Supreme Governor of the Church of England

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The Supreme Governor of the Church of England is a title held by the British Monarchs that signifies their titular leadership over the Church of England.

The monarch's authority and prerogative of this office is of little practical relevance today, and is mostly observed in a symbolic capacity. The Supreme Governor's prerogative to appoint high-ranking members of the church remains in the hands of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who makes the appointments based on church leaders' advice. The monarch still performs the formal ratification.

The title was invented for Elizabeth I. Her father, Henry VIII, was responsible for the English church breaking away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church after the Pope excommunicated Henry in 1533 over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. By 1536, Henry had broken with Rome, seized the church's assets in England and declared the Church of England as the established church with himself as its head. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 confirmed the King's status as having supremacy over the church and required the nobility to swear an oath recognising Henry's supremacy. Henry's daughter, Queen Mary I, attempted to restore the English Church's allegiance to the Pope and repealed the Act of Supremacy in 1555. Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 and, the next year, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy of 1559 that restored the original act. However, to placate critics, the Oath of Supremacy nobles were required to swear gave the monarch's title as Supreme Governor of the church rather than Supreme Head, which had been her father's title, as Supreme Governor sounded less powerful as it implied she was acting as a proxy rather than as head in her own right. (Speaking loosely, many people still today refer to the Queen as the "Head of the Church", but the Church itself rejects this, as the Bible gives this title to Jesus.)

Defender of the Faith has been part of the British monarch's title since Henry VIII was originally granted it by Pope Leo X in 1521 in recognition, ironically enough, of Henry's role in opposing the Protestant Reformation. The pope withdrew the title, but it was later reconferred by Parliament in the reign of Edward VI

The Sovereign of the United Kingdom is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This is not an ecclesiastical office, but rather a reflection of the assertion of authority over the temporality of the Church by King Henry VIII.

It is to be distinguished from the mere title of Defender of the Faith.

This is most clearly seen in the Preface to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1562 is a royal declaration. It states that:

"Being by God's Ordinance, according to Our just Title, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church, within these Our Dominions, We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and Our own religious zeal, to conserve and maintain the Church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace ... We have therefore, upon mature Deliberation, and with the Advice of so many of Our Bishops as might conveniently be called together, thought fit to make this Declaration following ... That We are Supreme Governor of the Church of England ... "

Article 37 (of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion) makes this claim to royal supremacy more explicit:

"The King's majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other of his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction ... We give not to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word, or of the Sacraments ... but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all Godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their change by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers ... The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England."

See also: separation of church and state

List of Supreme Governors of the Church of England

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