Early Christianity in England
According to tradition, Christianity arrived in Britain in the 1st or 2nd century, during which time southern Britain became part of the Roman Empire. The earliest historical evidence of Christianity among the native Britons is found in the writings of such early Christian Fathers as Tertullian and Origen in the first years of the 3rd century. Three Romano-British bishops, including Restitutus, are known to have been present at the Council of Arles in 314. Others attended the Council of Serdica in 347 and that of Ariminum in 360, and a number of references to the church in Roman Britain are found in the writings of 4th century Christian fathers. Britain was the home of Pelagius, who opposed Augustine of Hippo's doctrine of original sin.
While Christianity was long established as the religion of the Britons at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Christian Britons made little progress in converting the newcomers from their native paganism. Consequently, in 597, Pope Gregory I sent the prior of the Abbey of St Andrew's (later canonised as Augustine of Canterbury) from Rome to evangelise the Angles. This event is known as the Gregorian mission and is the date the Church of England generally marks as the beginning of its formal history. With the help of Christians already residing in Kent, Augustine established his church at Canterbury, the capital of the Kingdom of Kent, and became the first in the series of Archbishops of Canterbury in 598. A later archbishop, the Greek Theodore of Tarsus, also contributed to the organisation of Christianity in England. The Church of England has been in continuous existence since the days of St Augustine, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its episcopal head. Despite the various disruptions of the Reformation and the English Civil War, the Church of England considers itself to be the same church which was more formally organised by Augustine.
While some Celtic Christian practices were changed at the Synod of Whitby, the Christian in the British Isles was under papal authority from earliest times. Queen Bertha of Kent was among the Christians in England who recognised papal authority before Augustine arrived, and Celtic Christians were carrying out missionary work with papal approval long before the Synod of Whitby.
is one of the church's 43 cathedrals; many have histories stretching back centuries.
The Synod of Whitby established the Roman date for Easter and the Roman style of monastic tonsure in England. This meeting of the ecclesiastics with Roman customs with local bishops was summoned in 664 at Saint Hilda's double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanæshalch), later called Whitby Abbey. It was presided over by King Oswiu, who did not engage in the debate but made the final ruling. The final ruling was decided in favor of Roman tradition because St. Peter holds the keys to the gate of Heaven.
Separation from Rome
In 1534, King Henry VIII separated the English Church from Rome. A theological separation had been foreshadowed by various movements within the English Church, such as Lollardy, but the English Reformation gained political support when Henry VIII wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII, considering that the earlier marriage had been entered under a papal dispensation and how Catherine's nephew, Emperor Charles V, might react to such a move, refused the annulment. Eventually, Henry, although theologically opposed to Protestantism, took the position of Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy to ensure the annulment of his marriage. He was excommunicated by Pope Paul III.
In 1536–40 Henry VIII engaged in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which controlled much of the richest land. He disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided pensions for the former residents. The properties were sold to pay for the wars. Bernard argues:
- The dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s was one of the most revolutionary events in English history. There were nearly 900 religious houses in England, around 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries; some 12,000 people in total, 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns....one adult man in fifty was in religious orders.
Henry maintained a strong preference for traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of the Church of England. Indeed, this part of Henry's reign saw trials for heresy of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.
Under his son, King Edward VI, more Protestant-influenced forms of worship were adopted. Under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a more radical reformation proceeded. A new pattern of worship was set out in the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). These were based on the older liturgy in particular the Prayer Book of 1549, but both influenced by Protestant doctrines such as justification by faith alone, the rejection of the sacrifice of the Mass, and the Real Presence understood as physical presence (Cranmer was Calvinist in that he believed Christ was truly and really present in the Eucharist but after a spiritual manner, although the Words of Administration at the time of Communion were a straightforward statement in the Real Presence as taken from the 1549 BCP and attached to the 1559 book). The confession of the reformed Church of England was set out in the Forty-two Articles (later revised to thirty-nine). The reformation however was cut short by the death of the king. Queen Mary I, who succeeded him, returned England again to the authority of the papacy, thereby ending the first attempt at an independent Church of England. During her co-reign with her husband, King Philip, many leaders and common people were burnt for their refusal to recant of their reformed faith. These are known as the Marian martyrs and the persecution led to her nickname of "Bloody Mary".
