Arthur Middleton looks at the origin of the Anglican Communion

‘… a fellowship within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces or Regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury …’ Lambeth 1930


The word Anglican derives from the Latin anglicanus, meaning English. Ecclesia Anglicana described the Catholic Church in the provinces of Canterbury and York throughout the Middle Ages and its significance increased when those provinces rejected papal authority and it then described a type of Catholicism distinct from Roman. Later the term ‘Anglo-Catholic’ was used for the latter while ‘Anglican’ was used in a wider sense to describe the churches in full organizational fellowship with Canterbury. The term ‘Anglican Communion’ emerged to describe the sum-total of those churches.

The Englishness of the term may be unpopular where nationalities differ. Suffice it to say that a more appropriate term has hitherto not been conceived, and many Anglicans worldwide are happy enough on historical and sentimental grounds to retain it. So the word ‘Anglicanism’ came to mean the system of doctrine and practice upheld by those Christians who are in communion with the see of Canterbury, but also in a more restricted sense in its claim to possess a religious outlook distinguishable from that of other Christian communions both Catholic and Protestant.

Anglicanism became the all-embracing term to describe an organization, a faith, a way of life, a movement of thought, and a system of culture. These aspects will need looking at after first considering the organization that is called the Anglican Communion. As the 1930 Lambeth Conference described it, the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of free and independent churches whose bishops meet in conference at Lambeth and recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as their senior.

It consists of the Church of England (the only part still retaining state establishment), the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Anglican Churches in Australia, Canada, Papua New Guinea, and the Southern Cone of America; the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; the Provinces of Southern Africa, the West Indies, West Africa, Central Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Myanmar (Burma), Tanzania, the Indian Ocean, Melanesia, Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Zaire, Korea, Mexico, and South East Asia; the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Japan), the Church of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Episcopal Church of Brazil, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Philippine Episcopal Church, and various ‘extra-provincial’ dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury or another Anglican Primate (or his see). The Lusitanian Church (Portuguese Episcopal Church) and the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church are also members of the Anglican Communion. The United Churches of South India, North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are members of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference, and the Primates’ Meeting. The Anglican Communion is in communion with them and with the Philippine Independent Church; the Old Catholic Churches and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar are in communion with most Anglican Churches.


Initially, the Anglo-Saxon character or Englishness of Anglicanism may be embarrassing and tempt us to dispense with it. However, an Indian Anglican, Revd E Sambayya has pointed out that the genius of Anglicanism lies in the fact that it represents the Reformed Catholicism of the West as expressed by the English people:

The Anglican Communion is of the Universal Church, which has come down through the ages with the precious heritage of the Fathers, rich experiences of the Middle Ages, benefits of the Reformation, and the healthy influences of the Evangelical and Tractarian movements. Through her sanctified common sense, and her sense of history, the Anglican Communion has maintained her Catholic character unimpaired through the ages … (The Genius of the Anglican Communion)

Like the British race Anglicanism is of mixed blood, originating from an amalgam of several springs. No one dominating name stamps itself on our history so that it did not become Cranmerianism or Hookerianism. We are uncertain about who brought Christianity to Britain, Gallican merchants, multi-racial Roman soldiers or slaves. Irenaeus thought Britain was unconverted in the second century but Origen and Tertullian acknowledged its presence in the early third century. It became organized into dioceses and the bishops of London, York and Lincoln attended the Council of Arles in 314 and in 360 three bishops attended the Council of Ariminum. Through the historical turning points of the nation and Church it survived to embrace a rich heritage where Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norman were blended. Great scholars and pastors have moulded that heritage in Augustine of Canterbury, Paulinus, Theodore of Tarsus, Anselm, Lanfranc and Becket, Columba, Cuthbert, Bede, Wilfrid, Grossesteste and Hugh of Lincoln, martyrs like Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Charles I, and Laud, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes and the Carolines, George Herbert, John Colet and Donne, the Puritan Divines and the Cambridge Platonists, the heroes of the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement. From the second Lambeth Conference the assembled bishops have sought to remember that heritage through visits to the places associated with our Anglican ancestors. So we must resist the temptation to dumb down the Englishness of the Anglican Communion because since the nineteenth century, when she reached self-consciousness, its bishops have treasured their English background and heritage.

