History of Anglicanism

History of Anglicanism


The founding of Christianity in Britain is commonly attributed to Joseph of Arimathea, according to Anglican legend, and is commemorated in Glastonbury Abbey.[a][18]Many of the early Church Fathers wrote of the presence of Christianity in Roman Britain, with Tertullian stating “those parts of Britain into which the Roman arms had never penetrated were become subject to Christ”.[19] Saint Alban, who was executed in AD 209, is the first Christian martyr in the British Isles. For this reason he is veneratedas the British protomartyr.[20] The historian Heinrich Zimmer writes that “Just as Britain was a part of the Roman Empire, so the British Church formed (during the fourth century) a branch of the Catholic Church of the West; and during the whole of that century, from the Council of Arles (316) onward, took part in all proceedings concerning the Church.”[21]

After Roman troops withdrew from Britain, the “absence of Roman military and governmental influence and overall decline of Roman imperial political power enabled Britain and the surrounding isles to develop distinctively from the rest of the West. A new culture emerged around the Irish Sea among the Celtic peoples with Celtic Christianity at its core. What resulted was a form of Christianity distinct from Rome in many traditions and practices.”[b][24][25]

The historian Charles Thomas, in addition to the Celticist Heinrich Zimmer, writes that the distinction between sub-Roman and post-Roman Insular Christianity, also known as Celtic Christianity, began to become apparent around AD 475,[26] with the Celtic churches allowing married clergy,[27]observing Lent and Easter according to their own calendar,[28][29] and having a different tonsure; moreover, like the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Celtic churches operated independently of the Pope’s authority,[30] as a result of their isolated development in the British Isles.[31]

Augustine of Canterbury was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

In what is known as the Gregorian missionPope Gregory I sent Augustine of Canterburyto the British Isles in AD 596, with the purpose of evangelising the pagans there (who were largely Anglo-Saxons),[32] as well as to reconcile the Celtic churches in the British Isles to the See of Rome.[33] In Kent, Augustine persuaded the Anglo-Saxon king “Æthelberht and his people to accept Christianity”.[34] Augustine, on two occasions, “met in conference with members of the Celtic episcopacy, but no understanding was reached between them.”[35]

Eventually, the “Christian Church of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria convened the Synod of Whitby in 663/664 to decide whether to follow Celtic or Roman usages.” This meeting, with King Oswiu as the final decision maker, “led to the acceptance of Roman usage elsewhere in England and brought the English Church into close contact with the Continent”.[36] As a result of assuming Roman usages, the Celtic Church surrendered its independence, and, from this point on, the Church in England “was no longer purely Celtic, but became Anglo-Roman-Celtic”.[37] The theologian Christopher L. Webber writes that, although “the Roman form of Christianity became the dominant influence in Britain as in all of western Europe, Anglican Christianity has continued to have a distinctive quality because of its Celtic heritage.”[38][39][40]

The Church in England remained united with Rome until the English Parliament, through the Act of Supremacy (1534), declared King Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England to fulfill the “English desire to be independent from continental Europe religiously and politically.” Although now separate from Rome, the English Church, at this point in history, continued to maintain Roman Catholic doctrines and the sacraments. With little exception, Henry VIII allowed no changes during his lifetime.[41]Under King Edward VI (1547–1553), however, the church in England underwent what is known as the English Reformation, in the course of which it acquired a number of characteristics that would subsequently become recognised as constituting its distinctive “Anglican” identity.[42]


With the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, the Protestant identity of the English and Irish churches was affirmed by means of parliamentary legislation which mandated allegiance and loyalty to the English Crown in all their members. The Elizabethan church began to develop distinct religious traditions, assimilating some of the theology of Reformed churches with the services in the Book of Common Prayer (which drew extensively on the Sarum Rite native to England), under the leadership and organisation of a continuing episcopate.[43]Over the years, these traditions themselves came to command adherence and loyalty. The Elizabethan Settlement stopped the radical Protestant tendencies under Edward VI by combining the more radical elements of the Second Prayer Book of 1552 with the conservative “Catholic” First Prayer Book of 1549. From then on, Protestantism was in a “state of arrested development”, regardless of the attempts to detach the Church of England from its “idiosyncratic anchorage in the medieval past” by various groups which tried to push it towards a more Reformed theology and governance in the years 1560–1660.[44]

Queen Elizabeth I revived the Church of England in 1559, and established a uniform faith and practice. She took the title “Supreme Governor”.