Mary also died childless and so it was left to the new regime of her half-sister Elizabeth to resolve the direction of the church. The settlement under Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558), known as the Elizabethan Settlement, tried to find a middle way between radical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the via media (a term that actually only became current in the 1620s), as the character of the Church of England, a church moderately Reformed in doctrine, as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, but also emphasising continuity with the Catholic and Apostolic traditions of the Church Fathers. Kneeling reverently to receive communion was the custom. The three-fold ministry in the Apostolic Succession was maintained; the institutional continuity of the Church was preserved without break (at her accession almost all clergy had been ordained in Catholic Orders using the Roman Pontifical) by consecration of bishops in Catholics Orders, although the character of the organization was changed by the adoption of some reformed doctrines, the simplification of the outwards forms of worship and the abandonment of traditional vestments and art work; the retention of medieval Canon Law, liturgical music and a much shortened Calendar of Saints and Feast Days. It was a most peculiar situation: the same organization but with a modified face to the world without much particular character of its own until the notion of Anglicanism as a distinct variety of Christianity emerged very late in her reign and during the reigns of the early Stuart Kings. It was also an established church (constitutionally established by the state with the Head of State as its supreme governor). The exact nature of the relationship between church and state would be a source of continued friction into the next century.
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For the next century, through the reigns of James I, who ordered the translation of the Bible known as the King James Version (authorized to be used in parishes which does not mean it was the official version), and Charles I, culminating in the English Civil War and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, there were significant swings back and forth between two factions: the Puritans (and other radicals) who sought more far-reaching Protestant reforms, and the more conservative churchmen who aimed to keep closer to traditional beliefs and Catholic practices. The failure of political and ecclesiastical authorities to submit to Puritan demands for more extensive reform was one of the causes of open warfare. By Continental standards the level of violence over religion was not high, since the Civil War was mainly about politics, but the casualties included King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud and tens of thousands of civilians who died from the unsettled conditions. Under the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of England from 1649 to 1660, the bishops were dethroned and former practices were outlawed, and Presbyterian ecclesiology was introduced in place of the episcopate. The 39 Articles were replaced by the Westminster Confession, the Book of Common Prayer by the Directory of Public Worship. Despite this, about one quarter of English clergy refused to conform to this form of State Presbyterianism.
Major repairs were done to Canterbury Cathedral after the Restoration in 1660.
With the Restoration of Charles II, Parliament restored the Church of England to a form not far removed from the Elizabethan version. One difference was that the ideal of encompassing all the people of England in one religious organisation, taken for granted by the Tudors, had to be abandoned. The religious landscape of England assumed its present form, with the Anglican established church occupying the middle ground, and those Puritans and Protestants who dissented from the Anglican establishment having to continue their existence outside the national church rather than trying to influence or trying to gain control of it. One result of the Restoration was the ousting of 2,000 parish ministers who had not been ordained by bishops in the Apostolic Succession or who had been ordained by ministers in presbyter's orders. Official suspicion and legal restrictions continued well into the 19th century. Roman Catholics, perhaps 5% of the English population (down from 20% in 1600) were grudgingly tolerated, having had little or no official representation after the Pope's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570, though the Stuarts were sympathetic to them. By the end of 18th century they had dwindled to 1% of the population mostly among eccentric upper middle-class gentry and their tenants and extended families.
Union with Church of Ireland
By the Fifth Article of the Union with Ireland 1800, the Church of England and Church of Ireland were united into "one Protestant Episcopal church, to be called, the United Church of England and Ireland". Although this union was declared "an essential and fundamental Part of the Union", the Irish Church Act 1869 separated the Irish part of the church again and disestablished it, the Act coming into effect on 1 January 1871.
