The Anglican communion, as described by the Lambeth conference of bishops of 1930, is “a fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury ”. These churches “uphold and propagate the catholic and apostolic faith and order as it is generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”. They are “particular or national churches and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship”. “Anglican” refers not to language or culture but to common ancestry in the Church of England. Today, on account of the varied courses taken by prayer book revision, one has to omit the reference to the Book of Common Prayer, but in other respects the description stands.

The Anglican communion began its separate life in the reign of the English king Henry VIII (d.1547). In 1533-34 the Church of England defied the pope and unilaterally asserted its autonomy under God as a local expression of the universal church. This step hardly altered the outward appearance of the church; the old mass, for instance, remained its central liturgy throughout Henry’s reign. But the principle of autonomy was an explosive force which led to more profound and extensive changes.

In the reigns of Edward VI (1547-53) and of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the Church of England followed largely Protestant ways and separated itself from the Church of Rome in doctrine and ethos as well as in structure. The cornerstones of this settlement were the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which rooted the church in the life of the one nation, brought the whole country (in theory) into the one liturgical usage, and stamped an Anglo-Saxon literary style on Anglican worship for future generations. The changes, of course, were originally intended only for the one Anglo-Saxon nation of England.

How did this singular development become a worldwide “communion”?* From the same period, a parallel church in Ireland also became separated from Rome and reformed by monarchical decrees, though the bulk of the Irish people refused to separate themselves from the pope. Another independent Episcopal church developed in Scotland by the late 1600s – not established by law as the Church of England was. During the 18th century this church devised its own eucharistic rites and thus demonstrated its substantial independence from the Church of England, while it retained profound family ancestries, resemblances and ties in common with that church.

From 1633 onwards, the bishop of London had charge of all Church of England congregations beyond the shores of Britain, whether in the American or other colonies, or on the continent of Europe. No bishop of London ever visited such overseas congregations. Thus when in 1776 the American colonies declared their independence from England, the Church of England congregations there faced a crisis. The church in America suffered severe setbacks in the immediate post-war years because of its former association with the British crown and the number of clergy and prominent laity who had been loyalists during the war. Nevertheless, the church soon established its own separate identity. While no longer wanting to be viewed as under the British through the bishop of London, they also did not want to lose the principle and practice of episcopacy.*

Thus, the Connecticut clergy elected Samuel Seabury to be their bishop, and sent him to London for consecration in 1783. The archbishop of Canterbury could not legally give consecration without exacting an oath of loyalty to George III. Not wanting to swear loyalty to the king, Seabury was consecrated instead in 1784 in Aberdeen by three Scottish bishops who had no state connection. Seabury was the first Anglican bishop consecrated for service outside the British Isles.

In 1789 the American Anglicans formed a general convention. The convention modelled its church constitution on the new civil one, authorized a separate prayer book, and declared themselves the autonomous “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States” (“Episcopal Church” has now become the official alternate name). Thus another adult member of the communion came to be. In 1910 this US church’s general convention initiated a commission to bring about a worldwide conference of “all Christian communions” for “questions of faith and order”, and later sent delegations to Europe and the Middle East to issue invitations, which in 1927 resulted in the first Faith and Order conference.

Slowly Anglicans in other nations or colonies followed the American pattern. They were settlers on plantations or belonged to companies with private chaplains, or they were the evangelistic result of Anglican voluntary overseas missionary societies of clergy and laity, such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1699), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1701) and the Church Missionary Society (1799).

The growing Anglican communities asked the Church of England for bishops. They were consecrated for Nova Scotia (1787) and for other Canadian provinces soon after, and then for Calcutta (1814), Jamaica (1824), Australia (1836), New Zealand (1841) and various parts of Africa from 1853 onwards. Because they were ministering in English colonies, these bishops and their dioceses were viewed as in some respects part of the Church of England, though their structural and organizational problems were very complex. In New Zealand the first bishop, Selwyn (1841-68), held a synod of church people, though such a move was impossible in England itself. In South Africa in the early 1860s Gray, the bishop of Cape Town, attempted to depose the bishop of Natal, Colenso, for heresy.* Colenso appealed to the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London, which in 1865 confirmed him in his episcopate.

At this Colenso decision, agitation arose in the Anglican churches around the world. The church in Canada proposed a common conference “of the members of our Anglican communion” to consider common problems; the archbishop of Canterbury would convene it. From this came the first Lambeth conference in 1867, with 76 bishops in attendance (Lambeth palace is the archbishop’s residence in London). The conference took great care not only to tiptoe around the case of Colenso (who was not invited) but also to ensure that the status of the proceedings was not that of a deliberative synod, but only of a consultative conference.

Since 1867 Lambeth conferences have been held every ten years, except during the two world wars. The conference’s authority remains consultative, not legislative or executive. The archbishop of Canterbury issues the invitations, and thus he decides in doubtful cases who are proper members. To this day, over against this consultative character of the Lambeth conferences, the self-governing churches of the Anglican communion individually enjoy an autonomy comparable to that which the Church of England claimed for itself at the Reformation.

Since the second world war more and more autonomous provinces (or churches, like the Church of England, comprising more than one province) have been created; today there are 38. In recent years inter-

Anglican structures or agencies have appeared: at present, the Anglican Consultative Council* and the biennial primates’ meeting in addition to the Lambeth conferences.

It is very difficult to measure the strength of the Anglican churches. In England , because of the state establishment of the Church of England, all the baptized are traditionally viewed as Church of England persons unless they themselves indicate otherwise. This measure would indicate 20-30 million members, far more than the number who worship on Sundays (attendance is under 1 million). In other provinces, a roll of members may reflect actual church strength more accurately. Similarly, the ratios of bishops to congregations, bishops to clergy, and bishops to lay worshippers vary enormously, and one can gain no good comparison of strength from the numbers of bishops. Thus, for example, it was reckoned in the past that the US bishops made up too high a percentage of the Lambeth conference, but in recent decades the bishops of Africa, Asia and Latin America have caught up with them.

Overall, the communion has over 800 active bishops, and perhaps 70 million active or semi-active worshippers. There are discernible signs of a slowly ageing active membership in the more Western parts of the communion, and of continuing growth in many parts of the two-thirds world, particularly in Africa.

The Anglican communion faces grave questions of unity, identity and calling. The lack of central decision-making means, e.g., that the ordination of women* to the presbyterate or episcopate is approved and practised in some parts of the communion and not in others. Liturgical revision is pursued on a province-by-province basis. Reunion with other Christian denominations, which is in theory central to the calling of Anglicans, seems to throw up great trouble when it actually becomes imminent. Internal tensions – such as the ordination of women, and especially their ordination as bishops, and issues of sexual and marital norms and disciplines – threaten the unity of the various provinces. And the communion still wrestles with a problem of its cultural conditioning which arises from its original provenance in England, its conservatism in relation to distinctively Anglo-Saxon ways, and its continued role for the see of Canterbury. Within it Catholic and Reformed (and charismatic) understandings of Christianity and the church* live alongside each other, now in tension, now in some kind of fusion, but rarely truly resolved.


n R. Coleman & O. Chadwick, Resolutions of the Twelve Lambeth Conferences 1867-1988 , Toronto, Anglican Book Centre, 1992 n G. Evans & R. Wright eds, The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources , London, SPCK, 1991 n W.M. Jacob, The Making of the Anglican Church Worldwide ,

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches

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