An essay on Anglicanism

The Anglican Church has about 85 million members in 39 provinces across 165 countries. The average Anglican, as the Archbishop of Canterbury often says, is not someone from the UK, but a 30-year-old woman in Africa who is earning under $3 a day.

It is a family of Churches, a fellowship or communion of Churches, which grew out of the Church of England, with shared saints, linked histories, theology, worship (the Book of Common Prayer) and a shared relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury.


When Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 he had no intention of breaking from the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. It was a political and not a religious break, and the Church of England continued the ministry of the Roman Catholic Church.

  • The threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons was maintained. This historic link was maintained by the Church of England, and by other Anglican provinces as they were established. There is an unbroken link through time and space with the apostles.
  • The Churches that make up the Anglican communion have remained faithful to the confession of three main historic creeds: Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian
  • The Churches that make up the Anglican communion have continued to celebrate the sacraments, and in particular the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion
  • The Churches that make up the Anglican communion have continued to use liturgy, rites and prayers which, although locally adapted, reach back to the worship of the very earliest Christian communities
  • The Church of England continued to use the same buildings that had been used for centuries. Some church buildings in England had already been places of Christian worship for over 900 years even at the time of the reformation.
  • The Church of England continued to honour and remember the same Saints: both the saints of the wider Catholic Church, and also national saints and holy men such as St Alban, Venerable Bede, St Hilda – and more local saints often only remembered in church names: eg. St Botolph, St Wulfstan. Many of those saints are honoured and remembered by the other Churches that make up the Anglican communion.

But what about the political break with Rome?

The break with Rome was the culmination of a long conflict between papal jurisdiction and royal jurisdiction which reached back many years.

1170: Conflict between Henry II and Church over who had authority over clergy who committed crimes led to the murder of Thomas a Becket

1353: Statute of Praemunire declared that the King’s subjects could not be tried ‘out of the realm’ or appeal to a court ‘out of the realm’

1393: A statute stated that the Pope had caused the laws of the realm ‘to be defeated and avoided at his will, in perpetual destruction of the sovereignty of the King’

So when Henry VIII wants his divorce, and the Pope is unable to give him a divorce (sadly for political rather than religious reasons), Henry decides to take all authority into his own hands

1532: Act in Restraint of Appeals:

‘This realm of England is an empire .. governed by one supreme head and king .. instituted and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God, with plenary whole and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction to render and yield all justice and final determination to all manner of folk in all causes’.

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

‘We thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly. But now we have well perceived that they be half our subjects, yea and scarce our subjects. For all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the pope clean contrary to the oath they make to us, so that they seem his subjects and not ours’.

1534: Henry determines to appoint the Bishops

Again, this was nothing new. Usually episcopal appointments had been a question of negotiation between the papacy and the crown, with the crown presuming upon itself the right to appoint.

1173, Henry II writes to the canons of Winchester Cathedral, ‘I order you to hold a free election, but nevertheless, I forbid you to elect anyone except Richard my clerk, the archdeacon of Poitiers’

1351: Statute of Provisors, repealed in 1390, forbade the pope to ‘provide’ a candidate to any appointment

Over the next 450 years, after Henry declared himself ‘Supreme Head’, the power to appoint bishops de-facto passed from the Crown to Parliament and the Prime Minister. However, in July 2007, the Prime Minister of the day, Gordon Brown stated that he was giving up his right to choose a particular person from the two names given to him by the Crown Appointments Commission. Instead he would simply accept a single name that was given to him.

In other Anglican provinces, where the Anglican Church is not the ‘established’ Church, the bishops are appointed by the Church of that province with no State intervention.


The Church of England for all people

  1. Conviction that the Church was for all people. Anybody who was not a member was potentially guilty of treason. Penalties ranged from execution, imprisonment and fines.

Whitgift (Archbishop 1583-1604), applied significant pressure to Puritans. Many were deprived, some imprisoned and a few executed.

Archbishop Laud was even more aggressive in his persecution of Puritans. In 1630, Alexander Leighton, who wrote Zion’s Pleas against Prelacy, was fined £10000, imprisoned for life, but first whipped, had his nose slit, was branded on face by SS (sower of sedition) and had his ears cut off.

  1. Conviction that worship should be in the common tongue. In 1544 some prayers, including the litany, were permitted in the common language. In 1549 the first fully English prayer book was published.
  1. Conviction that the national/regional church has the authority to introduce ‘traditions’, ‘ceremonies and rites’, provided that these innovations do not contravene God’s Word and are introduced to build up God’s people.

