The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian communion after the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. Founded in 1867 in London, the communion has more than 85 million members within the Church of England and other national and regional churches in full communion. The traditional origins of Anglican doctrine are summarised in the Thirty-nine Articles (1571). The Archbishop of Canterbury (currently Justin Welby) in England acts as a focus of unity, recognised as primus inter pares ("first among equals"), but does not exercise authority in Anglican provinces outside of the Church of England. Most, but not all, member churches of the communion are the historic national or regional Anglican churches.
The Anglican Communion was founded at the Lambeth Conference in 1867 in London under the leadership of Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury. The churches of the Anglican Communion consider themselves to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and to be both catholic and reformed. Although aligned with the Church of England, the communion has a multitude of beliefs, liturgies, and practises, including evangelical, liberal, and Anglo-Catholic. Each church retains its own legislative process and episcopal polity under the leadership of local primates. For some adherents, Anglicanism represents a non-papal Catholicism, for others a form of Protestantism though without a guiding figure such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli or Wesley, or for yet others a combination of the two.
Most of its members live in the Anglosphere of former British territories. Full participation in the sacramental life of each church is available to all communicant members. Because of their historical link to England (ecclesia anglicana means "English church"), some of the member churches are known as "Anglican", such as the Anglican Church of Canada. Others, for example the Church of Ireland, and the Scottish and American Episcopal churches, have official names that do not include "Anglican". Additionally, some Anglican churches are not part of the communion.
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 that 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 churches). Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and its offshoots as a guide to Anglican theology and practise. This has had the effect of inculcating in Anglican identity and confession the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi ("the law of praying [is] the law of believing").
Protracted conflict through the 17th century, with radical Protestants on the one hand and Catholics who recognised the primacy of the Pope on the other, resulted in an association of churches that was 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 (1563). These articles have historically shaped and continue to direct the ethos of the communion, an ethos reinforced by its interpretation and expansion by such influential early theologians such as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes and John Cosin.
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 expressions of this were the Lambeth Conferences of the communion's bishops, first convened in 1867 by Charles Longley, the Archbishop of Canterbury. 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".
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.
(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.
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:
Since there is no binding authority in the Anglican Communion, these international bodies are a vehicle for consultation and persuasion. In recent times, 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 acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in the North American churches (e.g., by blessing same-sex unions and ordaining and consecrating same-sex relationships) and to the process by which changes were undertaken. (See Anglican realignment)
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 jurisdictions. In line with the suggestion of the Windsor Report, Rowan Williams (the then Archbishop of Canterbury) established a working group to examine the feasibility of an Anglican covenant which would articulate the conditions for communion in some fashion.
The Anglican communion consists of forty-one autonomous provinces 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).
In addition to the forty-one provinces, there are five extraprovincial churches under the metropolitical authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
At its Autumn 2020 meeting the provincial standing committee of the Church of Southern Africa approved a plan to form the dioceses in Mozambique and Angola into a separate autonomous province of the Anglican Communion, to be named the Igreja Anglicana de Moçambique e Angola (IAMA). The plans were also outlined to the Mozambique and Angola Anglican Association (MANNA) at its September 2020 annual general meeting. The new province will be Portuguese-speaking, and will consist of twelve dioceses (four in Angola, and eight in Mozambique). The twelve proposed new dioceses have been defined and named, and each has a "Task Force Committee" working towards its establishment as a diocese. The plan has also received the consent of the bishops and diocesan synods of all four existing dioceses in the two nations, and has now been submitted to the Anglican Consultative Council.
In September 2020 the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he had asked the bishops of the Church of Ceylon to begin planning for the formation of an autonomous province of Ceylon, so as to end his current position as Metropolitan of the two dioceses in that country.
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 (founded 1701) and the Church Missionary Society (founded 1799).[note 2][note 3] The Church of England (which until the 20th century included the Church in Wales) initially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 in the reign of Henry VIII, reunited in 1555 under Mary I and then separated again in 1570 under 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 over disagreements about the role of bishops.
The oldest-surviving Anglican church building outside 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).
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 bishop 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 US, Canada, and the UK) who supported a redefinition of Anglican doctrine. Seen in this light 1998 is a date that marked the shift from a West-dominated Christianity to one wherein the growing churches of the two-thirds world are predominant, but the gay bishop controversy in subsequent years led to the reassertion of Western dominance, this time of the liberal variety.
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, however, does not recognise 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 Eastern 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 the conflicts arising over divergent practices and doctrines in parts of the Communion. 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.
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 were 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 and are usually referred to as belonging to the Anglican realignment movement, or else as "orthodox" Anglicans. These disagreements were especially noted when the Episcopal Church (US) consecrated an openly gay bishop in a same-sex relationship, Gene Robinson, in 2003, which led some Episcopalians to defect and found the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA); then, the debate re-ignited when the Church of England agreed to allow clergy to enter into same-sex civil partnerships in 2005. The Church of Nigeria opposed the Episcopal Church's decision as well as the Church of England's approval for civil partnerships.
"The more liberal provinces that are open to changing Church doctrine on marriage in order to allow for same-sex unions include Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, South India, South Africa, the US and Wales". The Church of England does not allow same-gender marriages or blessing rites, but does permit special prayer services for same-sex couples following a civil marriage or partnership. The Church of England also permits clergy to enter into same-sex civil partnerships. The Church of Ireland has no official position on civil unions, and one senior cleric has entered into a same-sex civil partnership. The Church of Ireland recognised that it will "treat civil partners the same as spouses". The Anglican Church of Australia does not have an official position on homosexuality.
The conservative Anglican churches, encouraging the realignment movement, are more concentrated in the Global South. For example, the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Church of Nigeria and the Church of Uganda have opposed homosexuality. GAFCON, a fellowship of conservative Anglican churches, has appointed "missionary bishops" in response to the disagreements with the perceived liberalisation in the Anglican churches in North America and Europe.
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.