Church of England

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The Church of England is one of the denominations or branches of the Christian Church, and is the Established Church in England. The Church of England (abbreviated C. of E.) is sometimes referred to as the Anglican Church, and the word Anglican, either as an adjective or as a noun, may be used of a member of the Church. (You may also want to see AWE's article on the two words anglian and Anglican.)

Early History

Although there were probably Christian converts in Britain as early as the first century CE, the Church of England traces its institutional origins to the final years of the sixth century, when St Augustine of Canterbury (died c.605) was sent to Britain as a missionary by Pope Gregory I. In 597 Augustine had a church built at Canterbury, at that time the capital of the Kingdom of Kent, and in the following year became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church followed the practices of Western Christendom and after the Great Schism of 1054 became part of the Roman Catholic Church and accepted the supreme authority of the Pope.

The Conflicts of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The Church of England as it is today has been shaped by the religious and political conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1534 when Pope Clement VII refused to grant King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547, reigned 1509-1547) an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Henry, determined not to be thwarted in his plans for a male heir, declared that he, and not the Pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry was excommunicated in 1538 by Clement's successor, Pope Paul III, and in this way the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church - a separation which did not at this stage involve any changes in doctrine or forms of worship. It was only later, during the reign of Henry's successor, Edward VI (1537-1553, reigned 1547-1553), that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), introduced into Anglican doctrines and forms of worship a number of changes which reflected the teachings of the Protestant Reformers - changes that were reversed by Edward's successor, Mary I (1516-1558, reigned 1553-1558), a fervent Catholic, who brought the Church of England back under the authority of the Pope. This conflict within the Church of England between the Protestants, who favoured reform, and the conservative Catholics was mitigated, if not resolved, by Mary's successor, Elizabeth I (1533-1603, reigned 1558-1603), who enacted a compromise between the two parties. This compromise, usually known as the Elizabethan settlement, reaffirmed the independence of the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and incorporated some of the teachings of the Protestant reformers into the Church's doctrine - see the Thirty-Nine Articles - but at the same time acknowledged the continuity of the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church with respect to its forms of worship, its organisational structure, and the weight it placed on the teachings of the Church Fathers.

However, the conflict between the Protestant 'reformers' and Catholic 'traditionalists' did not disappear and, in the following century, it was one of the causes of the English Civil War (1642-1649) between the Roundheads (or Protestant supporters of the Parliamentary cause) and the Cavaliers (or 'traditionalist' supporters of the monarchy). The Civil War was won by the Roundheads. In 1649 Charles I (1600-1649, reigned 1625-1649) was executed, the monarchy was abolished, and England briefly became a Commonwealth, i.e., a republic, in which the government enforced Puritanism, i.e., an extreme form of Protestantism, as the national religion. The unpopularity of the Puritan Commonwealth led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the new king, Charles II(1630-1685, reigned 1660-1685), in effect re-enacted the Elizabethan settlement - except that it was now accepted that the Church of England could not hope to embrace the entire population of England within its membership and that the existence of Nonconformists or Dissenters would have to be acknowledged, however grudgingly.

The Church of England Today

Since the seventeenth century there have been few, if any, fundamental changes in the Church of England. Its doctrines remain those set out in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which formed part of the Elizabethan settlement, and many of its services still follow the forms laid down in the Book of Common Prayer (1549,1552), though in recent decades the Alternative Service Book (1980) and Common Worship (2000) have provided for the use of more contemporary language in services. Flanked on the one side by the Roman Catholic Church and on the other by the various Nonconformist Churches, the Church of England continues to occupy the 'middle ground' in English religious life; and although its active membership declined dramatically throughout the twentieth century, it remains the Established Church in England, i.e., it is officially acknowledged by the government as the national Church. It has also sought to maintain its traditions of inclusivity and tolerance, counting among its members Christians with very different religious attitudes and allegiances. In fact it is possible to distinguish a number of groups, 'factions', or 'wings' within the Church, namely:

  • a 'High Church' or Anglo-Catholic wing, which emphasises the Roman Catholic tradition within the Church of England and favours elaborate rituals and forms of worship (sometimes referred to as 'bells and smells', the bell being that rung in the Roman Catholic tradition at the height of the Mass, and the smell being that of incense);
  • a 'Low Church' or Evangelical wing, which emphasises some of the Protestant elements in Anglican doctrine and, in particular, the teaching of the Protestant reformers that salvation for the individual Christian rests on belief in Jesus, not on 'good works' or acceptance of the sacraments - Evangelicals are hostile to the more elaborate forms of worship and ritual favoured by Anglo-Catholics; and
  • a 'Broad Church' or Latitudinarian wing, distinguished by its liberal attitude in matters of doctrine and its willingness to accommodate within the Church those whose views others might condemn as unorthodox.

The Church of England resembles the Roman Catholic Church in having a strongly hierarchical structure. At the most basic level are the parishes, each parish consisting of the members of the Church in a particular locality and the priest who has care of them. The different parishes in an area are under episcopal authority, i.e., under the authority of a bishop, the area over which the bishop has authority being known as a diocese (pronounced DY-er-sis, IPA: /'daɪ ə sɪs/). In England today there are 43 dioceses, which in turn are grouped into two provinces, the Province of York and the Province of Canterbury, each under an Archbishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury being the senior archbishop, with authority over both provinces, and having the title Primate of All England.

The Anglican Communion

The Church of England is not only the Established Church in England but is the 'Mother Church' of the Anglican Communion, a group of 38 national or regional Churches whose beliefs, forms of worship, and organisational structures resemble those of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not only the Primate of All England but is recognised as primus inter pares (first among equals) of the Archbishops who preside over the other Churches in the Anglican Communion.