In this essay, I am going to explore some of the causes which led to the opening of a “spiritual vacuum” in Britain, starting with the rending the of Christendom under the Henry VIII during the 16th century, and the innumerable ramifications that continue to effect the British national consciousness in the present day.
But instead, these would-be-reformers attacked and re-wrote doctrine, and as such set themselves up in opposition to the Church Magisterium. It was a declaration of war against the unity of Christendom. It was challenging the very bedrock of their civilization. Of course it was bound to have political repercussions, and the generators of the revolt expected no less. What they did not expect was that their fiery, often sincere convictions would open the door to spiritual luke-warmness across Europe and the world through the political domino effect. Nowhere was this more obvious than in England under Henry VIII ( reign: 1509 – 1547).
Under Edward VI (reign: 1547-1553), Henry’s surviving son who was dubbed by the Protestant faction “the English Josiah”, a doctrinal shift took place in favor of a low-church Protestantism, complete with a full-scale “stripping of the altars” and the rejection of such things as Transubstantiation, the Communion of Saints, Marian Devotion, Priestly Celibacy, etc. At least it can be said that these changes generated by the young Edward, his uncles the Seymour brothers, and Archbishop Thomas Cramner were in some part based on genuine conviction. But even through these acts of removing the visible aspects of religious ceremony so distinctly Catholic, they were setting the stage for secular ceremony to take its place for the Protestant populace.
Under Queen Mary I (reign: 1553 -1558), the Catholic daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragorn, an effort was made to bring England back into the fold of the Catholic Faith and heal the schism of her father and reverse the heresy of her brother. But in a land of split allegiances, her burning of heretics, although not unusual considering the brutality of the era, attracted negative press. This was compounded by her marriage to King Philip of Spain, who seemed more interested in using England to bolster his own continental ambitions as opposed to being a proper support for his wife. In the end, Mary died broken and betrayed, her well-intentioned plans having back-fired miserably.
Next came Elizabeth I (reign: 1558-1603), the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Imprisoned by her sister Mary for suspected plotting, she was ambitious, clever, shrewd, and determined to reign and rule a queen. She was also unmarried and unattached to anything that might check her power. Elizabeth had lied to her dying sister and promised to uphold the Catholic Church, but upon ascending the throne quickly reneged and claimed the title Head of the Church in England. Although she said she would not “look into the windows of men’s souls”, this was nothing more than a ploy to avoid to the bad publicity that haunted Mary.
The result was the launch of the Spanish Armada, which ended in total disaster for the Spanish. This elicited a sigh of relief from almost all of the English, Protestant and Catholic alike, who still cared enough about their country and culture not to want any “Spaniels” ruling the roost. The Black Legend began to be cultivated, painting anything Papist as perverted and superstitious, the opposite of everything Englishmen wanted to be. The propaganda seeped in thoroughly, and after the death of Elizabeth, new divides took full shape within the Anglican Church, between those who were closer to Catholic practice and those who were further afield.
Under James I (reign: 1603-1625), the first Stuart king to rule England and Scotland, factions such as the Puritans and Separatists either wanted to purge or separate the Anglican Church because, in their opinion, it was still far too Papist. They, too, faced persecution, convincing many of them to leave the country and found settlements in the New World. But they needn’t have worried about their king being a Catholic-lover. The Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and his fellow disillusioned Catholics certainly didn’t improve his opinion of them, and this attempt to blow up the king and parliament assured that James would continue the persecution begun under Elizabeth, even though his own mother had been the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, from whom he had been taken as a baby by the Protestant Lords in Scotland.
But it was in the reign of James’s son, Charles I (reign: 1625-1649), that the factions within the Anglican Church exploded in full light. Charles, although still anti-Catholic, was much more sympathetic to a high-church form of worship, and tried to force it on low-church sympathizers in Scotland and England. This was one of the main triggers of the English Civil War, a bloody contest that ultimately resulted in the overthrow and execution of the king and a Puritanical government that devolved into a police state bent on enforcing personal morality. It was also during this time that Oliver Cromwell led his army into Ireland and, fueling them with exaggerated stories of atrocities committed against Protestant settlers by Irish rebels, wiped out or sold off half of the very Catholic population.
