About the Church of England

This was written when I was a minister within the Church of England. It was intended to help people make some sense of the denomination.[1]

A worldwide Church

The Church of England is part of what’s known as the worldwide Anglican Communion.[2] This has more than 70 million adherents in 161 countries located on every continent. Although the churches are autonomous, they are also unified through their history, heritage of theology and worship, and their relational link to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A diverse Church

Anglicans therefore speak many languages and come from many different races and cultures. This itself makes a rich diversity. However, throughout the history of the church, a certain diversity in theology and worship has also developed. This means that in attending any two Anglican churches within England today, one might experience services that feel rather different, and one might hear teaching that may actually be rather different too.


In considering the government of the church we must remember that because it is an historic institution, there are a whole range of terms the Anglican Church uses that are rather archaic.

Roles: Its three key offices are those of Bishop, Priest (more appropriately called Presbyter), and Deacon:

1. The word “Bishop” means “overseer.” Its New Testament (NT) Greek form is “episcopos.” The Church of England is therefore described as an Episcopalian Church. In the NT “Bishop” was simply another way of referring to the “Presbyter” (Titus 1:5, 7). However, as the early church grew, the title was used to refer to those overseeing a number of churches in an area.[3] The roles of Titus and Timothy may provide a hint of this in the NT itself (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5-16). Today each Bishop therefore oversees a particular region, supporting the clergy and ensuring they and their churches remain faithful.

2. “Presbyter” means “elder.” Its NT Greek form is “presbuteros.” The presbyter’s usual role is to oversee particular congregations, whether as Rector or Vicar in charge of a parish, or Curate being trained by the Vicar. Presbyters are licensed to fulfil every facet of ministry in the parish, but the NT portrays their primary role to be that of governing the church, especially through teaching the Bible and protecting God’s people from error (Titus 1:3-9).

3. “Deacon” means “one who serves.” We are told little about this role in the NT other than that it was a formal serving position in the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Today the deacon assists the Presbyter in their responsibilities, but is not licensed to lead communion services. Every Curate is a deacon for their first year.

Structure: England is divided up into parishes over which a clergyman has responsibility for the “cure of souls.” A cluster of these parishes is known as a deanery. The Rural Dean is a clergyman of a parish church who co-ordinates various aspects of his particular deanery.

A wider region known as a diocese comprises a number of deaneries. There are 43 in England. The Diocesan Bishop oversees the diocese, assisted by one or more Suffragan Bishops who are in turn assisted by Archdeacons.

A certain number of dioceses combine to make up a Province. England contains two Provinces: those centred around the Cathedrals of Canterbury and York. Each Province is overseen by an Archbishop, and the provinces together form the worldwide Anglican communion.

Archbishops have no greater authority than other Bishops, nor any jurisdiction over other provinces. They simply aid co-operation between their Bishops, and represent their Bishops and province to the wider communion and to society. The Archbishop of Canterbury however has a unique role in representing and providing a relational focus for the entire worldwide communion.

Synods: In addition to the local clergyman who has ultimate responsibility for his parish, there are four levels of decision-making within the Church of England:

1. The Parochial Church Council (PCC) which comprises the clergy of a parish and a number of lay (non-clergy) representatives. The PCC exists in order to make administrative decisions, consider and discuss church issues, and provide a voice for the laity in the running of their church. Two Churchwardens are ex-officio members of the PCC. They are the parish’s most senior lay representatives, and are responsible for various administrative aspects to church life.

2. The Deanery Synod exists to promote God’s purposes in the deanery. It therefore discusses the views of the deanery’s parishes, fosters interdependence between the churches, and considers any wider matters within the Church of England. The deanery synod comprises all clergy within the deanery (the house of clergy) and lay representatives from the parishes (the house of laity) that are elected at their Annual Parochial Church Meetings.

3. The Diocesan Synod carries out similar functions at a higher level and liaises with the Bishop. It comprises a “house of laity” and “house of clergy” elected by the deanery synods. It also includes all its Diocesan and Suffragan Bishops (the house of Bishops).

4. The General Synod decides matters of finance, administration, and liturgy for the two English provinces. It also acts as a forum for the expression of views and discussion of various aspects of church business. The houses of laity and clergy comprise individuals elected from the dioceses, whilst the house of Bishops comprises all Bishops and nine elected Suffragans.

Church and State

The “establishment” of the Church of England does not mean that the government controls the decisions of the Church. It simply defines various rights and responsibilities the Church has in society, and various restrictions and limitations Parliament can place upon the church. On one hand the two archbishops and twenty-four senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, with opportunity to make a major contribution to Parliament's work. On the other, the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, appointing archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals on the advice of the Prime Minister, who must himself decide between options put to him by the church.


Space does not permit a full overview of Church of England history. Instead we consider the two most significant centuries in explaining the church as we have it today.

The sixteenth century: Many assume that the Church of England was born out of the marital shenanigans of Henry VIII. This is not actually true. It is more that they gave an opening for those already seeking to transform the Church to carry that transformation further.

