Church of England

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The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England, and acts as the "mother" and senior branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, as well as a founding member of the Porvoo Communion.

Theology and sociology

The Church of England considers itself to stand both in a reformed tradition and in a catholic (but not Roman Catholic) church tradition:

  • Reformed insofar as many of the principles of the early Protestants as well as the subsequent Protestant Reformation have influenced it, and insofar as it does not accept Papal authority.
  • Catholic in that it views itself as the "unbroken continuation of the early apostolic and later medieval" "universal church", rather than as a "new formation".
Canterbury Cathedral from the southwest. It houses the cathedra or throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is the mother church of the Diocese of Canterbury (east Kent) and the Church of England, and the focus for the Anglican Communion.
Canterbury Cathedral from the southwest. It houses the cathedra or throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is the mother church of the Diocese of Canterbury (east Kent) and the Church of England, and the focus for the Anglican Communion.

In both beliefs and practices, or forms of churchmanship, the Church of England is mixed: in some of its congregations worship remains closer to Roman Catholicism (see High Church) than most Protestant churches, but in others it is difficult to distinguish between the Anglican forms in use and the uses of other Evangelical bodies (see Low Church). Its constitution affirms many relatively conservative theological beliefs, its liturgical form of worship is traditional, and its organisation embodies a belief in the appropriateness of the historical episcopal hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and dioceses.

In many people's eyes the Church of England has as its primary distinguishing heritage its breadth and "open-mindedness". Today, beliefs and practices range from those of the Anglo-Catholics, who emphasise liturgy and sacraments, to the far more preaching-centred and less ritual based services of Evangelicals and the high-octane gatherings of the Charismatics. But this " broad church" faces various contentious doctrinal questions raised by the development of modern society, such as conflicts over the ordination of women as priests (accepted in 1992 and begun in 1994), and the status of non-celibate homosexual clergy (still unsettled today). In July 2005 the divisions were once again apparent, as the General Synod voted to "set in train" the process of allowing the consecration of women as bishops; in February 2006 the Synod voted overwhelmingly for "further exploration" of a scheme that would also allow parishes that did not want a woman bishop to opt for a man instead.

Governing and administration

The spiritual head of the church is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the Primate of All England and Metropolitan. He is also the focus of unity for the worldwide Anglican Communion of independent national or regional churches. The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams has served as Archbishop of Canterbury since 2002.

The British monarch (at present, Elizabeth II), has the constitutional title of " Supreme Governor of the Church of England".

The Church of England has a legislative body, the General Synod. Measures of Synod have to be approved but cannot be amended by the UK Parliament before receiving the Royal Assent and becoming part of the law of England. The church has its own judicial branch, known as the Ecclesiastical courts, which likewise form a part of the UK court system, and have powers especially in relation to the care of churches and churchyards and the discipline of the clergy.

In addition to England proper, the jurisdiction of the Church of England extends to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, and a few parishes in Flintshire, Wales. In recent years, expatriate congregations on the continent of Europe have become the Diocese in Europe.


All Rectors and Vicars are appointed by Patrons, who may be private individuals, corporate bodies such as cathedrals, colleges or trusts, by the bishop, or even appointed by the crown. No clergyman can be instituted and inducted into a parish without swearing the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty, and taking the Oath of Canonical Obedience "in all things lawful and honest" to the bishop. Usually the archdeacon inducts into the actual possession of the benefice property - Church and Parsonage. Curates are appointed by Rectors and Vicars, but if priests-in-charge then by the bishop after consultations with the patron. Cathedral clergy are appointed some by the Crown, some by the bishop, and some by the Dean and Chapter themselves. Clergy officiate in a diocese either because they hold office as beneficed clergy, or are licensed by the bishop when appointed (e.g. curates), or simply with permission.

The process of appointing diocesan bishops is more complex, and is handled by a body called the Crown Nominations Committee, which submits names to the Prime Minister (acting on behalf of the Crown) for consideration. This process is described in the article Appointment of Church of England Bishops.