Although two important constitutive elements of what later would emerge as Anglicanism were present in 1559 – scripture, the historic episcopate, the Book of Common Prayer, the teachings of the First Four Ecumenical Councils as the yardstick of catholicity, the teaching of the Church Fathers and Catholic bishops, and informed reason – neither the laypeople nor the clergy perceived themselves as Anglicans at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign, as there was no such identity. Neither does the term via media appear until the 1627 to describe a church which refused to identify itself definitely as Catholic or Protestant, or as both, “and had decided in the end that this is virtue rather than a handicap”.[45]

Historical studies on the period 1560–1660 written before the late 1960s tended to project the predominant conformist spirituality and doctrine of the 1660s on the ecclesiastical situation one hundred years before, and there was also a tendency to take polemically binary partitions of reality claimed by contestants studied (such as the dichotomies Protestant-“Popish” or “Laudian“-“Puritan”) at face value. Since the late 1960s, these interpretations have been criticised. Studies on the subject written during the last forty-five years have, however, not reached any consensus on how to interpret this period in English church history. The extent to which one or several positions concerning doctrine and spirituality existed alongside the more well-known and articulate Puritan movement and the Durham House Party, and the exact extent of continental Calvinism among the English elite and among the ordinary churchgoers from the 1560s to the 1620s are subjects of current and ongoing debate.[c]

In 1662, under King Charles II, a revised Book of Common Prayer was produced, which was acceptable to high churchmen as well as some Puritans, and is still considered authoritative to this day.[46]

In so far as Anglicans derived their identity from both parliamentary legislation and ecclesiastical tradition, a crisis of identity could result wherever secular and religious loyalties came into conflict – and such a crisis indeed occurred in 1776 with the American Declaration of Independence, most of whose signatories were, at least nominally, Anglican.[47] For these American patriots, even the forms of Anglican services were in doubt, since the Prayer Book rites of MatinsEvensong, and Holy Communion all included specific prayers for the British Royal Family. Consequently, the conclusion of the War of Independence eventually resulted in the creation of two new Anglican churches, the Episcopal Church in the United States in those states that had achieved independence; and in the 1830s The Church of England in Canada became independent from the Church of England in those North American colonies which had remained under British control and to which many Loyalist churchmen had migrated.[48]

Reluctantly, legislation was passed in the British Parliament (the Consecration of Bishops Abroad Act 1786) to allow bishops to be consecrated for an American church outside of allegiance to the British Crown (since no dioceses had ever been established in the former American colonies).[48] Both in the United States and in Canada, the new Anglican churches developed novel models of self-government, collective decision-making, and self-supported financing; that would be consistent with separation of religious and secular identities.[49]

In the following century, two further factors acted to accelerate the development of a distinct Anglican identity. From 1828 and 1829, Dissenters and Catholics could be elected to the House of Commons,[50] which consequently ceased to be a body drawn purely from the established churches of Scotland, England, and Ireland; but which nevertheless, over the following ten years, engaged in extensive reforming legislation affecting the interests of the English and Irish churches; which, by the Acts of Union of 1800, had been reconstituted as the United Church of England and Ireland. The propriety of this legislation was bitterly contested by the Oxford Movement (Tractarians),[51] who in response developed a vision of Anglicanism as religious tradition deriving ultimately from the ecumenical councils of the patristic church. Those within the Church of England opposed to the Tractarians, and to their revived ritual practices, introduced a stream of bills in parliament aimed to control innovations in worship.[52] This only made the dilemma more acute, with consequent continual litigation in the secular and ecclesiastical courts.

Over the same period, Anglican churches engaged vigorously in Christian missions, resulting in the creation, by the end of the century, of over ninety colonial bishoprics,[53]which gradually coalesced into new self-governing churches on the Canadian and American models. However, the case of John ColensoBishop of Natal, reinstated in 1865 by the English Judicial Committee of the Privy Council over the heads of the Church in South Africa,[54] demonstrated acutely that the extension of episcopacy had to be accompanied by a recognised Anglican ecclesiology of ecclesiastical authority, distinct from secular power.

