The History of the Anglican Church

Origins of the Church of England

It is still unknown when Christianity came to Britain. One of the early Latin Church Fathers Quintus Septimius Tertullian exultingly declared ‘that places in Britain not yet visited by Romans were subjected to Christ’. Some evidence suggests its presence by about 200 AD. Obviously a church was well established in the IV century AD to be represented by the Bishops of Restitutus of London, Eborius of York and Adelfius of ‘the city Colonia Londinensium’ at the Council of Arles in 314.

In the V century, however, southern and eastern Britain was invaded by pagan tribes of Angles, Saxones and Jutes. Re-evangelization of Britain started in the VI century from Wales and Ireland. In 597 St Augustine (d. 604), commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great, landed in Kent. He was the head of a mission to re-evangelize England. It is possible to say, that the ecclesia Anglicana (English Church) came into being as the result of St Augustine’s mission.

In 669 Theodore of Tarsus arrived from Rome to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Venerable Bede described him as ‘the first of the archbishops to whom the whole English Church consented to obey’. He ordained bishops to the many vacant sees in England. In 672 he called a council which met at Hertford. At this council Theodore introduced the English diocesan system. The council established diocesan boundaries which are still in existence to this very day.

In 735 Pope Gregory III approved the raising of the Bishopric of York to an archbishopric. So, in fact, the division of the Church of England into two Provinces (i.e. the Province of Canterbury and the Province of York) dates from that year. The matter of supremacy within the English Church, namely the supremacy of Canterbury over York, was settled in 1353, when it was accepted that the archbishop of the former should be styled ‘Primate of all England’ and the latter ‘Primate of England’.


‘The English Reformation’ is a series of events that took place over 30 years, beginning with the meeting of the ‘Reformation’ Parliament in 1529 and reaching its climax in the so called ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ of 1559. ‘What came (anachronistically) to be termed “Anglicanism” was to reach maturity only in the following century, however’. [1] The reformation of the English Church processed in several distinct phases.

First phase: Henry VIII

15 May 1532 AD: the Convocation of Canterbury agreed  the Submission of the Clergy. From now on the Convocations could meet only if summoned by royal writ and could make canons only by royal licence.

1534 AD: the Act of Supremacy declared that the kind was ‘ the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England’.

1538 AD: an English Bible was ordered to be placed in every parish church.

1544 AD: and English Litany introduced.

Otherwise little official doctrinal or liturgical change occurred.

In fact, the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533 (25 Hen 8, c 20), which is still on the statute book, contains the following proviso:

‘Provyded always that this acte nor any thing or thynges therin conteyned shalbe herafter interpreted or expounded that your Grace your nobles and subjects intende by the same to declyne or vary from the congregacion of Christis Churche in any thynges concernyng the veray articles of the Catholyke feith of Chrtendome.’ [2]

1547 AD: King Henry VIII died, never having heard the Mass other than in Latin.

Second phase: Edward VI

Some doctrinal and liturgical changes took place. It is significant, that both were expressed first and foremost in the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552. The Church of England would continue to express its beliefs chiefly in its liturgy, adhering to an important theological principle lex orandi lex credendi (roughly, ‘the law of prayer is the law of belief’).

The English Ordinal consciously retained the term ‘priest’ and provided for the continuation of the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon inherited from both the early and medieval Church. So, the historic structure and order of the Church of England remained intact during the second phase of the English Refortmation.

Third phase: Queen Mary

Mary undone most of the changes made by her father and brother. She invited papal legate Reginald Pole to reconcile England to the Holy See.

30 November 1554 AD: Members of the Parliament knelt to receive absolution.

6 December 1554 AD: the Convocation of Canterbury was absolved by Reginald Pole.

1556 AD: Reginald Pole succeeded Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the last Archbishop in communion with the See of Rome.

Fourth phase: Elizabeth I

1559 AD: Elizabeth I accepted the amended title ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. The 1559 Act of Uniformity reintroduced the Book of Common Prayer, slightly amended in a conservative direction.

17 December 1559 AD: Matthew Parker consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace Chapel.

1570 AD:  the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion reached their final form.

1604 AD: the Convocations furnished the Church of England with a code of canon law, but they did not repeal the medieval law in areas that they did not address.

1604 AD: the Convocations issued a number of canons to supplement the existing code of canon law.

Abolition of the Church of England

In 1645 Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud and then in 1649 kind Charles I were executed. The Church of England was driven underground when Parliament formally abolished its episcopacy and its Prayer Book. ‘From as early as 1651 concern grew amongst loyal churchmen that the Church of England’s Episcopal succession might die out, and indeed by the end of 1659 all but nine of its 27 sees were vacant’. [3]

The restoration of the monarcy in 1660 led to the restoration of the Church of England, of its, episcopal order, and of its Prayer Book. Under the 1662 Act of Uniformity almost 1, 900 clergy who were not episcopally ordained or who refused to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were ejected.

Oxford Movement

A number of developments that took place within the Church of England during the XIX century, greatly affected its character. Political and ecclesiastical reforms of the 1830s brought into being a movement that defined the identity of the English Church. As C. Podmore puts it: ‘Visually (in the conduct of worship, liturgical dress, church furnishings, etc.) and in terms of its understanding of its own identity, the image that the Church of England overall has presented for the last half-century owes to the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement and its successors that to either of the other streams’. [4] The leaders of the movement stressed the CofE’s identity as a part of the Catholic Church and the apostolic authority of its bishops.

The Church of England today

In the course of the XX century the Church of England gained a degree of practical independence from the state. Between 1964 and 1969 the Convocations promulged a new code of canon law which replaced that of 1604.

The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe

The Diocese of Gibraltar was created in 1842. In 30 June 1980 it was united with the Jurisdiction of North and Central Europe, exercised by the Bishop of London through the Suffragan Bishop of Fulham, and renamed the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe.

[1] Podmore C. Aspects of Anglican Identity, p. 2.
[3] Podmore C. Aspects of Anglican Identity, p. 4.
[4] Ibid., p 5.