Did Papal Visit Signal an End to the English Reformation?

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI walk through the gardens at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 16.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI walk through the gardens at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 16. (photo: CNS photo/pool via Reuters)

A week after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Scotland and England and its historical significance is still reverberating. 

The first state visit by a Pope to Britain was remarkable in many different ways, not least because of the graciousness and generosity shown by Queen Elizabeth II. 

Here was a Pope coming to the United Kingdom at the invitation of Her Majesty, the supreme governor of a church that violently split from Rome 500 years ago. Yet she gave him free rein to address her subjects as he saw fit – even beatify one who left her church to come over to Rome. 

For the first time, a ruling English monarch allowed the Successor of Peter to address her Parliament, attend a liturgy in the church of her Coronation, and even to pray with her archbishop at the tomb of the Royal Family’s patron saint. Her government also hosted unprecedented formal bilateral talks with Holy See officials.

It was a kind of surrender, a giving up of the Reformation and all it had stood for in terms of rebellion against the papacy. But this shouldn’t be seen as a defeat for the Crown; rather the opposite. It was as if the Queen had finally come to the realization that Rome was right after all, that the Catholic Church offers something which her subjects need – even “thirst for” in the words of Benedict – and which her own church and state leaders have been failing to provide. 

It was a remarkable turn of events and a highly significant moment in British history. Were they alive today, the Queen’s Tudor predecessors would have been flabbergasted and probably summoned her executioner. More, Fisher and Campion, on the other hand, would be rejoicing.

True, Catholic-Anglican relations have been amicable for 50 years since the two first opened an official dialogue. John Paul II also visited Elizabeth II in 1982, and the Queen has made two state visits to the Vatican. 

But those were times when the Anglican Communion was stronger and looked as if it would last as a united body. The encounters were between two distinct Christian entities, united in common Baptism, and which in some ways complimented the other.

Today that’s no longer quite the case. Some say that Anglicanism has run its course. The advent of the new Ordinariates and their expected long term popularity is a consequence of its decline (though leaving behind a distinct patrimony that still has much to offer the universal Church). Benedict XVI called the new structure for receiving large numbers of Anglicans into the Church a “prophetic gesture” during the visit, one that will restore “full ecclesial communion.”  

A corner has therefore surely been turned and a new chapter of Christianity in Britain, and possibly globally, may be beginning.

Elizabeth I was the English sovereign who gave momentum to the English Reformation (what Chesterton called the “shipwreck of Christendom”) that would last half a millennium. 

Elizabeth II may well go down in history as the monarch who – with the help of a Pope passionate about Christian unity – didn’t quite end it but has courageously helped draw it to a close.