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Today in History

On this day in 1807, Christopher Wordsworth, priest, scholar and hymnist, was born at Lambeth, England.

History of the English Church

SPREAD OF THE CHURCH

From the time of the Reformation, the Church of England followed explorers, traders, colonists, and missionaries into the far reaches of the known world. The colonial churches generally exercised administrative autonomy within the historical and creedal context of the mother church.

As the successor of the Anglo-Saxon and medieval English Church, it has valued and preserved much of the traditional framework of medieval Catholicism in church government, liturgy, and customs, while it also has usually held the fundamentals of Reformation faith.

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, who began invading Britain after Rome stopped governing the country in the 5th century, was undertaken by St. Augustine, a monk in Rome chosen by Pope Gregory I to lead a mission to the Anglo-Saxons. He arrived in 597, and within 90 years, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England had gradually accepted Christianity.

In the 11th century, the Norman conquest of England (1066) united England more closely with the culture of Latin Europe. The English Church was reformed according to Roman ideas: local synods were revived, celibacy of the clergy was required, and the canon law of Western Europe was introduced into England.

The English Church shared in the religious unrest characteristic of the latter Middle Ages. John Wycliffe, the 14th century reformer and theologian, became a revolutionary critic of the papacy and is considered a major influence on the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

The break with the Roman papacy and the establishment of an independent Church of England came during the reign of Henry VIII of England (1509-47). When Pope Clement VIII refused to approve the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the English Parliament, at Henry's insistence, passed a series of acts that separated the English Church from the Roman hierarchy, and, in 1534, made the English monarch the head of the English Church. The monasteries were suppressed, but few other changes were immediately made, since Henry intended that the English Church would remain Catholic, though separated from Rome.

After Henry's death, Protestant reforms of the Church were introduced during the six-year reign of Edward VI. In 1553, however, when Edward's half-sister, Mary, a Roman Catholic, succeeded to the throne, her repression and persecution of Protestants created sympathy for their cause.

When Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter, became queen in 1558, an independent Church of England was reestablished. The Book of Common Prayer (1549, final revision 1662) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) became the standard for liturgy and doctrine.

MOVEMENTS WITHIN THE CHURCH

The Evangelical Movement in the 18th century tended to emphasize the Protestant heritage of the Church, while the Oxford Movement in the 19th century emphasized the Catholic heritage. These two attitudes have persisted in the Church, and are sometimes characterized as "Low Church" and "High Church." Since the 19th century, the Church has been active in the Ecumenical Movement.

POLITY OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND

The Church of England has maintained the episcopal form of government. It is divided into two provinces, Canterbury and York, each headed by an Archbishop, with Canterbury taking precedence over York. Provinces are divided into dioceses, each headed by a bishop and made up of several parishes.

The Church of England is identified by adherence to the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, and by a common form of worship found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Church also is characterized by a common loyalty to Christian tradition, while seeking to accommodate a wide range of people and views. It holds in tension the authorities of tradition, reason, and the Bible, but asserts the primacy of the Bible. It thus seeks to combine Catholic, humanist, and reformed elements, historically represented by Anglo-Catholics (high church), Liberals (broad church), and Evangelicals (low church).

WORLDWIDE CHURCH POLITY

It was probably not until the first meeting of the Lambeth Conference in 1867 that there emerged among the various churches and councils a mutual consciousness of Anglicanism. Although its decisions do not bind the autonomous churches of the Anglican Communion, the Lambeth Conference has constituted the principal cohesive factor in Anglicanism. While population differences and other factors account for some variation in the basic structure among the churches, several elements do predominate. The diocese, under the leadership of a bishop, is the basic administrative unit throughout the communion. The diocese is a group of church communities (parishes) under the care of a pastor. In many of the national churches, several dioceses will be grouped together into provinces. In some, parishes may be grouped within a diocese into deaneries (rural) and archdeaneries (urban).

(Copyright 1999, Diocese of Oregon. All rights reserved.)