The Anglican Communion is a world-wide affiliation of Anglican Churches. There is no single "Anglican Church" with universal juridical authority, since each national or regional church has full autonomy. As the name suggests, the Anglican Communion is an association of these churches in full communion with the Church of England (which may be regarded as the "mother church" of the worldwide communion), and specifically with its primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury. With over seventy seven million members, the Anglican Communion is the third largest communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
The status of full communion means that all rites conducted in one church are recognised by the other. Some of these churches are known as Anglican, explicitly recognising the link to the "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." However, he has no jurisdiction outside his own province. Nonetheless, churches are not considered to be in the Anglican Communion unless they are in full communion with him.
The Anglican Churches have been in the forefront of the ecumenical movement as they have strong historical links with the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches as well as a close spiritual affinity to the Orthodox churches. They also played an important role in providing the spiritual and moral education necessary to initiate, support and sustain liberal democracy in the former British colonies.
The Anglican Communion is a relatively recent concept. Ever since the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church split in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII (the Roman Catholic Church, by Papal decree, broke communion with the Roman Churches in England. The King of England did not, for his part, ever break communion), it has thought of itself not as a new foundation but rather as a reformed continuation of the ancient "English church." In the mid-18th century, the only members of the present Anglican Communion were the Church of England, its closely-linked sister church, the Church of Ireland (which was also established under Henry VIII), and the Scottish Episcopal Church, which for parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was partially underground (it was suspected of Jacobite sympathies).
However, the enormous expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the British Empire lead to the expansion of the Anglican Communion. At first, British colonial churches were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. However, following the American Revolution when U.S. parishes broke formally from the British monarch, the Church of England began to appoint colonial bishops in the colonies that remained linked to the crown. 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 sent from 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 was appointed for each province. 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 (see below). These conferences showed that bishops of disparate Anglican churches could manifest the unity of the communion 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.
The Anglican Communion has no official legal existence nor any governing structure that might exercise authority over the member churches. There is an Anglican Communion Office in London, under the aegis of the Archbishop of Canterbury; but it serves merely a supporting and organisational role. Instead, the communion is held together by a shared history, expressed in its ecclesiology, polity, and ethos; and by participation in international consultative bodies.
Three elements have been important in holding the Communion together: First, the shared ecclesial structure of the 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 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, episcopal structure, and its status as an established church of the state. Early in its development, the Church 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 supremacy of the Pope on the other, resulted in a Church that was 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, the growth of Anglicanism in other culture necessitated establishing new vehicles of unity. The first major expressions 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."
One of the enduringly influential early resolutions of the Conference was the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888. Its intent was to provide the basis for discussions of reunion with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but it had the ancillary effect of establishing parameters of Anglican identity. Its four principles were:
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 institutions do function as "instruments of unity," 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 some provinces of the Communion (particularly in Africa, Asia, and Sydney, Australia) 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 canon law 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 the Canadian and American delegates 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.
All 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion are independent, each with its own primate and governing structure. These provinces may take the form of national churches (such as in Canada, Uganda, or Japan) or a collection of nations (such as the West Indies, Central Africa, or Southeast Asia). They are 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion listed below:
In addition, there are six extra-provincial churches, five of which are under the metropolitical authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Although they are not considered members, some non-Anglican bodies have entered into communion with the Communion as a whole or with its constituent member churches, despite having non-Anglican origins and traditions, such as the Old Catholic Church and Lutherans of the Porvoo Communion, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church and The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada.
Anglican interest in ecumenical dialogue can be traced back to the time of the Reformation and dialogues with both Orthodox and Lutheran churches in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Oxford Movement, there arose greater concern for reunion of the churches of "Catholic confession." This desire to work towards full communion with other denominations led to the development of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, approved by the Third Lambeth Conference of 1888. The four points (the sufficiency of scripture, the historic creeds, the two dominical sacraments, and the historic episcopate) were proposed as a basis for discussion, although they have frequently been taken as a non-negotiable bottom-line for reunion.
Ecumenical dialogue has been particularly fruitful in three realms: the first is the World Council of Churches and its predecessors, in which Anglicans have been involved from the start. Anglican representatives were particularly instrumental in the development of the seminal Faith and Order paper, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which sought to develop common ground concerning these issues, and have been at the centre of the process of developing recent work on the "Nature and Mission of the Church".
The Roman Catholic response to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was articulated in Apostolicae Curae, an 1896 papal bull that declared Anglican holy orders null and void. Rapprochement was finally achieved in 1966, with the visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey to Pope Paul VI. The following year, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established. Its first project focused on the authority of Scripture, and the Commission has since produced nine agreed statements. Phase One of ARCIC ended in 1981 with the publication of a final report, Elucidations on Authority in the Church. Phase Two lasted between 1983 and 2004, and a third phase is expected. The most recent agreed statement dealt with Marian theology, and was published in 2004. In 2000, following a successful meeting of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in Mississauga in Canada, a new commission, the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, was established to promote practical co-operation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and the reception of the fruits of theological dialogue.
Despite the productivity of these discussions, dialogue is strained by developments in some provinces of the Communion, primarily concerning the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals. Pope John Paul II made a Pastoral Provision for a small number parishes led by former Episcopal clergy who have converted to the Roman Catholic Church. There are approximately a half-dozen of these Anglican Use parishes, so called because they have been permitted the temporary use of a Roman Catholic adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer, although not the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer itself. In addition, there is one Continuing Anglican church jurisdiction, the Traditional Anglican Communion, currently seeking to achieve full communion with the Holy See while retaining its own faith and practices.
Another fruitful realm of dialogue has been with various Lutheran churches. In 1994, the Porvoo Communion was formed, bringing the Anglican churches of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and the Episcopal churches of Portugal and Spain into full communion with the Lutheran churches of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania. In 2001, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada achieved full communion , as did the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In addition, full communion agreements have been reached between various ecclesiastical provinces and smaller denominations such as the Old Catholic Church after the Bonn Agreement of 1931.
Dialogue has also been fruitful with the Orthodox Churches. The current International Commission of the Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue was established in 1999, building on the work of earlier commissions, which had published their work in the Dublin Statement, and the Anglican Oriental Orthodox International Commission was established in 2001.
Consultations with Protestant churches other than Lutherans have also been fruitful. However, movements toward full communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, as well as between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain were both derailed because of the issue of episcopacy, specifically, Apostolic Succession.  This, as well as Anglican stands on certain social issues such as the ordination of priests and bishops in public same-sex relationships and the practice of blessing gay unions, has likewise hindered dialogue between Anglicans and conservative evangelical Protestant denominations. This has not prevented a range of reports by bilateral commissions producing descriptions of converging theology and practice however, such as "Conversations around the World" (2005), a report of conversations between the representatives of the Anglican Communion and the Baptist World Alliance.
One effect of the Communion's dispersed authority has been regular controversy over divergent practices and doctrines in the Communion. Originally, disputes in the Church of England were dealt with legislatively in that realm, but as the Communion spread out into new nations and disparate cultures, such controversies multiplied and intensified. These controversies have generally been of two types: liturgical and social.
One such controversy involved 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. 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.
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