Article XXXIV.

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.
Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

The [state] Church in England.

In 1662 with the restoration of the monarchy after the commonwealth, and the accession of Charles II, over 1700 puritan ministers in the Church of England were deprived, mainly because they could not accept the need for episcopal ordination.

However, the Toleration act of 1689 recognised that in reality there was more than one Church in England, and gave legal recognition to Protestant groups outside the Church of England. Persecutions of Puritans continued, but gradually lessened. Roman Catholics, who found themselves potential traitors and outcasts following the publication of the papal bull by Pius V in 1570 calling on all Roman Catholics to work for the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I, were not given equal civic rights until 1829, when the Roman Catholic Relief act was passed.

Today in the Church of England:

The Queen is head of State and also supreme governor of the Church. For the time being the State still plays a role in the appointment of bishops (through representatives on the Crown Appointments commission), some bishops sit in the House of Lords, there are prayers before the beginning of parliamentary sessions, and some civic events are marked by church services.

Other Anglican provinces have different relationships with their political authorities, but each province would wish to see itself as a fully autonomous regional Church.


The Church of England, and as a result the Churches that grew out of the Church of England, were shaped by the convictions rediscovered at the Reformation, expressed in the 42 Articles of Religion (1553) reduced to 39  in 1571, the homilies of 1547 and 1571, and in the Prayer book of 1662 (preceded by the Prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559). It is important to stress that the Reformers did not wish to create a new Church, but to ‘reform’ the practice of the Catholic Church in England so that it conformed more to the practice and belief of the earliest Christian communities.

A look at three convictions

1. The bible

“Article VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation. Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”

Archbishop Cranmer was convinced that if the people were allowed to read the Bible then they would hear God speaking to them.

  • from 1540 an open bible in the common language was placed in each church
  • the Church of England established a new lectionary, with set readings from the bible each day. Stephen Neil writes, “In no other church anywhere is the bible read in public worship so regularly, with such order, and at such length, as in the Anglican fellowship of Churches.”

As directed by the lectionary, the Psalms were read each month, the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament three times a year. This pattern has been modified in more recent lectionaries, and different provinces of the Anglican communion have introduced their own lectionaries, but in each of them, the reading of Scripture is primary.

2. Justification by faith

 “Article XI. Of the justification of Man. We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”

 3On Holy Communion:

“Article XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper.
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”

Anglican teaching on Holy Communion at the time of the Reformation

a) There was an emphasis on the once and for all time all sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

b) There was a conviction that the receiving of the bread and wine is a spiritual receiving of Christ – clarified in the words used at the distribution of communion in the 1662 prayer book:

This was a combination of the words in the 1549 prayer book: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life’, and the more (Zwinglian) words used in the 1552 prayer book: ‘Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving’. In the 1559 and 1662 prayer books, in a very typical Anglican compromise, the two sets of words were combined, so that the minister says to the communicant: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’

c) Linking of consecration and reception into a single act

d) Rejection of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine become the material body and blood of Christ, and removal of language of ‘accident’ and ‘substance’ when speaking of the presence of Christ in communion

e) Denial that the presence of Christ is a local presence

It was for these teachings, and their rejection of the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences that Archbishop Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake in 1555, in the counter-reformation introduced by Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII.

How far would the reformers go?

There was a constant conflict between those who wanted the Church of England to be closer to the principals of the reformation (sola scriptura, the emphasis on justification by faith, and the principal of the priesthood of all believers), and those who wanted the Church to remain faithful to the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. That conflict was most evident in disputes about the wearing of vestments (the surplice), the need for a prayer book and the need for the episcopacy.

Many Reformers wanted the Church of England to go much further than it did, but Queen Elizabeth I, needing to hold her kingdom together after the reformation of Edward VI’s reign and counter reformation of Mary’s reign, tried to draw the competing factions together in the 1559 prayer book.

“By 1593 the Church of England had shown plainly that it would not walk in the ways either of Geneva or of Rome. This is the origin of the famous Via Media, the middle way, of the Church of England… Anglicanism is a very positive form of Christian belief; it affirms that it teaches the whole of Catholic faith, free from the distortions, the exaggerations, the over-definitions both of the Protestant left wing and of the right wing of Tridentine Catholicism. Its challenge can be summed up in the phrases, ‘Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach, and we will teach it; show us anything in our teaching and practice that is plainly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it.” (Stephen Neill, Anglicanism p. 119)

During the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), under Oliver Cromwell, with the defeat of the monarchy and the ascendancy of the Puritans, episcopacy was abolished and the prayer book was declared illegal.