Captain John Smith's
1624 map of Bermuda, showing St Peter's at centre, left
As the British Empire expanded, British colonists and colonial administrators took the established church doctrines and practices together with ordained ministry and formed overseas branches of the Church of England. As they developed or, beginning with the United States of America, became sovereign or independent states, many of their churches became separate organisationally but remained linked to the Church of England through the Anglican Communion. In the provinces that made up Canada, the Church operated as the "Church of England in Canada" until 1955 when it became the Anglican Church of Canada.
In Bermuda, the oldest remaining English colony (now designated a British Overseas Territory), the first Church of England services were performed by the Reverend Richard Buck, one of the survivors of the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture which initiated Bermuda's permanent settlement. The nine parishes of the Church of England in Bermuda, each with its own church and glebe land, rarely had more than a pair of ordained ministers to share between them until the Nineteenth Century. From 1825 to 1839, Bermuda's parishes were attached to the See of Nova Scotia. Bermuda was then grouped into the new Diocese of Newfoundland and Bermuda from 1839. In 1879, the Synod of the Church of England in Bermuda was formed. At the same time, a Diocese of Bermuda became separate from the Diocese of Newfoundland, but both continued to be grouped under the Bishop of Newfoundland and Bermuda until 1919, when Newfoundland and Bermuda each received its own Bishop.
The Church of England in Bermuda was renamed in 1978 as the Anglican Church of Bermuda, which is an , with both metropolitan and primatial authority coming directly from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Among its parish churches is St Peter's Church in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St George's Town, which is both the oldest Anglican and the oldest non-Roman Catholic church in the New World.
In Nigeria, the first missionaries arrived in 1842. The first Nigerian was consecrated a bishop in 1864. However, the arrival of a rival group of Anglican missionaries in 1887, led to infighting that slowed the growth. In this large African colony by 1900 there were only 35,000 Anglicans, about 1/5 of one percent of the population. However, in the late 20th century the Church of Nigeria became the fastest growing of all the Anglican churches, reaching about 18 percent of the local population by 2,000.
Deposition from holy orders overturned
Under the guidance of Rowan Williams and with significant pressure from clergy union representatives, the ecclesiastical penalty for convicted felons to be defrocked was set aside from the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003. The clergy union argued that the penalty was unfair to victims of hypothetical miscarriages of criminal justice, because the ecclesiastical penalty is considered irreversible. Although clerics can still be banned for life from ministry, they remain ordained as priests.
Continued decline in attendance, and church response
One of the now "redundant" buildings, Holy Trinity Church, Wensley
, in North Yorkshire; much of the current structure was built in the 14th and 15th Centuries
Bishop Sarah Mullally has insisted that declining numbers at services should not necessarily be a cause of despair for churches, because people may still encounter God without attending a service in a church; for example hearing the Christian message through social media sites or in a café run as a community project. Additionally, 9.7 million people visit at least one of its churches every year and 1 million students are educated at Church of England schools (which number 4,700). Nevertheless, the archbishops of Canterbury and York warned in January 2015 that the Church of England would no longer be able to carry on in its current form unless the downward spiral in membership were somehow to be reversed, as typical Sunday attendance had halved to 800,000 in the previous 40 years:
The urgency of the challenge facing us is not in doubt. Attendance at Church of England services has declined at an average of one per cent per annum over recent decades and, in addition, the age profile of our membership has become significantly older than that of the population... Renewing and reforming aspects of our institutional life is a necessary but far from sufficient response to the challenges facing the Church of England. ... The age profile of our clergy has also been increasing. Around 40 per cent of parish clergy are due to retire over the next decade or so.
Between 1969 and 2010, almost 1,800 church buildings, roughly 11% of the stock, were closed; the majority (70%) in the first half of the period; only 514 being closed between 1990 and 2010. Some active use was being made of about half of the closed churches. By 2019 the rate of closure had steadied at around 20 to 25 per year (0.2%); some being replaced by new places of worship. Additionally, in 2018 the church announced a £27 million growth programme to create 100 new churches.
In 2015 the Church of England admitted that it was embarrassed to be paying staff under the living wage. The Church of England had previously campaigned for all employers to pay this minimum amount. The archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged it was not the only area where the church "fell short of its standards".