What is the Anglican Communion?

"The 1930 Lambeth Conference described the Anglican Communion as 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.'" - Colin Buchanan, Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism

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The above quote is technically accurate, but misses out on the complexity and richness of one of the world's largest Christian faith communities, comprising 85 million people in over 165 countries.

What is Anglicanism?

Christianity is the world's largest religion, with upwards of 2 billion followers on every continent. It is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ who lived in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Interested in learning more about who Jesus and what it means to follow him visit http://christianity.net.au/ and/or http://www.rejesus.co.uk/

Anglicanism is one of the traditions, or expressions, of this Christian faith. Other Christian traditions include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Protestant Churches, which include Lutheran, Baptist, and Pentecostal Churches. The word Anglican originates in ecclesia anglicana, a medieval Latin phrase dating to at least 1246 that means the English Church, but in the past two centuries the tradition has been adopted around the world. Now 85 million members are part of national or regional Churches that call themselves Anglican (or Episcopal in some countries) which collectively are known as the Anglican Communion.

Anglicans and Episcopalians the world over share aspects of their history, tradition and ways of worshipping. (Learn more about Anglican belief here) But no two churches are exactly alike even within a diocese, let alone a province or between countries. This unity in diversity is one of the things that make the Anglican Communion so special and such rich ground from which to change to world. 

History

The first ever African Anglican Archbishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther,  of Nigeria.
The first ever African Anglican Archbishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, of Nigeria.
Photo Credit: CMS

The Church of England (which until the 20th century included the Church in Wales) initially separated from the Bishop of Rome during the reign of King Henry VIII, reunited under Queen Mary I and then separated again under Queen Elizabeth I.

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 Church.

Anglican worship outside of Britain begins as early as 1578 in Canada. 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 (SPCK, founded in 1698), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG founded 1701, now known as Us) and the Church Missionary Society (CMS, founded 1799).

They sent missionaries to countries including those colonised by the British. During the 18th and 19th Centuries bishops from the British Isles led dioceses and national Churches in a variety of countries including India, Canada, the West Indies and New Zealand. A notable exception was The Right Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther who was the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria during the latter part of the 19th Century.

In 1783, following the American War of Independence the parishes of Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury as their bishop. As the Church of England could no longer ordain him, he turned to the Scottish Episcopal Church - a move seen by some as the beginnings of an Anglican Communion with autonomous Member Churches.

The Instruments of Communion 

History meets the present day: Archbishops Whitgift and Welby meet at Hampton Court.
History meets the present day: Archbishops Whitgift and Welby meet at Hampton Court.
Photo Credit: ACNS/Neil Vigers

Local bishops eventually became Metropolitans and in 1867 76 Anglican bishops attended  the first Lambeth Conference following an invitation from Archbishop of Canterbury Charles Longley. This is the first of what have become known as the Instruments of Communion, one of three gatherings of Anglicans/Episcopalians that include the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates' Meeting (see below).

Over the years, national churches gained independence from the Church of England and the Anglican Communion has become what is described in the quote at the top of the page: a global family of national and regional Churches.

In 1968 those gathered at the Lambeth Conference  discerned the need for more frequent and more representative contact among the Churches than was possible through a once-a-decade conference of bishops. The constitution of an Anglican Consultative Council was accepted by the general synods or conventions of all the Member Churches of the Anglican Communion. The Council came into being in October 1969. It is the only one of the three Instruments that includes the participation of laity, priests and deacons. 

The Primates' Meeting was established in 1978 by Archbishop Donald Coggan (101st Archbishop of Canterbury) as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation” and has met regularly since.

 

The Anglican Communion today

ACNS_web _Ang Com _smlToday the Anglican Communion is 38 autonomous national and regional Churches plus six Extra Provincial Churches and dioceses; all of which are in Communion - in a reciprocal relationship - with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Communion's spiritual head.

There is no Anglican central authority such as a pope. Each Church makes its own decisions in its own ways, guided by recommendations from the Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates' Meeting and the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Anglicans and Episcopalians have always worked and worshipped together across national borders to support each others' lives and ministry. The insight, experience and wisdom contributed to joint endeavours by Anglican Communion members from all provinces means that the Communion can pack a real punch at national and international levels. Examples of such collaboration can be found in the Communion's Networks, in projects such as Anglican Witness, the Anglican Alliance, in its International Commission on Unity, Faith and Order and on the Anglican Communion News Service. 

It has always been a strength of the Anglican Communion that such co-operation continues and flourishes despite significant disagreements on certain issues. Other Christian traditions look to the Anglican Communion to learn from its ability to have good disagreements. Projects such as Continuing Indaba and Living Reconciliation testify to how reconciliation is at the heart of our Communion.