However, with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the bishops, prayer book (of 1559) and vestments were reinstated. In 1662 the prayer book was revised, introducing a few ‘catholic’ elements (for example, the blessing of the water at baptism), but in principal holding fast to the theology expressed in the 1559 prayer book. Officially the 1662 Book of Common Prayer remains the normative prayer book of the Church of England today, and many of the convictions of the Reformers are reflected in other Anglican liturgies throughout the world.

Declarations of assent

Up to 1865 in England, any ordained minister was required to state,

‘I assent to the 39 articles and to the Book of Common Prayer and the ordering of Bishops, priests and deacons. I believe the doctrine of the Church of England as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God’.

A new formula was introduced in 1865 with the wording:

I A B do solemnly make the following declaration:
I assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion…
I believe the doctrine of the United Church of England and Ireland, as therein set forth, to be agreeable to the Word of God…

Since 1975, Church of England ministers state

“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making Him known to those in your care?

Declaration of Assent

I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.”



Many of the Anglican provinces in existence today began life as an overseas mission that grew initially with chaplains going to serve the communities who lived overseas as part of the colonial expansion. Initially they focussed on the English-speaking communities, but in time began to reach out to the local populations.

Formation of missionary societies: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1701) and the Church Missionary Society (1799)

The Church of England has never sought to proselytise where there are other national Christian churches.

In the last 40 years there has been a movement within the Church of England from a maintenance model of ministry to a mission model of ministry. There is a recognition that the people in England need to hear the gospel, and the Church of England has received missionaries from other parts of the Anglican communion. The current Archbishop of York was brought up in the Church of Uganda.


Today there are Anglican communities in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and throughout the African continent, India, Japan, Korea, South America.

There is a presence in Jerusalem, the Middle East, the far East. There are also Anglican chaplaincies in Europe

The Anglican communion is a family of churches who are linked by a shared history of interdependence, expressed in a relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop is ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) but has no jurisdiction over other Provinces. He can only invite bishops to gather together for Lambeth conferences.

There have been several attempts to express the confessional unity of the Churches of the Anglican Communion, the most successful of which was at the Lambeth conference in 1920, with the acceptance of the Lambeth Quadrilateral as the theological basis of Anglican unity

Lambeth Quadrilateral
Acceptance of Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation’
Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the faith
Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as instituted by Christ himself
The historic episcopate locally adapted to the needs of various regions and peoples

There are major tensions within the Anglican communion today, particularly given that some Provinces in the Anglican communion (not the Church of England) bless gay marriage, which is seen by others as a rejection of the authority of Scripture.


The Church of England, after the turmoil of the reformation, the counter-reformation of Mary’s reign and the civil war, had to learn to be as generous as possible. It sought to avoid the excesses of medieval Catholicism and of the extreme puritans.

Some significant Anglican theologians:

John Jewel (1522-1571). Apologia Ecclesia Anglicana. He takes his stand on scripture and the primitive church of the first six centuries. His accusation is that the Popes are the innovators and that there is no evidence in early church history for the supremacy of the Pope, or some of the later innovations.

Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. He discusses the Order of the Church and argues for the freedom for regional churches within the fellowship of the one Church. The basis of his argument is the Word of God, found in Scripture but also in the established order/laws and traditions.
His main dispute is with the Puritan extreme. He accepts the traditions of the Church in general as good, provided that a particular practice is not forbidden in scripture, and if it builds up people in their faith. We need to trust the sovereignty of God who works through time. For instance, church music is helpful because it can move the emotions. He defends episcopacy, because this has been the pattern of church government from the beginning, and although it is not commanded in scripture, there is nothing in scripture which proscribes episcopacy as practised in the Church of England.

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). He is most well known for his Preces Privatae, his personal prayers and devotions. He was also a strong defender of episcopacy, but he writes,

“Even if our order be admitted to be of divine authority it does not follow that without it there can be no salvation, or that without it a church cannot stand. Only a blind man could fail to see churches standing without it. Only a man of iron could deny that salvation is to be found within them”.

 Cambridge Platonists (Period between 1630-1670): Convinced of compatibility between reason and faith.

Benjamin Whichcote, ‘God is the most knowable of any thing in the world’ (Patrides, 1969, p.58).

They became known as Latitudinarians. Stephen Neil wrote of them that ‘‘They loved the constitution of the Church, and the liturgy, and could well live under them; but they did not think it unlawful to live under another form’. In the Church of England they are the forerunners of the low church, and then broad church traditions. They focussed on pluralism, diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.


