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Anglicanism, one of the major branches of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and a form of Christianity that includes features of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Anglicanism is loosely organized in the Anglican Communion, a worldwide family of religious bodies that represents the offspring of the Church of England and recognizes the archbishop of Canterbury as its nominal head. It prizes traditional worship and structure but operates autonomously and flexibly in different locales. Although the Anglican Communion has a creed—the Thirty-nine Articles—it has been disposed to allow widely divergent interpretations. Thus, Anglicans see themselves as possessing a cluster of historic pieties and procedural loyalties but few firm rules. The Book of Common Prayer, a compilation of the church’s liturgical forms originally issued in 1549, represents the faith’s independence from Rome and remains the hallmark of Anglican identity. The prayer book derives from ancient English spirituality and embodies the uniqueness of Anglican Christianity.


Christianity in England

The Church of England, mother church of the Anglican Communion, has a long history. Christianity probably began to be practiced in England not later than the early 3rd century. By the 4th century the church was established well enough to send three British bishops—of Londinium (London), Eboracum (York), and Lindum (Lincoln)—to the Council of Arles (in present-day France) in 314. In the 5th century, after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain and the Anglo-Saxons had invaded it, St. Illtud and St. Patrick performed missionary work in Wales and in Ireland, respectively. Isolated from continental Christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries, Christianity in the British Isles, especially in the north, was influenced by Irish Christianity, which was organized around monasteries rather than episcopal sees. About 563 St. Columba founded an influential monastic community on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides islands of Scotland.


An important step in the history of the English church was taken in 596, when St. Augustine was sent on a mission to England by Pope Gregory the Great. He was charged with evangelizing the largely pagan southern English kingdoms and establishing Roman ecclesiastical organization. He successfully preached to the king of Kent, converting him and a large number of his followers in 597. Augustine’s archbishopric at Canterbury soon became the symbolic seat of England’s church, which established important ties to Rome under his leadership. Subsequent mission work, such as that of St. Aidan in northern England about 634, helped to solidify the English church. At the synod of Whitby in 664, the church of Northumbria (one of the northern English kingdoms) broke its ties with the Celtic church and accepted Roman usage, bringing the English church more fully into line with Roman and continental practices.

The early church in England was a distinctive fusion of British, Celtic, and Roman influences. Although adopting the episcopal structure favoured by the church of Rome, it retained powerful centres in the monasteries. The most important British sees were the archbishoprics of York and Canterbury, which often competed for primacy. Representatives of the church, such as the great historian and scholar Bede, played an important role in the development of English culture. The church sometimes found itself at odds with the English monarchy, as when St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, went into exile during controversies over the investiture of William Rufus and Henry I. The martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, the most famous case of church-state conflict, demonstrated the church’s concern to protect its integrity against the throne in the 12th century. The writings of John Wycliffe questioned the form of the medieval church and became an early protest against control of the English church by Rome.


Under King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the Church of England broke with Rome, largely because Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Wishing no reform—except along the lines of Erasmus’s Christian humanism—Henry intended to replace Rome’s authority over the English church with his own. Upon Henry’s death, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer began changes that allied the Church of England with the Reformation. His The Book of Common Prayerrevised traditional forms of worship to incorporate Protestant ideas. These efforts, however, were overturned by Queen Mary, who sought to restore Roman Catholicism in England. When Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558, the Reformation in England triumphed. The theologian John Jewel (1522–71) wrote that the Church of England had returned to ancient precedent. Richard Hooker (1554?–1600) defended the church against attacks by English Puritans and Catholics. Although the Puritans achieved political power in the Commonwealth in the mid-17th century, the subsequent Restoration (1660) marked the beginning of more than a century of great influence for the Church of England. The church dominated England’s religious life, becoming a considerable social and spiritual force and closely allying itself with the power of the throne. It generated impressive forms of philanthropy, and clergy commonly performed the duties of civil servants.


The church’s hold on English religious life began to wane in the 18th century, despite impressive reform efforts. John WesleyCharles Simeon, John Newton, and other clergy associated with the Evangelical revival prompted a surge of new religious fervour. Evangelical laity such as William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect fought slavery and encouraged social reform. In the early 19th century the Anglo-Catholic (High Church) Oxford movement, led by John Henry NewmanJohn Keble, and E.B. Pusey, attempted to recover the ancient liturgy and to respond to social concerns. The church made impressive efforts to encompass the diversity of modern English life while retaining its traditional identity.