The sixteenth century was one of some religious turmoil in Europe. A number of thinkers had begun to highlight the discontinuity between the prevailing Roman Catholic teaching and practice and that of the Bible and the first Christians. This led to the rise of various new denominations comprising those who were known as “Protestants,” because they “protested” against Roman Catholic views. The period is called the “Reformation” because it was one in which the church was being “re-formed” along more biblical lines.

It was in this context that Henry VIII sought to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope forbade it, Henry took the church out from papal authority and took upon himself the title “Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England.” Nevertheless, he kept the church Roman Catholic in its teaching and practice.

Henry’s son, Edward VI, was schooled in Protestantism however. When he took to the throne in 1547 reformation therefore made significant headway. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others had been hugely influenced by the ideas of reformers on the continent, and Cranmer supervised the writing of the two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, ensuring that they reflected reformed teaching and worship. These developments were brought to an abrupt halt with Edward’s death and the accession of Mary Tudor (1553), Henry’s embittered Catholic daughter through Catherine. She sought to return the church to Rome, beheading Lady Jane Grey, who succeeded Edward for only nine days, and burning 283 Protestants alive, including Cranmer.

When Elizabeth I then became queen after her half-sister Mary’s death (1558), she recognised the need for religious stability. Her “Elizabethan settlement” was Protestant, seeking one national church with her as its supreme governor. The church’s teaching was defined under Elizabeth in a statement known as “The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.” Though differing from the continental reformers on matters of church government, and not going as far in reforming its worship, the Church of England from then on was generally reformed. Indeed, even today, all clergy are expected to accept that the Thirty-Nine Articles and the 1662 prayer book[4] reflect the Bible’s teaching, and so teach only what is consistent with them.

The Nineteenth Century: After the strengthening of the church during the reformation, Western Christianity found itself threatened by new thought forms. A recognition of its rationality led to the assumption that Christian truth could be established by reason alone, without the need of revelation from God in the Bible. This in turn led to an assertion of reason over revelation, and to a rejection of all within the Bible that was considered irrational and superstitious. This movement is known as “the Enlightenment” because of its rather arrogant assumption that humanity was finally able to understand things clearly.

The enlightenment significantly impacted the church in England during the nineteenth century. On one hand biblical truth was attacked at the intellectual level through what’s known as “liberal” or "critical" scholarship. On the other it was attacked at the moral level as secularists expressed their revulsion at teachings they didn’t like. Under this twofold assault many church leaders across the denominations lost confidence in true Christian belief, and softened it out of fear that people would otherwise leave the church.

Ironically, the decline of church attendance in the UK almost coincides to the very year with this capitulation. Nevertheless, liberalism still pervades much of the Western Church. Its influence is seen in the denial, even by clergy and Bishops, of such things as the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, miracles and hell. Most recently it is seen in attempts to revise the church's teaching on sexuality. The liberal sentiment is however present whenever we doubt or reject a particular Bible truth because it just seems or feels wrong to us.

Not all however embraced this new agenda in the nineteenth century. In the face of “reason’s” challenges to the Bible, many within the Church of England sought to rely instead on “tradition,” seeking refuge in Roman Catholic thought which claimed to hold the oldest and so most authentic expression of Christianity. This led to the birth of a movement within the Church of England known as Anglo-Catholicism. As well as sympathy for Roman Catholic teaching, its marks were a focus on the beauty of Church buildings and the use of heavy symbolism and ritual in services.

Many of the more Catholic clothing and practices found in Anglican churches today began with this movement, as do features such as the use of candles and incense in services, and the procession of choir and clergy. Moreover, it is the Anglo-Catholic influence that has fueled calls for reunification with Roman Catholicism. Indeed, some contemporary Anglo-Catholic churches are almost indistinguishable from Roman Catholic ones in their teaching as well as their practice: They hold to the belief that children are saved through baptism, that the bread and wine in communion actually becomes Christ’s body and blood, that our works are necessary to merit salvation, that the rituals of the church are necessary to maintain it, and that Mary somehow shares in enabling it. Such views would have horrified the reformers and directly contradict many of the thirty-nine articles.

The shift to liberalism or Anglo-Catholicism left a third party in place: the Evangelicals - those who hold to the supremacy of the Bible above reason and tradition, and the centrality of the “good news” about Jesus.[5] Although the evangelicals should be commended for remaining faithful to the Bible during the nineteenth century, more could have initially been done. Rather than engaging the liberal and Catholic views by giving grounds for holding the bible as trustworthy and for seeing reason and tradition as fallible, many UK evangelicals simply battened down the hatches by continuing to preach, but with little intellectual engagement with the questions being raised. The evangelicals did however show a tireless desire to alleviate the poverty stemming from the Industrial Revolution, and their concern for sharing the good news of Jesus contributed significantly to the spread of Anglicanism worldwide.

This means that though worldwide Anglicanism still comprises the liberal, Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical convictions, it is said to be largely, though not exclusively, evangelical.[6] Moreover, though an anti-intellectual strain remains in evangelicalism, its best forms are now faithfully Biblical and robustly thought through.