When the monarchy was finally restored under King Charles II (reign: 1660-1685), the morality and religiosity of the court and country, which had been brutally enforced under Cromwell, collapsed in a heap. It was as if after breaking off with the rest of Christendom, the people of England had a hard time knowing whether to be religious fanatics or amoral derelicts, or perhaps a little of both! While some good Protestant clergymen certainly try their best to make their influence felt positively, there was little real religious authority left to lead the flock. Everything was an experiment, and every time something went a-foul, a new one was struck up lickety-split. But one thing could be counted on: if something really awful happened, the Boogie-men Catholics could be blamed. Such was the case with the great fire of London, unleashing a new wave of hatred against the small body of Catholic recusants left.
The soon-to-be-crowned William III (reign: 1609-1702), a Dutch Calvinist who was ironically allied with the Papal States against France at the time, agreed to take up the offer in order to secure an English alliance. He proceeded with a letter of Papal support and an army stacked with Catholic mercenaries, while masses were said for him back at the Spanish Embassy in The Netherlands. But of course the Whig historians preferred to overlook those minor details, and instead focused on his successful invasion and overthrow of his father-in-law as a purely Protestant triumph.
During the subsequent reigns of Queen Anne (reign: 1702-1707), the four Hanoverian King Georges (reigns: 1707-1830), and William IV (reign: 1830-1837), religious life in Britain took a downward spiral. Everyone was sick of religious infighting, and just threw up their hands with almost all the experiments except a luke-warm, state-run Anglicanism that was usually more a matter of social status than religious belief. Certainly, there were still those devout Anglicans who did take their religion seriously, including King George III (reign: 1760-1820), but they seemed to be the exception instead of the rule. Indeed, the spiritual vacuum was opening ever wider, creating an apathetic society that gradually became more dependent on nationalism for its identity.
In response to the obvious, more splinter-off groups sprung up in the 18th century in order to rekindle the flame of religious fervor, including the Methodist movement of John Wesley who made all the world his parish. At the same time, the laxity in views on religion that came with the Enlightenment also enabled a broadening of religious toleration, which paved the way for Catholic Emancipation Acts to be passed through Parliament. This provided those with Catholic sympathies freedom of expression, and in spite of continued anti-Catholicism among the population, gave rise to the Oxford Movement in the 19thcentury. But with the widening of Empire under Queen Victoria (reign: 1837-1901) came the full blossoming of that jingoism that equated religion with the state. As the Sea Dogs had found it convenient to commit crimes in the name of Queen and Country, so did many war-mongering imperialists.
Recently, a new form of nationalism has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of cynicism and disillusionment with church and state, taking on attributes that tap into some deeper spiritual longing. British nationalism is now old hat and considered repugnant, but are we not seeing a rise in Celtic nationalism, frequently accompanied by the same negative qualities of self-proclaimed superiority and isolationism? It also thrives on making a pseudo-religious cult out of a secular state, with the ideal of localized independence its dogmatic creed and a supposed instant fix for the problems of daily life. For many, these old, repackaged ideologies appear to be a spiritual oasis in the midst of the dryness that has settled over the whole idea of Britain like a desert storm.
Such is the tragedy that will continue to repeat itself if the British people do not rediscover the importance of their own religious roots and reach for some transcendent reality that probes the depths of desire and understanding. Paradoxically, if they wish to save their country that they once worshiped and that sorely let them down, they must cease to make it the center of their universe. They must look to God as their top priority, and all other elements will fall into their rightful places, avoiding love-hate extremes. One must not worship one’s nation, nor make it their religion. They must not put her on so high a pedestal that she will topple and fall. We must expect imperfections, and learn to deal with them in love and true patriotism, through the grace of God who will never fall short of perfection.