The Church of England
September 1971

“The Church of England,” Ensign, Sept. 1971, 57

The Church of England

With some historical pride, the Church of of England traces its origin back to very early times when Christianity first found its way across the Channel to the islands of Britannia. It is important for one to understand some of England’s early background in order to appreciate more fully the statement, “King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn was the occasion and not the cause of the establishment of the Church of England.”

About the time the apostle Paul was starting on his first missionary journey, the legions of the Roman Empire had penetrated far enough north to encompass what is now called England. Some traditions hold that Paul personally visited the conquered Britons. Whether this is true or not cannot be definitely determined, but one can say with some confidence that the Christian faith was established in Britain through colonists, travelers, and missionaries. Although the English sector of Christianity had not provided evidence of great intellectual or organizational strength in its earlier years, it was sufficiently established to have three bishops invited by Constantine to Arles in A.D. 314 to discuss problems that were plaguing the church.

When barbarians invaded the northern reaches of the Roman Empire, England was cut off from direct contact with Rome for about 150 years, and many petty kingdoms were created by the heathen invaders. Nevertheless, missionary efforts continued.

“In the year 597 Augustine and his monks landed in Kent, the territory of the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon petty kings, Ethelbert. Their local success was immediate. Within a short time the king and his people accepted Christianity, a Church was founded at Canterbury that was destined to become the center of the Anglican Communion, and plans had been made for missionary efforts in the other tribal States of the Angles and the Saxons.”1

Even as early as the late 600s, debates were held on whether the church should look to Rome or to local authority for church leadership; the decision then was to align with Rome.

The church became the most potent cohesive force for unifying the multitude of Anglo-Saxon tribes, and it continued to develop through the eleventh century. Under the influence of Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, native Britons were trained to assume clerical responsibility. Consequently, the next twenty-four occupants of the archbishop’s chair were drawn from among the Saxons.

Under the rule of William the Conqueror, the Saxons were defeated in A.D. 1066, and from that time on England was greatly influenced, religiously and politically, by western Europe. The affairs of church and state lost their distinction as bishops began to occupy positions of both secular and ecclesiastical authority. An example of the resulting conflict can be found in the struggle that developed between Archbishop Thomas à Becket and King Henry II in their efforts to determine where the authority of each began and ended. Archbishop Becket was murdered in A.D. 1170, and a bloody era followed; but church law was victorious. Sentiment against Rome and its influence in English affairs, however, continued for the next several centuries.

The occasion for the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England came when King Henry VIII requested papal permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order that he might marry Anne Boleyn. The hope of this proposed union was that a male heir might be born to succeed Henry VIII. Although popes had granted such permission before (e.g., in the cases of Louis XII of France and Margaret of Scotland), Pope Clement VII denied Henry VIII’s request to annul his marriage. In 1529, after a bitter controversy, Henry called Parliament together and enacted statutes that would end papal authority in England. On November 3, 1534, Parliament passed the famous Supremacy Act, and the church in England became the Church of England. The king was declared to be “the only Supreme Head in the earth of the Church of England.” That the ecclesiastical and secular power could center in one monarch was defended this way:

“No reformer thought this royal power to be other than an ancient prerogative rightfully possessed by the Christian monarch. ‘The Kings of Israel exercised it; so did the Roman emperors; so did the ancient Kings of England,’ wrote Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and most staunchly conservative of Henry’s ecclesiastics. ‘Surely I can see no reason,’ he continued, ‘why any man should be offended that the King is called the head of the Church of England rather than the head of the Realm of England, seeing that the Church of England consisteth of the same sort of people at this day that are comprised in this word Realm. …’”2

As noted before, the refusal to annul Henry’s marriage was the occasion and not the cause of the founding of the Church of England. The causes may be more appropriately linked to certain growing feelings of nationalism and reformation and the view that the Roman Church and its authorities were guilty of the following abuses:

1. Unjust financial demands by the church on the people

2. Interference in what were believed to be local or national political concerns

3. The use of papal authority as though it were secular

4. The seeking and buying of church offices

5. The growing wealth accumulated in monastic orders

6. The selling of indulgences and an inordinate concern with relics

The Protestant reformation, which had received great impetus on the continent from the work of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, also had its impact in England. A good share of Europe seemed ripe for revolt against Rome.