Anglican Communion

The term ‘Anglican Communion’ did not appear until 1851. Initially the overseas expansion of ‘The Church of England’ had no episcopal government and came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. Ordinands came from to England for ordination but were often lost through illness, storm or piracy. Everything was done through Commissaries. Thomas Bray founded SPCK and SPG, societies that encouraged the evolution of the Anglican Communion and the development of its self-consciousness. Politics, religious and secular, delayed the appointment of America’s first bishop Samuel Seabury, until 1784. Dissenters, and the requirement of English bishops for oaths of allegiance inconsistent with the requirements of American citizenship, impeded any progress. The Danish Church offered to help but Martin Routh, President of Magdalene College, Oxford, advised Seabury that the Danish succession was invalid, telling him that they would not find there what they wanted, because the Scandinavian succession – including Norwegian and Swedish as well as Danish – was untrustworthy. Routh diverted Seabury to the ‘unimpeachable claims of the Scottish episcopate’. Sixty- nine years later an American divine visiting Routh told him that he had lived to see thirty bishops and 1,500 clergy in the American Church.

The American Charles Inglis was consecrated in 1787 at Lambeth to be the first colonial Bishop of Nova Scotia and in 1793 a bishop for Quebec. In 1814 the Bishop of London was relieved of responsibility for India when Thomas Fanshawe Middleton was consecrated Bishop of Calcutta, with bishops for Barbados and Jamaica ten years later and in 1835 Daniel Corrie became Bishop of Madras. Australia was an archdeaconry of Calcutta until 1836 when William Broughton became Bishop of Australia and then of Sidney when other Australian bishoprics were set up. The Diocese of Bombay was established in 1837, and bishops for Toronto and Newfoundland in 1840 made ten colonial bishops. With the inauguration of the Colonial Bishoprics Fund the overseas episcopate began to expand so that by the time of the First Lambeth Conference in 1867 there were 144 bishops that included assistant bishops. They represented thirty-five dioceses in USA, ten dioceses in Canada, six in India, nine in Australia, seven in New Zealand, and six in the West Indies with a diocese in Gibraltar, in Jerusalem and in Honolulu.

Synodical Government

During this time synodical government developed, first in America and afterwards in the colonies. On 27 September 1785, the first General Convention of what was to become PECUSA met at Philadelphia and formulated a constitution accepting synodical government with lay representation and establishing rules for the election of bishops by clergy and laity in each diocese. A second General Convention in 1786 approved and adopted a Constitution and a set of Canons and a Prayer Book which remained in use, with slight variations, for 113 years.

These events influenced the British colonies, where synods came into existence before Canterbury Convocation was revived. During the nineteenth century diocesan councils and provincial synods developed with the title of archbishop being assumed by some of the metropolitans. From 1855 bishops were being consecrated outside Britain with McDougall in Borneo and Wilson in Calcutta. Gradually, independence was granted to dioceses with provincial organization and by the end of the twentieth century this had been extended everywhere. Dioceses outside provincial organization, though free from state control, depend directly on the Archbishop of Canterbury or another Anglican Primate (or his see), but few of these remain. In Britain we have seen the disestablishment of the Irish and Welsh Churches along with churches in the British Commonwealth. A few Anglican sees were established in China and Japan by missionaries, and also in Jerusalem, Iran, and Egypt, and in scattered places elsewhere.

A network of support undergirds the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Lambeth Conference, regular Primates meetings and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Lambeth and the Archbishop

Today the Anglican Communion is scattered worldwide with seventy million members. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the visible head but the senior bishop who invites all the bishops to a decennial conference at Lambeth. There is no body that can legislate for it. Each national or provincial church legislates autonomously within strict limits for its own dioceses. Outside these limits each diocese legislates for itself under its own diocesan bishop, who has jurisdiction in his own area. This means that the Lambeth Conference is essentially a deliberative body of equals.

The resolutions of the Conference have no binding authority. Naturally, in fact, tremendous weight is attached to the solemn recommendations of so many bishops with so much worldwide experience. Their published report is taken to the provinces and dioceses, where the necessary decisions are taken relevant to the local church. Most of the recommendations of the Conference provide what in legal terms is called persuasive precedents, but the local churches are not obliged to accept the recommendations of Lambeth and sometimes do not, as we have seen in relation to Issues in Human Sexuality.

The Anglican Consultative Council was established in 1969 with clerical, lay, and episcopal representation from each province of the Anglican Communion. It is merely an advisory body. The Anglican primates have met regularly since 1979.

So there is no central government in the Anglican Communion. The effective unit of government is the diocese, modelled on the pattern of the early Church, where the bishop, surrounded by his presbyters, was responsible for diocesan matters and also acted as the ‘liaison officer’ between his own and other dioceses. A bishop has no autocratic powers. Within his own diocese, he has to work with a number of committees while in the larger world outside he is continually meeting his fellow-bishops from a larger or smaller circle and their influence generally checks the development of any autocratic tendencies.

Arthur Middleton is a tutor at St Chad’s Durham, a writer, lecturer and retreat conductor. His book Fathers and Anglicans shows how Anglican divines developed ‘a patristic mind’, which is neither afraid to reason nor ashamed to adore