With approximately 77 million members, the Anglican Communion is the third largest communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Some of these churches are known as Anglican, explicitly recognising the historical link to England (Ecclesia Anglicana means "Church of England"); others, such as the American and Scottish Episcopal churches, or the Church of Ireland, prefer a separate name. Each church has its own doctrine and liturgy, based in most cases on that of the Church of England; and each church has its own legislative process and overall episcopal polity, under the leadership of a local primate.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, religious head of the Church of England, has no formal authority outside that jurisdiction, but is recognised as symbolic head of the worldwide communion. Among the other primates he is primus inter pares, or "first among equals".
The Anglican Communion considers itself to be part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and to be both Catholic and Reformed. For some adherents it represents a non-papal Catholicism, for others a form of Protestantism though without a dominant guiding figure such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli or Wesley. For others, their self-identity represents some combination of the two. The communion encompasses a wide spectrum of belief and practice including evangelical, liberal, and catholic.
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of belief expressed in worship, investing importance in approved prayer books and their rubrics; and third, the historical documents and standard divines that have influenced the ethos of the Communion.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 which 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 a founding theologian, nor by an extra-credal summary of doctrine (such as the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church). Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to the Book of Common Prayer and its offshoots as a guide to Anglican theology and practice. This had the effect of inculcating the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi ("the law of prayer is the law of belief") as the foundation of Anglican identity and confession.
Protracted conflict through the seventeenth century with more radical Protestants on the one hand and Roman Catholics who still recognised the primacy of the Pope on the other, resulted in an association of churches that were 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. These Articles, while never binding, have had an influence on the ethos of the Communion, an ethos reinforced by their interpretation and expansion by such influential early theologians as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, John Cosin, and others.
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 expression of this were the Lambeth Conferences of the communion's bishops, first convened by Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley in 1867. From the outset, 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."
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 independent 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 Communion, these international bodies are a vehicle for consultation and persuasion. In recent years, 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 role of homosexuals in the North American churches (e.g., by blessing same-sex unions and ordaining and consecrating gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships), and to the process by which changes were undertaken. 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, and 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 jurisdiction(s). In line with the suggestion of the Windsor Report, Dr Williams has recently established a working group to examine the feasibility of an Anglican covenant which would articulate the conditions for communion in some fashion.
In addition, there are six extra-provincial churches, five of which are under the metropolitical authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Anglican Communion is a relatively recent concept. The Church of England (which until the 20th century included the Church in Wales) initially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1538 in the reign of King Henry VIII, reunited in 1555 under Queen Mary I and then separated again in 1570 under Queen Elizabeth I (the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Elizabeth I in 1570 in response to the 1558 Act of Settlement). 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.
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).
However, the enormous expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries of the British Empire brought the church 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 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, as 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 decennially since 1878 (the second such conference) and remain the most visible coming-together of the whole Communion.
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 recognize the validity of Anglican Orders.
The first such controversy of note concerned that of the growing influence of the Catholic Revival manifested in the so-called ritualism controversies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 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 practice of contraception and abortion. More recently, disagreements over homosexuality have strained the unity of the Communion as well as its relationships with other Christian denominations (see Anglican views of homosexuality and Anglican realignment). Simultaneous with debates about social theology and ethics, the Communion has debated prayer book revision and the acceptable grounds for achieving full communion with non-Anglican churches.