Henry VIII found occasion at this time to break with Rome, but with the stated intent of retaining the doctrine and practice of catholic (universal) Christianity intact. Consequently, of all churches arising in the Reformation period, the Church of England is most like the Roman Catholic Church. And for the average layman, there was little observable difference in the church after the break with Rome. The majority of English people accepted the change without any problem, and the way was then opened for the newly created national church to effect some changes in church practice. For example:

1. Scriptures were to be made available in the language of the people.

2. Less emphasis was to be placed on indulgences, pilgrimages, and relics.

3. More frequent doctrinal instruction was to be provided by the clergy on such things as the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

King Henry VIII desired to retain the Catholic faith and was not desirous of aligning himself with the reformation ideas adopted on the continent by those who followed Luther, Calvin, and others. From a doctrinal point of view, Henry also hoped to retain the title “Defender of the Faith” given him earlier by Pope Leo X of Rome. And while the desire to retain the Catholic doctrine was evident in most of King Henry’s acts, the break with Rome gave encouragement to the Protestants, and English life was increasingly influenced by Protestant thought.

After King Henry’s death, his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, assumed the throne in 1547; and with the assistance of the new king’s adult advisers, the Church of England moved even further in a Protestant direction. However, Edward’s administration ended with his early death July 6, 1553.

After some conflict, the throne was assumed by Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, who was a devout Catholic. Mary succeeded in bringing the church back under papal control at Rome, and was recognized and absolved from heresy. Parliament voted to restore papal authority on November 30, 1554. Queen Mary’s reign was marked by so much bloodshed and persecution of Protestant leaders that most history books refer to her as “Bloody Mary.” More than three hundred persons were burned at the stake, and English sentiment toward Rome turned hostile. Mary died in 1558.

When Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, came to the throne, her political sensitivity had a calming effect on England, and eventually Parliament passed the new Supremacy Act in 1559. Elizabeth insisted that the title of “Supreme Head” of the Church be changed to “Supreme Governor,” which was less offensive to her Catholic subjects. She placed English sovereignty first in religious affairs and made some compromises to bring more allegiance to the throne from both Protestant and Catholic factions. The liturgy was revised in the Book of Common Prayer so it would be less offensive to Catholics, and in 1559 the Act of Uniformity ordered that all religious services be conducted in accordance with the approved pattern.

In this same year four bishops who had been ordained under Henry VIII and Edward VI united to consecrate the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. The Church of England looks to this act of consecration for the maintenance of apostolic succession. The validity of this succession, however, was officially denied at Rome in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII on grounds of “defect in intention.”

The struggle for a uniform religion and pattern of worship under Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity incited many Puritans of different persuasions and approaches to react against the church and crown. Serious conflict between the Roman Catholics and the crown also occurred during the last years of Queen Elizabeth’s life, producing a bitterness not yet entirely erased. The idea of religious toleration did not develop until the latter half of the seventeenth century, when it became apparent that the religious differences that could not be cured would have to be endured.

At least two significant religious movements have grown out of the Church of England. They are the Methodist and Protestant Episcopal churches of America. Neither was intended originally as a separate religion from the standpoint of church doctrine, but both have had their impact as separate sects. The Protestant Episcopal Church is now in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Methodist is not.

A little more than a century after the Church of England began establishing itself in the American colonies, John Wesley, an ordained priest in the Church of England, and his brother Charles were instrumental in leading a movement within the church to stimulate more methodical devotion. At Oxford in 1729, a small group of religious men formed a society dedicated to improving their spiritual lives. Other fellow churchmen derisively called them “Methodists.” At a small meeting in London’s Aldersgate Street in 1838, John Wesley, while listening to Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, experienced a deeply moving spiritual assurance that he had achieved salvation through Christ alone. This conviction and the message of this experience were central to his work for the rest of his life.

A contemporary of Wesley’s, George Whitefield, an ordained deacon in the Church of England and an impressive orator, stimulated open-air preaching and the circuit-rider style of conducting meetings and proselyting; and it was this mode of preaching that John Wesley employed when he delivered 40,000 sermons and traveled 250,000 miles throughout England, bringing the church to the people. Charles Wesley, John’s brother, made a prodigious contribution to religious literature by composing the words and music for hundreds of hymns.

Whitefield and John Wesley later separated theologically over the issue of Calvinism. Whitefield adopted Calvin’s concept of predestination, but John Wesley rejected the concept that God is a tyrant who predestined some to salvation and others to damnation; he accepted him as a God of love. This rift led to the early division of Methodists into those who followed Whitefield as Calvinists and the Wesleyan Methodists who agreed with John Wesley and what is called the Arminian path.

