Henry VIII’s quest for power over the church continued, however, with the gradual dissolution of the monasteries between 1535 and 1540, with all their wealth being surrendered to the crown. Paradoxically, through all of this Henry himself remained a convinced Catholic, suspicious of the Reformation that had by now gained hold of much of northern Europe and opposed to its principles.
Be that as it may, the social and political revolution which he had instituted could only give encouragement to those who yearned for a deeper change. Both to keep peace within his own realm and to ensure that he retained allies on the European continent, Henry VIII was forced to come to terms with the Reformation. This led in 1536 to the promulgation of the Ten Articles of Religion. While appearing on the surface to accept some of the teachings of Lutheranism, they also contradicted them at some points, upholding traditional Catholic teachings and practices such as auricular confession, prayer for the dead and transubstantiation. A.G. Dickens comments that they “exemplify our English talent for concocting ambiguous and flexible documents”.
Behind the scenes, however, more substantial changes were beginning to take place, largely under the direction of the man whom Stephen Neill describes as having “done more than any other one man to make the Church of England what it is today”. That man was Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Of him Neill further observes,
Those who have read Cranmer’s writings are unlikely to doubt the splendid integrity of his mind and character—and all this combined with such meekness that it was said of him, “If you do my Lord of Canterbury an injury, you will make him your friend for life.”
Cranmer had long been influenced by Lutheran teachings. As early as 1525 he had begun praying that the pope’s influence should be removed from England. He was also a man who thought deeply about every issue he gave his mind to, and laboured long before he came to a conclusion. In contrast to Martin Luther and his sudden conversion to new beliefs, in Thomas Cranmer we can trace a gradual growth in conviction. Above all, he was a man steeped in the knowledge of Scripture, indeed truly in love with the Bible and all that it taught, and fully convinced of its power to transform human lives.
In 1538 the government decreed that every parish church should display an English translation of the Bible for public reading. That scarcely a dozen years before Bibles had been burned by church officials in the public squares is a measure of the change that had begun to take hold in England. The translation chosen was largely the work of William Tyndale, completed in the home of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1524. Tyndale himself had been strangled and his body burned for his work in 1536 (the same year in which John Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion). Tyndale’s work was revised and supplemented by Miles Coverdale, who had completed his own translation of the Bible from the Latin in 1535. Much of this version survives today in the Psalms, Epistles and Gospels of our Prayer Book. Five years later, in 1543, it was required that in every parish a chapter of the Bible be read in English, morning and evening.
It can be seen that the going was slow and there was much opposition, both passive and active, especially from among the bishops and clergy. However, the thirst for the Bible among the common people could not now be quenched. A.G. Dickens illustrates this from the writings of Thomas Malden:
… divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford … brought the New Testament of Jesus Christ, and on Sundays did sit reading in [the] lower end of the church, and many would flock about them to hear their reading. [Malden’s father did not approve of his son engaging in this practice. However Malden continues,] … I saw I could not be in rest. Then, thought I, I will learn to read English, and then I will have the New Testament and read thereon myself… The May-tide following, I and my father’s prentice … laid our money together and bought the New Testament in English, and hid it in our bed straw and so exercised it at convenient times.
The following year, 1544, saw the introduction of the first service in English: the Litany—that long responsive form of prayer still to be found in our Prayer Book. Here was Cranmer’s first opportunity to introduce worship that the common people could understand and in which they could participate, and in a majestic, eloquent prose that has never been surpassed.
Throughout this long period, Cranmer’s slow conversion to Protestant convictions continued, so that by 1546 he could fully embrace the doctrine of justification by faith alone and a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. On 28 January 1547 King Henry VIII breathed his last. The stage was now set for further and far-reaching change.