Anglo-Catholics – emphasis on the visible church, sacraments and apostolic succession. Find their roots in the tradition of Laud (who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and was executed in 1645) with his emphasis on the continuity between the Church of England and the ancient Church.  Reshaped and given new impetus by the Oxford Movement in the 1830s (John Henry Newman, 1802-1890)

Evangelicals – emphasis on the authority of Scripture, preaching, justification by faith and personal conversion. Find roots in reformers and puritans, but leaders like Charles Simeon (1759-1836) were also influenced by John Wesley (1703-1791) and the Methodist movement. The evangelical movement did make some significant political difference, the most well known examples of which were the anti-slavery work of William Wilberforce, and the working condition reforms introduced by Lord Shaftsbury, both members of the evangelical ‘Clapham sect’.

Liberals – emphasis on faithfulness to reason. ‘Reason’ is, of course, also important for those who wish to be faithful to tradition and scripture. It all depends on the assumptions that we make at the beginning. The focus of the liberal tradition is the humanity of Jesus, and his moral commandments as presented in the gospels. There have been recent times, in the name of reason, when the divinity of Christ, his resurrection and the eternal have been denied. They have a commitment to justice, to inclusion and to social and political action to promote God’s Kingdom.

If the Anglican communion is to hold together as a real fellowship of national and regional Churches, then there has to be both faithfulness to the Scriptures and to our given Anglican tradition, and generosity to others in how they understand and practice that tradition. Provinces will have to decide whether a particular conviction is more important to them than unity with their Anglican brothers and sisters. That is true for both those who believe that to be faithful they need to innovate, and for those who wish to be faithful by holding to long cherished teachings. But even if fellowship is broken, no province can deny its debt to the inheritance of faith passed down through the centuries, reaching back to our Lord Jesus Christ and the the early Church, mediated primarily through the Western Roman Catholic tradition, the political break with Rome, the establishment of the Church of England, the convictions of the reformers, specifically sola scriptura and justification by faith, the Elizabethan settlement, the deep desire to avoid the horrors that were experienced in a religiously fuelled civil war and the establishment of the missionary movements.


There are many difficulties facing the Church of England today.

We live in a society that is increasingly materialist, atheist and which is opposed to any form of institutionalised religion. We face significant new moral issues raised by the remarkable developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and genetics. We are divided on major issues such as human sexuality, how we respond to people of other faiths and prayers for the dead. Church attendance in the UK (although not in global Anglicanism) is continuing to fall, although it does seem that the decline is being halted, and in some areas there is now growth.

But there are also signs of great encouragement.

Christian believers are taking their faith more seriously,  new churches are being planted and new Christian communities formed. The number of people offering for ministry is increasing. People are meeting with God, and as they encounter God some of the old party labels are becoming less significant. Evangelicals are discovering the power of the Eucharist. Those who consider themselves more Catholic are running Alpha courses and bible studies. In many communities, Christian believers from different churches and traditions are working together on projects to run food banks, football clubs, town or street pastors and projects that offer support to the homeless, unemployed or those in debt.

And specifically, as members of the Church of England we are united by:

  • a common legacy which has at its heart the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but which has been shaped by our own national history, culture and language.
  • a faith as expressed in the historic creeds
  • our buildings and particularly our cathedrals
  • our willingness to listen to scripture, and to recognise its authority, even if we disagree on how to interpret it.
  • our baptism (and our desire to live our baptism)
  • our sense that a historic episcopacy means that there is some sort of connection with Christ and his people through time and space in our confirmations and ordinations.
  • the fact that our ministers make oaths of allegiance and obedience to their bishop
  • And for many there is the simple common experience of (at the least) praying morning prayer with its daily bible readings, and our shared experience of receiving communion according to the rites of either the Book of Common Prayer or of Common Worship.

Love ‘delights in the truth’, and for the sake of the truth ‘it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13.6-7). While my neighbour is prepared to make the official declarations, to say the creeds, to read the scriptures, to receive Baptism and Holy Communion and the laying on of hands at confirmation and ordination, and to make their declarations of canonical obedience to their bishops, then for the sake of Christ, for the sake of love and the truth, for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of peace, our obligation is to believe them, to see them as a brother or sister in Christ and to live with them, learn with them, at times to challenge and be challenged by them, to serve with them and to worship with them as members of One Church.

For further Reading

SC Neill, Anglicanism

Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities

Other works referred to:

CA Patrides, The Cambridge Platonists