The Church of England was not in a position to adjust to the Wesleyan movement, which spread rapidly throughout the British Isles and even to the colonies in America. As a result, an estrangement occurred that accounted for Methodism’s becoming a separate church movement. In 1784 John Wesley took the necessary steps to legally constitute what amounted to a charter for Wesleyan Methodists.

Like some other reformers, John Wesley had not intended to establish a separate church. In fact, he himself remained a priest in the Anglican Church to his death, but arrangements were nevertheless made for the Methodist societies to expand during and after his life.

Today there are more than thirteen million Methodists in the United States and more than seven million in fifty other countries.

The Anglican faith or Protestant Episcopal Church was first established in the American colonies in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. This was within a few years of the death of Queen Elizabeth and the start of James I’s struggle with dissident Puritans and other political problems. The King James Version of the Bible was not yet ready for publication, and Shakespeare was at the height of his literary career. Captain John Smith wrote:

“… we did hang an awning [which is an old sail] to three or four trees … till we cut planks, our pulpit was a bar of wood nailed to two neighboring trees. This was our church till we built a homely thing like a barn. … Yet we had daily Common Prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two sermons, and every three months the Holy Communion.”3

The religion of the Church of England found its way into America together with many of the English colonists. It had the benefits of being the “established” church from the beginning. The responsibility for the direct leadership of these Virginia clergymen was given to the Bishop of London. But the three-thousand-mile distance between them presented unusually difficult hurdles for church government, and gradually more and more authority was assumed at the local colonial level. For 177 years there was no bishop in the colonies; thus generations lived and died without being confirmed.

The Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 brought with them an abiding dislike for the crown and the Church of England, and so opposition to the church was an early reality of colonial life. In an ironic effort to throw off the shackles of what the Puritans considered to be an unacceptable church, they created communities marked by an even greater degree of religious intolerance than the Puritans themselves had experienced in England.

This initial opposition by many colonists to the crown and the Church of England caused the growth of this church to develop slowly. In fact, the Anglicans were the minority group and were considered to be of the wealthy class, distrusted by many for being loyal to England during the colonists’ fight for independence. The membership of this group, however, included a large proportion of the professional class, such as lawyers, doctors, merchants, and landowners, and it is interesting to note that a large number of the early founders of the United States of America were identified with the Church of England.

Nevertheless, Anglicanism in America was handicapped by not being organized into dioceses. The source of real help and direction for the church was the Bishop of London. When the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Revolutionary War began, there was no American bishop or organization among the parishes to give any real stability to the colonial church.

When the crisis of war came, many Anglicans who felt an allegiance to England suffered indignities at the hands of those loyal to the colonies, and a number of them fled to Canada or back to England, which further weakened the church in the colonies. Financial support from the colonial government, which it had received as the established church, was almost totally cut off. Because of these trying circumstances, the American parishes of the Church of England were in a sorry state by the time the war ended and independence had been achieved.

After the war William White, rector of the famous Christ’s Church in Philadelphia and chaplain of the Continental Congress, was instrumental in spearheading efforts to create a federation of the separate churches that would ultimately declare independence from the rule of the Church of England. The spirit of independence and constitutional convention that was so apparent in the former colonies was manifest in the church as well.

In order to preserve the basic principle of the traditional Episcopalian form of church government, it was essential that American bishops be consecrated. For this important authority Samuel Seabury went to England and requested consecration by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Legal restrictions made this impossible, since the Act of Supremacy required an oath of allegiance to the crown from all who would be so ordained. Seabury subsequently went to the bishops of the free Scottish Episcopal Church and received ordination as a bishop on November 4, 1784.

After Bishop Seabury’s return to America, rapid progress was made—though not without difficulty—toward ordaining clergymen and calling a general constitutional convention. After several meetings, William White and Samuel Provoost were ordained to the office of bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Book of Common Prayer was revised to meet the needs of an American independent church; and the renowned General Convention of 1789 was held. The constitution adopted during that convention was illustrative of the spirit of the revolutionary times. It provided that the Protestant Episcopal Church be free from all foreign authority and have exclusive power to govern its own communion. It also advocated that the government of the Church be composed of a more representative group of combined clergy and laity. Through all this, emphasis was placed on maintaining major doctrinal ideas as advocated by the Church of England.

