Anglican Church Overview

Anglican priests gather to worship

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The Anglican Church was founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy, which pronounced the Church of England independent of the Catholic Church in Rome. Thus, the roots of Anglicanism trace back to one of the main branches of Protestantism sprouting from the 16th century Reformation.

Anglican Church

  • Full Name: Anglican Communion
  • Also Known As: Church of England; Anglican Church; Episcopal Church.
  • Known For: Third largest Christian communion tracing back to the Church of England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
  • Founding: Initially founded in 1534 by King Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy. Later established as the Anglican Communion in 1867.
  • Worldwide Membership: More than 86 million.
  • Leadership: Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Mission: "The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ.”

Brief Anglican Church History

The first phase of the Anglican Reformation (1531–1547) began over a personal dispute when King Henry VIII of England was denied papal support for the annulling of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In response, both the king and the English parliament rejected papal primacy and asserted the supremacy of the crown over the church. Thus, King Henry VIII of England was established head over the Church of England. Little if any change in doctrine or practice was initially introduced.

During the reign of King Edward VI (1537–1553), he attempted to place the Church of England more firmly in the Protestant camp, both in theology and practice. However, his half-sister Mary, who was the next monarch on the throne, set about (often by force) bringing the Church back under papal rule. She failed, but her tactics left the church with widespread mistrust for Roman Catholicism that has endured in branches of Anglicanism for centuries. 

When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, she strongly influenced the shape of Anglicanism in the Church of England. Much of her influence is still seen today. Although decisively a Protestant church, under Elizabeth, the Church of England retained much of its pre-Reformation characteristics and offices, such as archbishop, dean, canon, and archdeacon. It also sought to be theologically flexible by permitting various interpretations and views. Lastly, the church focused on the uniformity of practice by emphasizing its Book of Common Prayer as the center of worship and by keeping many of the pre-Reformation customs and rules for clerical dress.

Taking the Middle Ground

By the end of the 16th century, the Church of England found it necessary to defend itself against both Catholic resistance and increasing opposition from more radical Protestants, later known as Puritans, who wanted further reforms in the Church of England. As a result, the unique Anglican understanding of itself emerged as a middle position between the excesses of both Protestantism and Catholicism. Theologically, the Anglican Church, chose a via media, “a middle way,” reflected in its balancing of Scripture, tradition, and reason.

For a couple of centuries after the time of Elizabeth I, the Anglican church included only the Church of England and Wales and the Church of Ireland. It expanded with the consecration of bishops in America and other colonies and with the absorption of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. The Anglican Communion, founded in 1867, in London England, is now the third-largest worldwide Christian communion.

Prominent Anglican Church founders were Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth I. Later notable Anglicans are Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Right Reverend Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, and the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the current (and 105th) Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Anglican Church Around the World

Today, the Anglican Church consists of more than 86 million members worldwide in over 165 countries. Collectively, these national churches are known as the Anglican Communion, meaning all are in communion with and recognize the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the United States, the American church of the Anglican Communion is called the Protestant Episcopal Church, or simply the Episcopal Church. In most of the rest of the world, it is called Anglican.

The 38 churches in the Anglican Communion include the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church in Wales, and the Church of Ireland. Anglican churches are primarily located in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, Canada, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Governing Body

The Church of England is headed by the king or queen of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and main leader of the Church, as well as the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, was installed on March 21, 2013, at Canterbury Cathedral.

Outside of England, Anglican churches are led on the national level by a primate, then by archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons. The organization is "episcopal" in nature with bishops and dioceses, and similar to the Catholic Church in structure.

Anglican Beliefs and Practices

Anglican beliefs are characterized by a middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism. Due to significant freedom and diversity allowed by the church in the areas of Scripture, reason, and tradition, there are many differences in doctrine and practice among the churches within the Anglican Communion. 

The most sacred and distinguishing texts of the church are the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. This resource provides an in-depth look at the beliefs of Anglicanism.