The Anglican Communion is an international association of churches consisting of the Church of England and of national and regional Anglican churches in full communion with it. The status of full communion means, ideally, that there is mutual agreement on essential doctrines and that full participation in the sacramental life of each church is available to all communicant Anglicans.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England, has a precedence of honour over the other archbishops of the Anglican Communion. He is recognized as primus inter pares, or first among equals. The archbishop does not exercise direct authority in the provinces outside England, but instead acts as a focus of unity.
The Anglican Communion considers itself to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and to be both Catholic and Reformed. For some adherents it represents a non-papal Catholicism, for others a form of Protestantism though without a dominant guiding figure such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli or Wesley. For others, their self-identity represents some combination of the two. The communion encompasses a wide spectrum of belief and practice including evangelical, liberal, and Catholic.
With a membership currently estimated at around 80 million members worldwide, the Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some of these churches are known as Anglican, such as the Anglican Church of Canada, due to their historical link to England (Ecclesia Anglicana means "English Church"). Some, for example the Church of Ireland, the Scottish and American Episcopal churches, and some other associated churches have a separate name. Each church has its own doctrine and liturgy, based in most cases on that of the Church of England; and each church has its own legislative process and overall episcopal polity, under the leadership of a local primate.
Ecclesiology, polity and ethos
The Anglican Communion has no official legal existence nor any governing structure which might exercise authority over the member churches. There is an Anglican Communion Office in London, under the aegis of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it only serves in a supporting and organisational role. The Communion is held together by a shared history, expressed in its ecclesiology, polity and ethos and also by participation in international consultative bodies.
Three elements have been important in holding the Communion together: first, the shared ecclesial structure of the component churches, manifested in an episcopal polity maintained through the apostolic succession of bishops and synodical government; second, the principle of belief expressed in worship, investing importance in approved prayer books and their rubrics; and third, the historical documents and the writings of early Anglican divines that have influenced the ethos of the Communion.
Originally, the Church of England was self-contained and relied for its unity and identity on its own history, its traditional legal and episcopal structure and its status as an established church of the state. As such Anglicanism was, from the outset, a movement with an explicitly episcopal polity, a characteristic which has been vital in maintaining the unity of the Communion by conveying the episcopate's role in manifesting visible catholicity and ecumenism.
Early in its development, Anglicanism developed a vernacular prayer book, called the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike other traditions, Anglicanism has never been governed by a magisterium nor by appeal to one founding theologian, nor by an extra-credal summary of doctrine (such as the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church). Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and its offshoots as a guide to Anglican theology and practice. This had the effect of inculcating the principle of Lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin loosely translated as "the law of praying [is] the law of believing") as the foundation of Anglican identity and confession.
Protracted conflict through the seventeenth century with more radical Protestants on the one hand and Roman Catholics who still recognised the primacy of the Pope on the other, resulted in an association of churches that were both deliberately vague about doctrinal principles, yet bold in developing parameters of acceptable deviation. These parameters were most clearly articulated in the various rubrics of the successive prayer books, as well as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. These Articles have historically shaped and continue to direct the ethos of the Communion, an ethos reinforced by their interpretation and expansion by such influential early theologians as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, John Cosin, and others.
With the expansion of the British Empire, and hence the growth of Anglicanism outside Great Britain and Ireland, the Communion sought to establish new vehicles of unity. The first major expression of this were the Lambeth Conferences of the communion's bishops, first convened by Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley in 1869. From the beginning, these were not intended to displace the autonomy of the emerging provinces of the Communion, but to "discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action."
Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral
One of the enduringly influential early resolutions of the conference was the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888. Its intent was to provide the basis for discussions of reunion with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but it had the ancillary effect of establishing parameters of Anglican identity. It establishes four principles with these words:
- That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made towards Home Reunion:
- (a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
- (b) The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
- (c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself - Baptism and the Supper of the Lord - ministered with unfailing use of Christ's Words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
- (d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.
Instruments of communion
As mentioned above, the Anglican Communion has no international juridical organisation. The Archbishop of Canterbury's role is strictly symbolic and unifying and the Communion's three international bodies are consultative and collaborative, their resolutions having no legal effect on the autonomous provinces of the Communion. Taken together, however, the four do function as "instruments of communion", since all churches of the communion participate in them. In order of antiquity, they are:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury (ab origine) functions as the spiritual head of the Communion. He is the focus of unity, since no church claims membership in the Communion without being in communion with him. The present incumbent is Justin Welby.
