A brief introduction to Anglicanism

Anglicanism is a worldwide church with about 85 million members in 39 provinces across 165 countries. 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 and a shared relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is the third largest Christian denomination after Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

What is the Anglican Church?

Part of the catholic (universal) Church

Anglicans claim to be part of the one catholic (universal) Church. Although, in 1534 England had a 16th century Brexit moment, when it rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome, and was excommunicated by Rome, it remained faithful to the faith and the ministry of the past. It continued to believe what the Church of the past had believed, to commemorate the same saints, and claimed to be part of the communion of all Christians through time and space. The Church in England continued to hold to the Bible as the Word of God, to proclaim the historic creeds, to affirm faith in the Trinity and the traditional formulation of the divinity and humanity of Christ, to celebrate Baptism and Holy Communion, and the other rites known as sacraments, and to maintain the threefold orders of the Church (Deacons, Priests and Bishops).

A reformed Church

The Church of England was shaped by the 16th century reformation. There was a renewed conviction that the Bible contains everything necessary for our salvation. If the Church teaches that something is necessary to be saved which cannot be found in the Bible, then that teaching is to be rejected. For example, Anglicans reject the claim that to be part of the worldwide Church, one has to accept the human jurisdictional authority of the Pope in Rome, because they did not find that in the Scriptures.

One of the key thinkers of the emerging Church of England was a priest called Richard Hooker (1554-1600). He wrote of the connection between the authority of the Bible and the tradition of the Church. The Bible, the Word of God, is the highest authority, but we need tradition and reason to help us interpret the Bible. Church traditions are helpful, and there is no reason to change them unless they go directly contrary to what the bible clearly teaches. For example, the more extreme reformers wanted to remove bishops because they could not find them in the Bible. Hooker argued that although you do not find bishops as we know them in the Bible, there was nothing about them that went contrary to the teaching of Scripture, they were a gift of God to the Church in the past and present, and they should be cherished. They are a living focus of unity for Christians in a region, and between regions, and an expression of our unity with the Church of our ancestors.

Other reformation convictions, which still shape the Anglican communion, include the key teachings of sola gratia (grace alone) and sola Christus (Christ alone).

Sola gratia: that we are not saved (justified) by our good works, but by the grace of God alone. We can never be good enough to earn forgiveness. But the good news is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took onto himself our sins and died for us, and we are saved, become part of him, when we put our trust in him.

Sola Christus is connected with this. It is the conviction that eternal salvation can only be found in the name and person of Jesus Christ. That was important at a time when, for many, prayers to the saints and Mary had replaced prayer to Christ and when many believed that their salvation depended more on what was done on the altar at communion than on the actual death and resurrection of Jesus.

A church which seeks reconciliation

The Church of England was born out of conflict. In replacing the pope with the monarch, the religion of the king became the religion of the people. Henry VIII’s successor, Edward VI introduced many changes desired by the reformers. His successor, Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic, reversed those reforms – burning her opponents at the stake, including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – when she brought the Church of England back under the authority of the pope. Her successor was Elizabeth I, who again rejected the authority of the pope and managed to find a middle way (via media) between the demands of the reformers and of those who emphasised loyalty to the Tradition of the Church. For instance, the Elizabethan prayer book tried to balance Tradition and Scripture. Where there seemed irreconcilable differences, it included words which could be understood in different ways by different people, thus bringing together different factions in a shared act of worship.

But the Elizabethan settlement was not the end of this political-religious conflict. Elizabeth’s successors, together with most of the bishops, emphasised the authority of the Tradition of the Church, whilst those in parliament, representing the people, emphasised the reformation emphasis on the authority of the Bible. Tensions increased and exploded in civil war. The parliamentary forces won, King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and there was a period of government by the more extreme reformers. Bishops were retired and the prayer book was banned. But in 1660 the monarchy was restored, along with the retired bishops and a slightly modified prayer book. This 1662 prayer book is still the official prayer book of the Church of England, although most churches in England now use an updated modern language service.

As a result of this deadly conflict, there are many who argue that the Church of England has a specific calling to be a church of reconciliation; to hold together those who place emphasis on Scripture and the individual reading the Bible, and those who place emphasis on Tradition and the faith of the Church, in a common fellowship.

A global Communion with churches that have regional autonomy

As the British empire expanded, Church of England chaplains went to support British colonialists. In time they began to reach out in mission to local peoples. Jesus Christ was preached in the local language, especially where there was no pre-existing church. Local Anglican churches were established, and this led to the formation of new Dioceses and Provinces. In Russia, the Church of England recognised that Russian Orthodoxy was the primary local expression of Christianity, and so has said that it will not seek to establish an Anglican province in Russia. 

Today the Anglican communion is a worldwide communion or fellowship of fully independent churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is one among many Archbishops, although because the roots of Anglicanism are in Canterbury, he is often heard as speaking for the Anglican Communion and has the authority to invite all the other bishops to gather for councils. Their decisions, when they agree, do carry weight, although those decisions can be received or rejected by each Anglican province. The principal of regional autonomy, so important when the Church in England broke away from the authority of Rome, remains significant in Anglicanism.

That lack of central authority can mean that the Communion is divided and at war with itself, especially when the focus on the person and work of Christ is lost. But at its best, it is a living model of what in Russia is called ‘sobornost’, where people seek – recognising each person’s difference and uniqueness – to discern together, in obedience to Scripture and in communion with the Church of the past, the guiding of the Holy Spirit; and the Communion can offer a space where people can ‘grow up in every way, into him who is the head of the body, into Christ.’ (Ephesians 4:15)

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So what can I expect if I go into an Anglican church?

It really depends on which church you go to! It may be traditional, with vestments, processions, incense and a focus on the Eucharist (communion). It may be casual, with the priest wearing ordinary clothes, contemporary songs and a focus on teaching or some sort of social activity. Or it may be anything in between! Tradition, Scripture, reconciliation and mission – each Anglican province and indeed, each Anglican church, will combine those elements in different ways.  But there will hopefully be a sense that even if things are done in a very different way to a neighbouring church, and even if we disagree on quite fundamental issues, we are still members of one Communion, and that we need the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and that we need each other as part of the Body of Christ.