The Church of England traces its formal corporate history from the 597 Augustinian mission, stresses its continuity and identity with the primitive universal Western church, and notes the consolidation of its particular independent and national character in the post- Reformation events of Tudor England. This interpretation is disputed by the Roman Catholic Church which sees the creation of the Church of England as marking a break with English Christianity prior to the Reformation.

Christianity arrived in Britain in the first or second centuries (probably via the tin trade route through Ireland and Spain), and existed independently of the Church of Rome, as did many other Christian communities of that era. Records note British bishops as attending the Council of Arles in 314, and, even more significantly, Britain was the home of Pelagius, who nearly defeated Augustine of Hippo's doctrine of original sin. The Pope sent Saint Augustine from Rome in the 6th century to evangelize the Angles in ( 597). With the help of Christians already residing in Kent, he established his church in Canterbury, the former capital of Kent (it is now Maidstone), and became the first in the series of archbishops of Canterbury.

Stained glass window in Rochester Cathedral, Kent
Stained glass window in Rochester Cathedral, Kent

Simultaneously, the Celtic Church of St.Columba continued to evangelize Scotland. The Celtic Church of North Britain submitted in some sense to the 'authority' of Rome at the Synod of Whitby in 644. Over the next few centuries, the Roman system introduced by Augustine gradually absorbed the pre-existing Celtic Christian churches.

England adhered to the Roman Catholic church for nearly a thousand years, before the church separated from Rome in 1534, during the reign of King Henry VIII. A theological separation had been foreshadowed by various movements within the English church such as the Lollards, but the English Reformation gained political support when Henry VIII wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Under pressure from Catherine's nephew Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Clement VII refused the annulment and eventually Henry, although theologically a Catholic, decided to become Supreme Head of the Church of England to ensure the annulment of his marriage.

Henry maintained a strong preference for the traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of the Church of England. Under his son, Edward VI, the church became theologically more radical, before rejoining the Roman church during the reign of Queen Mary I, in 1555. The settlement under Elizabeth I (from 1558) of a mildly Protestant, catholic, apostolic, and established church (i.e. subject to and part of the state) that accommodates a wide range of theological positions has essentially been its character since.

Related churches

The Church of England's sister church in Ireland, the Church of Ireland, also went through the reformation in the sixteenth century. Unlike in England, the majority of the populace did not go along with this, preferring continued adherence to Roman Catholic, but the Church of Ireland retained official established church status in Ireland until 1871. To this day it remains organised on an all-Ireland basis.

In Scotland, the Church of Scotland is recognised in law as the " national church" although it is not established in the same way as the Church of England. The Church of Scotland has a Presbyterian system of government. A smaller Anglican church also exists in Scotland, namely the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is in full communion with the Church of England. Its history is complicated, involving periods of official promotion and persecution for a time, because of its association with Jacobitism, it had to operate sub rosa.

When the Episcopal Church in the U.S. became independent of the Church of England after the American War of Independence, the leadership of the Church of England did not believe itself legally able to consecrate new bishops without requiring of them the standard oath of loyalty to the crown. Consequently it was the non-juring bishops of the non-established Scottish Episcopal Church who consecrated the first American bishops, until new legislation allowed the Church of England to relax its policy.

The Church in Wales, previously a part of the Church of England, was disestablished in 1920 and at the same time became an independent member of the Anglican Communion.

The Church of England stands in full communion with the other churches in the Anglican Communion, and separately with the other signatories of the Porvoo Communion. The Church of England is also a full member of the Conference of European Churches.

Financial situation

Hereford is one of the church's forty-three cathedrals, many with histories stretching back centuries.
Hereford is one of the church's forty-three cathedrals, many with histories stretching back centuries.

The Church of England, although an established church, does not receive any direct government support. Donations comprise its largest source of income, though it also relies heavily on the income from its various historic endowments. As of 2005, the Church of England had estimated total outgoings of around £900 million.