- The Lambeth Conference (first held in 1867) is the oldest international consultation. It is a forum for bishops of the Communion to reinforce unity and collegiality through manifesting the episcopate, to discuss matters of mutual concern, and to pass resolutions intended to act as guideposts. It is held roughly every ten years and invitation is by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- The Anglican Consultative Council (first met in 1971) was created by a 1968 Lambeth Conference resolution, and meets usually at three-yearly intervals. The council consists of representative bishops, clergy, and laity chosen by the thirty-eight provinces. The body has a permanent secretariat, the Anglican Communion Office, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is president.
- The Primates' Meeting (first met in 1979) is the most recent manifestation of international consultation and deliberation, having been first convened by Archbishop Donald Coggan as a forum for "leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation".
Since there is no binding authority in the Communion, these international bodies are a vehicle for consultation and persuasion. In recent years, persuasion has tipped over into debates over conformity in certain areas of doctrine, discipline, worship, and ethics. The most notable example has been the objection of many provinces of the Communion (particularly in Africa and Asia) to the changing role of homosexuals in the North American churches (e.g., by blessing same-sex unions and ordaining and consecrating gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships), and to the process by which changes were undertaken.
Those who objected condemned these actions as unscriptural, unilateral, and without the agreement of the Communion prior to these steps being taken. In response, the American Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada answered that the actions had been undertaken after lengthy scriptural and theological reflection, legally in accordance with their own canons and constitutions and after extensive consultation with the provinces of the Communion.
The Primates' Meeting voted to request the two churches to withdraw their delegates from the 2005 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. Canada and the United States decided to attend the meeting but without exercising their right to vote. They have not been expelled or suspended, since there is no mechanism in this voluntary association to suspend or expel an independent province of the Communion. Since membership is based on a province's communion with Canterbury, expulsion would require the Archbishop of Canterbury's refusal to be in communion with the affected jurisdiction(s). In line with the suggestion of the Windsor Report, Rowan Williams (the previous Archbishop of Canterbury) recently established a working group to examine the feasibility of an Anglican covenant which would articulate the conditions for communion in some fashion.
All 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion are autonomous, each with its own primate and governing structure. These provinces may take the form of national churches (such as in Canada, Uganda, or Japan) or a collection of nations (such as the West Indies, Central Africa, or Southeast Asia). They are, in alphabetical order:
In addition, there are six extraprovincial churches, five of which are under the metropolitical authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Anglican Church of Bermuda (extraprovincial to the Archbishop of Canterbury)
- Church of Ceylon (extraprovincial to the Archbishop of Canterbury)
- Iglesia Episcopal de Cuba (Episcopal Church of Cuba) (under a metropolitan council)
- Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Evangelical Church (extraprovincial to the Archbishop of Canterbury)
- Parish of the Falkland Islands (extraprovincial to the Archbishop of Canterbury)
- Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church (extraprovincial to the Archbishop of Canterbury)
In addition to other member churches, the churches of the Anglican Communion are in full communion with the Old Catholic churches of the Union of Utrecht and the Scandinavian Lutheran churches of the Porvoo Communion in Europe, the India-based Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian and Malabar Independent Syrian churches and the Philippine Independent Church, also known as the Aglipayan Church.
The Anglican Communion traces much of its growth to the older mission organisations of the Church of England such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded 1698), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (founded 1701) and the Church Missionary Society (founded 1799). The Church of England (which until the 20th century included the Church in Wales) initially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1538 in the reign of King Henry VIII, reunited in 1555 under Queen Mary I and then separated again in 1570 under Queen Elizabeth I (the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Elizabeth I in 1570 in response to the Act of Supremacy 1559).
The Church of England has always thought of itself not as a new foundation but rather as a reformed continuation of the ancient "English Church" (Ecclesia Anglicana) and a reassertion of that church's rights. As such it was a distinctly national phenomenon. The Church of Scotland was formed as a separate church from the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Scottish Reformation in 1560 and the later formation of the Scottish Episcopal Church began in 1582 in the reign of James VI of Scotland over disagreements about the role of bishops.
The oldest-surviving Anglican church building outside of the British Isles (Britain and Ireland) is St Peter's Church in St. George's, Bermuda, established in 1612 (though the actual building had to be rebuilt several times over the following century). This is also the oldest surviving non-Roman Catholic church in the New World. It remained part of the Church of England until 1978 when the Anglican Church of Bermuda separated. The Church of England was the established church not only in England, but in its trans-Oceanic colonies.
Thus the only member churches of the present Anglican Communion existing by the mid-18th century were the Church of England, its closely linked sister church the Church of Ireland (which also separated from Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII) and the Scottish Episcopal Church which for parts of the 17th and 18th centuries was partially underground (it was suspected of Jacobite sympathies).
Global spread of Anglicanism
The enormous expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries of the British Empire brought Anglicanism along with it. At first all these colonial churches were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. After the American Revolution, the parishes in the newly independent country found it necessary to break formally from a church whose supreme governor was (and remains) the British monarch. Thus they formed their own dioceses and national church, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in a mostly amicable separation.