Our Churches: Our two churches are evangelical churches because we accept the Bible’s view that human reason and therefore human tradition are both open to error. Though we seek to engage our reason and consider traditional interpretations in our understanding the Bible, we hold that the Bible alone, as originally given, is trustworthy. We cannot therefore ignore its plain meaning because our reason doesn’t like it or because tradition isn’t in line with it. Instead we seek to be aware of our own fallibility in coming to the Bible, whilst being faithful in teaching what it actually says and relating it to the issues of our day. As we will see, this view is in-line with the Thirty-Nine Articles. More importantly, it is this view that was the view of Christ himself (Mark 7:5-8, Matthew 5:17-20, John 14:26, 16:13).


All Anglican clergy are still required to accept that “The Thirty-Nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England.”[7] At their ordination service, they are also required to vow “always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church hath received the same.”

Despite the fact that so many hold fast and loose to the articles today, there is little doubt then that they are intended to govern Anglican thought and practice.

The following summarizes the articles. Not all their points have been included, and so to read them in full see: http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html

The Thirty-nine Articles in summary

God: There is one true God who is everlasting and of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the maker and preserver of all things. In the unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power and eternity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. [Article 1]

The Son: The Son took a human nature in the womb of a virgin so that the two perfect natures of Godhead and Manhood were forever joined in the one person of Christ. [Article 2]

The cross: Christ therefore truly suffered, died on the cross and was buried, to reconcile us to his Father. This sacrifice granted freedom from guilt, an appeasing of God’s wrath and a satisfaction of his justice sufficient for all the sins of the whole world. [Articles 2 and 31]

The resurrection: Having descended to hell, Christ rose from death in his physical body and with a perfect human nature. He then ascended into heaven where he now sits until returning to judge all people on the last day. [Articles 3-4]

The Bible: Nothing is to be required of anyone as an article of faith or as necessary for salvation that is not read in or proved by the Bible, which consists of the Protestant Old and New Testaments and not the Catholic Apocrypha. The two testaments do not contradict one-another, but present a consistent message of salvation through Christ. And no Christian is free from having to obey the moral principles of God’s law. [Articles 6-7]

Sin: Human nature is inclined to evil, meaning that we are unable to believe and call upon God without his making us willing to do good and then moving us to it. Every person from birth therefore deserves God’s wrath and damnation, and the inclination to sin remains even in those who are regenerate. [Articles 9-10]

Salvation: Nevertheless, by putting faith in Christ, we are justified, accounted righteous before God not on the basis of our own works or deservings, but on the basis of Christ’s merits, who alone was without sin. Indeed, good works done before conversion are not even pleasing to God because they did not stem from faith; nor do they make people fit or ready to receive God’s grace. [Articles 11-16]

Predestination: So salvation is received only by those God has chosen, or predestined to life, and in whom he therefore works by his Spirit so that they obey his calling, are justified freely, adopted as God’s sons, renewed into his image, and brought to everlasting joy. [Article 17]

Other faiths: This salvation cannot come by the light of nature and so by whatever morality or religion someone holds to. It can come only by faith in the name of Jesus. [Article 18]

The Church: The church is a congregation of faithful people in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments administered as Christ ordained. The church has power to decree rites and ceremonies and has authority in controversies of faith. That which is ordained and consistent with scripture must not therefore be broken. Nevertheless, the church cannot itself ordain anything that is contrary to the Bible, nor teach one place of scripture in a way that contradicts another. Moreover, traditions and ceremonies can be changed or abolished according to the country, times, and situation. [Articles 19-20 and 34]

The sacraments: The only two sacraments of the church are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the former being for both adults and children. These are witnesses and signs of grace, effectual not in themselves, but in the sense that God uses them to point to his good will and so inwardly grant, strengthen and confirm our faith in him. [Articles 25]

Roman Catholicism: Councils can make errors and so are not binding in decreeing what is necessary for salvation unless it is scriptural. In this, the Roman Catholic Church in particular has erred. Its teaching on purgatory, pardons, worshipping, adoration, images, and asking deceased Saints to pray is all contrary to the Bible; as is its teaching that the substance of bread and wine is actually changed into the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s supper, and that the Priest actually offers Christ for the living and the dead in the service, to remove guilt or gain a reduction in the pains of purgatory. [Articles 19, 21-25, 28, 31-32]

The state: The Monarch is the chief governor in both civil and ecclesiastical matters, though this does not mean that they (or their government by derivation) are responsible for ministering God’s Word and sacraments. [Article 37]

[1] For further reading, see: Welsby, Paul A. How the Church of England works, (London, CIO Publishing, 1985)

[2] The term “Anglican” simply expresses the fact that the worldwide churches stemmed from the Church of England itself, i.e. the “Anglo-Saxon” church.

[3] Beckwith, Roger. Elders in every city, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 2003), p.55-63

[4] This was based on that of 1552, though with some changes in matters of ritual.

[5] The word “gospel” means “good news” and in greek is translated “evangel.”

[6] It is estimated that by 2010, 50% of English Anglicanism will be Evangelical: Brierly, Peter. “Evangelicals in the Church of England” http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/article3.asp - accessed 21.12.05
[7] Canon A2. The canons of the Church of England, (Church House Publishing, 2000)