Consequently, at the instigation of the bishops of Canada and South Africa, the first Lambeth Conference was called in 1867;[55]to be followed by further conferences in 1878 and 1888, and thereafter at ten-year intervals. The various papers and declarations of successive Lambeth Conferences have served to frame the continued Anglican debate on identity, especially as relating to the possibility of ecumenical discussion with other churches. This ecumenical aspiration became much more of a possibility, as other denominational groups rapidly followed the example of the Anglican Communion in founding their own transnational alliances: the Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Ecumenical Methodist Council, the International Congregational Council, and the Baptist World Alliance.


Anglicanism was seen as a middle way, or via media, between two branches of Protestantism, Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity.[56] In their rejection of absolute parliamentary authority, the Tractarians – and in particular John Henry Newman – looked back to the writings of 17th-century Anglican divines, finding in these texts the idea of the English church as a via mediabetween the Protestant and Catholic traditions.[57] This view was associated – especially in the writings of Edward Bouverie Pusey – with the theory of Anglicanism as one of three “branches” (alongside the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church) historically arising out of the common tradition of the earliest ecumenical councils. Newman himself subsequently rejected his theory of the via media, as essentially historicist and static and hence unable to accommodate any dynamic development within the church.[57] Nevertheless, the aspiration to ground Anglican identity in the writings of the 17th-century divines and in faithfulness to the traditions of the Church Fathers reflects a continuing theme of Anglican ecclesiology, most recently in the writings of Henry Robert McAdoo.[58]

The Tractarian formulation of the theory of the via media between Protestantism and Catholicism was essentially a party platform, and not acceptable to Anglicans outside the confines of the Oxford Movement. However, this theory of the via media was reworked in the ecclesiological writings of Frederick Denison Maurice, in a more dynamic form that became widely influential. Both Maurice and Newman saw the Church of England of their day as sorely deficient in faith; but whereas Newman had looked back to a distant past when the light of faith might have appeared to burn brighter, Maurice looked forward to the possibility of a brighter revelation of faith in the future. Maurice saw the Protestant and Catholic strands within the Church of England as contrary but complementary, both maintaining elements of the true church, but incomplete without the other; such that a true catholic and evangelical church might come into being by a union of opposites.[59]

Frederick Denison Mauricewas a prominent 19th-century Anglican theologian

Central to Maurice’s perspective was his belief that the collective elements of family, nation, and church represented a divine order of structures through which God unfolds his continuing work of creation. Hence, for Maurice, the Protestant tradition had maintained the elements of national distinction which were amongst the marks of the true universal church, but which had been lost within contemporary Roman Catholicism in the internationalism of centralised papal authority. Within the coming universal church that Maurice foresaw, national churches would each maintain the six signs of Catholicity: baptism, Eucharist, the creeds, Scripture, an episcopal ministry, and a fixed liturgy (which could take a variety of forms in accordance with divinely ordained distinctions in national characteristics).[57] Not surprisingly, this vision of a becoming universal church as a congregation of autonomous national churches proved highly congenial in Anglican circles; and Maurice’s six signs were adapted to form the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateralof 1888.[60]

In the latter decades of the 20th century, Maurice’s theory, and the various strands of Anglican thought that derived from it, have been criticised by Stephen Sykes,[61] who argues that the terms Protestant and Catholic as used in these approaches are synthetic constructs denoting ecclesiastic identities unacceptable to those to whom the labels are applied. Hence, the Catholic Church does not regard itself as a party or strand within the universal church – but rather identifies itself as the universal church. Moreover, Sykes criticises the proposition, implicit in theories of via media, that there is no distinctive body of Anglican doctrines, other than those of the universal church; accusing this of being an excuse not to undertake systematic doctrine at all.[62]

Contrariwise, Sykes notes a high degree of commonality in Anglican liturgical forms and in the doctrinal understandings expressed within those liturgies. He proposes that Anglican identity might rather be found within a shared consistent pattern of prescriptive liturgies, established and maintained through canon law, and embodying both a historic deposit of formal statements of doctrine, and also framing the regular reading and proclamation of scripture.[63] Sykes nevertheless agrees with those heirs of Maurice who emphasise the incompleteness of Anglicanism as a positive feature, and quotes with qualified approval the words of Michael Ramsey:

For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is not sent to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.source Anglican website 


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