Historically, individual parishes both raised and spent the vast majority of the Church's funding, meaning that clergy pay depended on the wealth of the parish, and parish advowsons (the right to appoint clergy to particular parishes) could become extremely valuable gifts. Individual dioceses also held considerable assets: the Diocese of Durham possessed such vast wealth and temporal power that its Bishop became known as the ' Prince-Bishop'. Since the mid-19th century, however, the Church has made various moves to 'equalise' the situation, and clergy within each diocese now receive standard stipends paid from diocesan funds. Meanwhile, the Church moved the majority of its income-generating assets (which in the past included a great deal of land, but today mostly take the form of financial stocks and bonds) out of the hands of individual clergy and bishops to the care of a body called the Church Commissioners, which uses these funds to pay a range of non-parish expenses, including clergy pensions, and the expenses of cathedrals and bishops' houses. These funds amount to around £3.9 billion, and generate income of around £164 million each year ( as of 2003), around a fifth of the Church's overall income.

The Church Commissioners give some of this money as 'grants' to local parishes; but the majority of the financial burden of church upkeep and the work of local parishes still rests with individual parish and diocese, which meet their requirements from donations. Direct donations to the church (not including legacies) come to around £460 million per year, while parish and diocese reserve funds generate another £100 million. Funds raised in individual parishes account for almost all of this money, and the majority of it remains in the parish which raises it, meaning that the resources available to parishes still vary enormously, according to the level of donations they can raise.

Most parishes give a portion of their money, however, to the diocese as a 'quota'. While this is not a compulsory payment, dioceses strongly encourage and rely on it being paid; it is usually only withheld by parishes either if they are unable to find the funds or as a specific act of protest. As well as paying central diocesan expenses such as the running of diocesan offices, these diocesan funds also provide clergy pay and housing expenses (which total around £260 million per year across all dioceses), meaning that clergy living conditions no longer depend on parish-specific fundraising.

The old and new Coventry Cathedrals, in the Diocese of Coventry. The new cathedral was built next to the ruins of the old, which was destroyed in the Second World War.
The old and new Coventry Cathedrals, in the Diocese of Coventry. The new cathedral was built next to the ruins of the old, which was destroyed in the Second World War.

Although asset-rich, the Church of England has to look after and maintain its thousands of churches nationwide — the lion's share of England's built heritage. As current congregation numbers stand at relatively low levels and as maintenance bills increase as the buildings grow older, many of these churches cannot maintain economic self-sufficiency; but their historical and architectural importance make it difficult to sell them. In recent years, cathedrals and other famous churches have met some of their maintenance costs with grants from organisations such as English Heritage; but the church congregation and local fundraisers must foot the bill entirely in the case of most small parish churches. (The government, however, does provide some assistance in the form of tax breaks, for example a 100% VAT refund for renovations to religious buildings.)

In addition to consecrated buildings, the Church also controls numerous ancillary buildings attached to or associated with churches, including a good deal of clergy housing. As well as vicarages and rectories, this housing includes residences (called 'palaces') for each of the Church's 114 bishops. In some cases, this name seems entirely apt; buildings such as Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Palace in London and Old Palace at Canterbury have truly palatial dimensions, while the Bishop of Durham's Auckland Castle has 50 rooms, a banqueting hall and 30 acres (120,000 m²) of parkland. However, many bishops have found the older palaces inappropriate for today's lifestyles, and some bishops' 'palaces' are ordinary four bedroomed houses. Many dioceses which have retained large palaces now employ part of the space as administrative offices, while the bishops and their families live in a small apartment within the palace; and in recent years some dioceses have managed to put their palaces' excess space and grandeur to profitable use as conference centres. All three of the more grand bishop's palaces mentioned above — Lambeth Palace, Canterbury Old Palace and Auckland Castle — serve as offices for church administration, conference venues, and only in a lesser degree the personal residence of a bishop. The size of the bishops' households has shrunk dramatically and their budgets for entertaining and staff form a tiny fraction of their pre-twentieth-century levels.

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