliaments of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. In addition to this, many Bishops were wealthy land-owning aristocrats, whilst the parishes of the Church acted as units of early local administration for the wider English aristocracy in feudal times.

King Henry VIII wrested control of the Church from the papacy because of the frequent conflicts between catholic church and state during the early sixteenth century. This resulted in the incorporation of the Church of England under the Act of Supremacy 1534. This "reformed" Church was the origin of the Church of England that most people in Britain know today and consider to be loosely within the Protestant tradition.

Henry installed himself as the figurehead of this new Church, as opposed to the Pope who had previously had that role, and gave himself the title of "Supreme Head of the Church." This style has been bestowed upon each of his successors to this day, though Elizabeth I later modified it to "Supreme Governor".

Consequently, subsequent monarchs have had to swear that they will "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion as established by law". In addition the Act of Settlement 1701 stipulated that the monarch must be a communicant of the Church of England and not marry a Catholic (although any other denomination or faith is technically permissible).

By virtue of the office of "Supreme Governor" monarchs have possessed some powers of patronage in relation to the appointment of senior figures within the Church. However, these appointments are now made by the Prime Minister under the Royal prerogative, since 1977 from a short list drawn up by the Church. Also by virtue of the office, the monarchs have claimed that they rule "by Divine Permission"! However, the monarch is merely a titular figurehead of the Church itself.

The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to be the ecclesiastical head of the Church and as such is accredited as being the most senior non-"Royal" in the nation's affairs. But it should be mentioned that only a few years prior to his and therefore the nation's official conversion to the "Protestant Reformed Religion", Henry VIII in fact received the title of "Defender of the Faith" from the papal authorities in Rome for his rigorous defence of "the one true faith" of the then established catholic Church of England against those that sought to import the Protestantism of the Northern European Reformation into England at the time.


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