The members of the Anglican communion are referred to by many as Anglo-Catholics. The effort of the Church of England and its affiliated national churches has been directed toward retaining that which they consider to be fundamental to the universal (or catholic) faith. Consequently, there are profound similarities between the faith and practice of Anglicans and of Roman Catholics. Many refer to the Church of England as the bridge church between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants because it has retained the ancient Catholic sacraments and creeds.

The government of the Anglican Church is centered in its bishops, with the Archbishop of Canterbury being the nominal, if not hierarchical, head of the church. A fundamental principle of church authority is the belief in apostolic succession and the idea that one must be ordained in order to preside. Individuals are also ordained to various priesthood offices, which include deacons, priests, and bishops. The bishop presides over a diocese, which generally includes at least six parishes over which priests serve as pastors. The headquarters of a diocese is located in the cathedral church (the church where the bishop presides). A deacon’s responsibility is in the parish as an assistant to the priest, with limitations on performing certain sacraments.

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury does not govern the church in a monarchical and hierarchical sense, as does the pope over the Catholic Church, he does preside at the Lambeth Conference. This conference hosts over three hundred bishops who meet every ten years to discuss issues relating to the church and the world. The group assembled does not have legal power over the church, but its decisions do exercise a moral influence.

As with all other churches that profess the traditional Christian creeds, the concept of God for a member of the Anglican faith is triune—a trinity in unity. According to the Book of Common Prayer, the important point is that “God should be experienced in a trinitarian fashion.”

The scriptures of the Bible are not considered to be literally without error but are believed to contain the record of God’s revelation to man. A wide latitude for interpretation is allowed within the church, which enables some to hold vastly differing concepts about such doctrinal issues as the virgin birth, the creation, sacraments, and the role of Christ, as well as the resurrection.

Anglicans have been noted for fostering a dignified and reverential liturgy, which is conducted in church buildings that are usually architecturally impressive. The service comes principally from the Book of Common Prayer, which is the same in all parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion with the exception of some minor local variations. The service itself draws heavily upon excerpts from the Bible, which are read, sung, or recited by the priest and/or the congregation.

Any baptism by water in the name of the Trinity is considered valid by the Anglicans; however, infant baptism is usually performed by sprinkling. Only a bishop can confirm a person. It is believed that this is a sacramental rite by which the Holy Spirit is conferred. An Anglican does not believe that his church is the only true church but that it is one of the members of “the body [or the church] of Christ on the earth.”

Particularly since World War II, the Anglican Church has been attempting to involve itself more in the social issues affecting mankind, such as poverty, urban renewal, and civil rights.

Some influential Episcopalian scholars, such as Bishop John A. T. Robinson of Woolwich, England, and the late Bishop James Pike of the diocese of California have challenged many of the doctrines traditionally held by many in the church, such as the nature of the Trinity, Christ, and the virgin birth.

Perhaps the major current trend within the Anglican communion is that of the ecumenical movement, or the attempt to unite churches. The fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope in Rome visited each other recently for the first time in history may be one of the major steps in bringing greater union between Protestants and Catholics. In some way, perhaps, the bridge church may be instrumental in effecting greater union among the millions of “estranged brethren.” At least that is the hope of many of the forty million members of the Anglican communion.


  1. Powel Mills Dawley, Chapters in Church History (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), p. 98.

  2. Ibid., p. 157.

  3. Powel Mills Dawley, The Episcopal Church and Its Work (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1955), pp. 24–25.

  • Dr. Christensen had served a short time as president of the Mexico Mission when he was called to become associate commissioner for seminaries and institutes in the Church Educational System. Previously he was director of the institute of religion at the University of Utah. He and his family are members of Yalecrest Ward, Bonneville Stake.

The Most Reverend Michael Ramsey (left), the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, is shown here officiating at the coronation of Elizabeth II in June 1953 at Westminster Abbey. In addition to her other duties and titles, the queen as sovereign of Britain is anointed as the defender of the faith.

Used only on rare state occasions, the British royal carriage or “gold coach” is elegantly ornamented with a gold encrusted overlay of intricate design.

John Wesley (1703–1791), founder of Methodism in England and America, was an extraordinary preacher. Traveling more than 250,000 miles in the British Isles alone—much of it on horseback—Wesley delivered close to 50,000 sermons.