Two Branches of Western Christendom

We can characterize these two branches of Christianity by contrasts. In general, the Catholic Church was conservative and the Protestant progressive. The Catholic Church was hierarchical and the Protestant more democratic and spiritual, with direct access to the Bible, the word of God, without any mediators. One achieved by ascetic and monastic models what the other achieved by a secular social morality. The Catholic Church incorporated oral tradition and extra-doctrinal teaching; Protestantism insisted upon the gospel alone. The Protestant reformers also rejected the lavish ceremonial trappings of the Catholic Church, all the splendid displays of pomp and wealth that attended Catholic rituals and worship, and, especially, the theatricality of papal processions. The legacy of the pagan classical triumphal processions and emperor worship that the church hierarchy had appropriated as early as the reign of Constantine was repudiated in favor of a more simple worship.

Protestantism spread quickly, which was perhaps as indicative of the widespread dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church as of the appeal of the new Christianity. From Germany it spread to northern and eastern Europe and had reached England, Scotland, and then the Americas by the seventeenth century. The invention of printing aided the dissemination of Protestant teaching, and it also made more widely available the Greek Bible so that worshippers could approach the text to form their own spiritual relationship with God, separate from the church hierarchy. Within the movement, several separate traditions formed, like the Calvinist, Lutheran, and the Anglican, which has been called a reformed Catholic rather than a Protestant church.

The Reformation in England was at first staunchly repudiated by King Henry VIII, who defended the papacy. Yet, he defied the authority of the papacy when Pope Clement VII refused (for political reasons more than theological) to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Without papal sanction, Henry VIII was powerless to remarry. His dispute led to the creation of the Anglican (from the Latin, Anglia, "England") Church (1531) with the King at its head. Not long after (1540), Henry exercised his power as the "head of the Church of England" to dissolve the monasteries. He confiscated the lands and wealth of centuries—manuscripts, silver, gold, precious vestments, relics, and gems—and distributed much of it among the nobility to ensure their support.

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