The Anglican Communion

How We are Defined

The Anglican Communion is a loosely connected group of national churches with shared historical roots in the Book of Common Prayer tradition of the Church of England.  Anglicanism is the third-largest Christian denomination, following only the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches in size. Anglicans can be found all over the world, but are especially prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.    

Anglicans are orthodox Christians who believe in Jesus Christ. Anglicans believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and fully accept the teachings of the first five Ecumenical Councils of the church, including the doctrine of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian definition describing Christ as both fully man and fully God.  

The national churches are organized into provinces and are united by four instruments of unity: the Anglican Consultative Council (a body of clergy and lay people selected from the provinces), the Primates Meeting (a meeting of the head bishops of each church), the Lambeth Conference (a decennial meeting of all the bishops throughout the Communion), and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the traditional spiritual head of the church).

Anglican Heritage

Anglicans trace their heritage back to Celtic monks as well as the evangelical mission of Bishop Augustine of Canterbury. Augustine was given wide latitude by Pope Gregory to make his own decisions about the English Church. The English Church became more independent from Rome because of Pope Gregory’s latitude and also because it was so far from Rome. Despite this independent streak, the English Church remained steadfastly loyal to the Roman Church into the 16th century. King Henry VIII, who ultimately removed the English Church from Rome was, himself, awarded the honor of Defender of the Faith by the Pope for his writings against Martin Luther. 

Though the beginning of the independent English Church began under less than ideal circumstances involving Henry’s desire for a divorce, the English Church eventually decided to go its own way. The church was greatly helped in defining itself by the work of the great liturgical translator Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer condensed the complicated Latin Breviary, or prayer book, into two simple services of Morning and Evening Prayer, that any layperson could easily pray. Cranmer also translated the Latin Missal into English, making several revisions along the way.   

The Middle Way

The great Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker wrote that the Church of England was “the Catholic Church in England.” He argued that the Roman Catholic Church had left them, not the other way around. Until the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the direction of the church seemed in doubt. Would the English Church be a Protestant Church, or would it be a Catholic Church? 

Elizabeth decided it would be both. The great Elizabethan Settlement was symbolized by the language used when Communion is administered, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with Thanksgiving.” This sentence contained the important elements of both Catholic and Protestant eucharistic doctrines. It declared both doctrines to be correct, which most thought to have irreconciable differences. She helped navigate the “via media”, or the middle way, that the church has since attempted to follow.  The “via media” strives for theological comprehensiveness rather than political compromise.

British Colonialism

The English Church followed the growth of the English then British Empire.  It sometimes followed the flag, and other times explored ahead of it. The Church of England was the established church in Great Britain, but it did not have that status in many of the American Colonies and then in the United States. As the church grew outside of England proper and independence movements began, the church had to figure out how it would govern itself without the help of a national parliament. 

Lambeth Conference

This gave rise in the 1860s to the Lambeth Conference. The conference was established to give mutual support to fellow bishops, and to learn about the different problems that existed through this worldwide church. 

Anglican Doctrines

There was also a movement to figure out the essential doctrines of the Anglican Church that all Anglicans believed whether they were Episcopalians in the United States or Anglicans in Uganda. The bishops created the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which is as follows: 

  1. 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.
  2. The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Anglican Communion has always been a wonderful experiment in Christian ecclesiology. Hooker and the other Anglican theologian wrote persuasively that the early church favored a councilor model of administration with one bishop having no more importance in the eyes of God than another bishop. While recent events have strained this relationship, worldwide, the church and its Communion is still growing.  

For more information on the Anglican Communion, visit the Anglican Communion's website: www.anglicancommunion.org.

Top photo used with permission of the Office of the Archbishop of York. Bottom photo used with permission of the Diocese of Massachusetts.