Anglican Church

Anglican Church
   Henry VIII’s defence of the sacraments against Reformist tendencies led Pope Leo X in 1521 to bestow on him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, which is still held by the British monarch. Just a few years later, failing to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catharine of Aragon so that he could make Anne Boleyn his second wife and perhaps father an heir, he repudiated Roman authority over the Church in England and also gained control over the Church’s possessions in England. Since the sixteenth century, the Church of England has steered an uncertain course between Catholic tendencies on the one hand (despite persistent preferences for national autonomy) and Protestant attitudes on the other. Though asserting independence from papal authority, the Church of England claims to be part of the Catholic church, participating in the apostolic succession as direct inheritors of Christ’s mandate to St Peter. Especially acute in Victorian times, the orientation of the Church of England remains a live issue today, for the Evangelical tradition has great strength, even though today’s services, particularly the increasing emphasis on the Eucharist, would have seemed distinctly ritualistic and Romish in previous centuries.
   In terms of ecclesiastical administration, England is divided into two ‘Provinces’, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding over thirty sees (or dioceses), and the Archbishop of York presiding over fourteen sees in the north of the country. Sees are headed by diocesan bishops, increasingly with support from deputies called ‘suffragan bishops’. Archdeacons oversee subdivisions of sees, with rural deans (not to be confused with the deans who head chapters of canons in cathedrals) leading groups of parish clergy. The traditional parish priest (whether called ‘rector’ or ‘vicar’ made little practical difference) caring for a parish, often for decades with scant guidance or interference, has become far less common. Today team ministries, often including women priests, generally look after a number of parishes. The Church of England is not state-funded, but receives income from congregations and from endowments managed, not to universal approbation, by the Church Commissioners. It uses the money to pay and pension the clergy according to their place within the hierarchy and to maintain an expensive heritage of ancient and beautiful churches.
   Though the Church of England is technically England’s ‘established church’, the meaning of this status has undergone considerable change. It does not, as a state church, impose religious uniformity; from the earliest days, some variation in faith and practice was generally tolerated, and legal discrimination against both Catholics and Protestant nonconformists effectively ended in 1829. The monarch, who under the 1701 Act of Settlement regulating succession to the throne must be Protestant, remains the ‘supreme head’ of the Church of England, vowing to defend it on accession and at coronation. But the powers of appointing the higher clergy secured by Henry VIII are, like other royal prerogatives, now exercised by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister, who only rarely rejects the recommendations he or she receives from Church of England bodies.
   The Church of England retains certain constitutional privileges. Since the Middle Ages, when they represented a considerable ‘estate’ within the realm, senior churchmen have sat in the House of Lords as ‘Lords Spiritual’, originally outnumbering the ‘Lords Temporal’. They currently comprise the two archbishops, the bishops of London, Winche-ster and Durham and twenty-one other diocesan bishops in order of seniority, these numbers being limited in Victorian times when additional bishop-rics were created. The Lords Spiritual are in effect ex officio life peers for as long as they hold office. Particularly meritorious archbishops or bishops are then generally nominated as life peers on their retirement, meaning they continue to sit in the Lords. Peers who are in the clergy may sit in the House of Lords, but clergymen or women who are commoners, though entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections, cannot become MPs. Changes in the Church of England’s representation in the House of Lords, mooted in Victorian times, will probably be included within wider reforms of the House of Lords being discussed at time of writing.
   Historically, the foundations of worship in the Church of England have been the Book of Common Prayer, which took its definitive form in 1662 after more than a century of evolution from the Catholic service books, and the Authorised Version of the Bible (the King James Version), a translation dating from 1611 and also the product of prolonged development. Stylistically impressive, both were revered. But language changed, scholarship undermined interpretations, and the conviction grew that a renewal of the liturgy would make a wider appeal. Attempts to revise the Book of Common Prayer in the 1920s were voted down by MPs, many of whom were not Anglicans. Since then the Church of England has won greater control over its affairs. The General Synod, with representation for bishops, clergy and laity, introduced alternative services in 1980 and encouraged the use of, for instance, The New English Bible. Currently, worship in the Church of England appears highly eclectic as it has assumed a great variety in liturgical forms and styles, reflecting not only the tastes of different congregations and their clergy but also considerable diversity in doctrine within a generalized Christian outlook. The response is mixed. Some parishes and cathedrals attract large numbers, but the Church of England can no longer claim, even for baptisms and weddings, the loyalty of either the mass of the population or of the upper classes who were once its keenest supporters. The opinions of its leaders, though still widely reported, no longer command great respect in a multicultural, multi-faith country where those who used to profess nominal allegiance to the Church of England are now generally indifferent.
   The Empire and missionary endeavours have spread the doctrines, liturgy and organization of the Church of England far and wide. The Anglican Communion, as it is called, numbers some 70 million people. Its leaders come together once a decade in the Lambeth Conference, named after the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence. As well as maintaining and developing Anglicanism, the Church places reunification with other churches and denominations high on its agenda.
   Further reading
    Baker, J. (1978) The Church of England, Exeter: Religious Education Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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