At about the same time, in the colonies which remained linked to the crown, the Church of England began to appoint colonial bishops. In 1787 a bishop of Nova Scotia was appointed with a jurisdiction over all of British North America; in time several more colleagues were appointed to other cities in present-day Canada. In 1814 a bishop of Calcutta was made; in 1824 the first bishop was sent to the West Indies and in 1836 to Australia. By 1840 there were still only ten colonial bishops for the Church of England; but even this small beginning greatly facilitated the growth of Anglicanism around the world. In 1841 a "Colonial Bishoprics Council" was set up and soon many more dioceses were created.
In time, it became natural to group these into provinces and a metropolitan was appointed for each province. Although it had at first been somewhat established in many colonies, in 1861 it was ruled that, except where specifically established, the Church of England had just the same legal position as any other church. Thus a colonial bishop and colonial diocese was by nature quite a different thing from their counterparts back home. In time bishops came to be appointed locally rather than from England and eventually national synods began to pass ecclesiastical legislation independent of England.
A crucial step in the development of the modern communion was the idea of the Lambeth Conferences (discussed above). These conferences demonstrated that the bishops of disparate churches could manifest the unity of the church in their episcopal collegiality despite the absence of universal legal ties. Some bishops were initially reluctant to attend, fearing that the meeting would declare itself a council with power to legislate for the church; but it agreed to pass only advisory resolutions. These Lambeth Conferences have been held roughly every 10 years since 1878 (the second such conference) and remain the most visible coming-together of the whole Communion.
The Lambeth Conference of 1998 included what has been seen by Philip Jenkins and others as a "watershed in global Christianity". The 1998 Lambeth Conference considered the issue of the theology of same-sex attraction in relation to human sexuality. At this 1998 conference for the first time in centuries the Christians of developing regions, especially, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, prevailed over the bishops of more prosperous countries (many from the USA, Canada, and the UK) who supported a redefinition of Anglican doctrine. Seen in this light 1998 is a date that marks the shift from a West-dominated Christianity to one wherein the growing churches of the two-thirds world are predominant.
The churches of the Anglican Communion have traditionally held that ordination in the historic episcopate is a core element in the validity of clerical ordinations. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognise most Anglican orders (see Apostolicae curae). Some Eastern Orthodox Churches have issued statements to the effect that Anglican orders could be accepted, yet have still reordained former Anglican clergy; other Orthodox churches have rejected Anglican orders altogether. Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware explains this apparent discrepancy as follows:
Anglican clergy who join the Orthodox Church are reordained; but [some Orthodox Churches hold that] if Anglicanism and Orthodoxy were to reach full unity in the faith, perhaps such reordination might not be found necessary. It should be added, however, that a number of individual Orthodox theologians hold that under no circumstances would it be possible to recognise the validity of Anglican Orders.
One effect of the Communion's dispersed authority has been that conflict and controversy can arise over the effect divergent practices and doctrines in one part of the Communion have on others. Disputes that had been confined to the Church of England could be dealt with legislatively in that realm, but as the Communion spread out into new nations and disparate cultures, such controversies multiplied and intensified. These controversies have generally been of two types: liturgical and social.
The first such controversy of note concerned that of the growing influence of the Catholic Revival manifested in the tractarian and so-called ritualism controversies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This controversy produced the Free Church of England and, in the United States and Canada, the Reformed Episcopal Church.
- Social changes
Later, rapid social change and the dissipation of British cultural hegemony over its former colonies contributed to disputes over the role of women, the parameters of marriage and divorce, and the practices of contraception and abortion. In the late 1970s, the Continuing Anglican movement produced a number of new church bodies in opposition to women's ordination, prayer book changes, and the new understandings concerning marriage.
More recently, disagreements over homosexuality have strained the unity of the Communion as well as its relationships with other Christian denominations, leading to another round of withdrawals from the Anglican Communion. Some churches founded outside the Anglican Communion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, largely in opposition to the ordination of openly homosexual bishops and other clergy are usually referred to as belonging to the Anglican realignment movement, or else as "orthodox" Anglicans.
In some ways they represent a stronger opposition because they have the backing of many member provinces of the Anglican Communion and, in some cases, are or have been missionary jurisdictions of such provinces of the Communion as the Churches of Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda. Such debates about social theology and ethics, have occurred at the same time as debates on prayer book revision and the acceptable grounds for achieving full communion with non-Anglican churches.
- Further reading
- Official website
- Anglicans Online
- Decentralised nature of worldwide Anglicanism
- Project Canterbury Anglican historical documents from around the world