The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and acts as the mother and senior province of the worldwide Anglican Communion as well as a founding member of the Porvoo Communion, an association of mostly Anglican and Lutheran churches in Europe.
Theology and sociology
The Church of England considers itself to stand both in a Reformed church tradition (current English law regards it as Protestant) and in a Catholic (but not Roman Catholic) church tradition: Reformed insofar as many of the principles of the 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. In its practices, furthermore, the Church of England remains closer to Roman Catholicism than most Protestant Churches. It holds many relatively conservative theological beliefs, its liturgical form of worship can feature tradition and ceremony, and its organization embodies a belief in apostolic succession through the historical episcopal hierarchy of archbishops, bishops, and dioceses.
In many people's eyes, however, the Church of England has as its primary distinguishing mark its breadth and open-mindedness. In addition to the traditional mainstream, the church has long included "high church" and "low church" factions with their own particular preferences. Today, practices range from those of the Anglo-Catholics, who emphasize liturgy and sacraments, to the far less ceremonial services of Evangelicals and 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 noncelibate 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 ordination of women as bishops, scheduling debate on the specific legislation for February 2006.
Governance and administration
The British monarch (at present, Elizabeth II), has the constitutional title of "Supreme Governor of the Church of England". In practice, however, the effective leadership falls to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The worldwide Anglican Communion of independent national or regional churches recognises the Archbishop of Canterbury as a kind of symbolic leader. Rowan Williams has served as Archbishop of Canterbury since February 27th, 2003.
The Church of England has a legislative body, the General Synod. However, fundamental legislation still has to pass through the UK Parliament. The church has its own judicial branch, known as the Ecclesiastical courts, which likewise form a part of the UK court system.
In addition to England proper, the jurisdiction of the Church of England extends to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. In recent years, expatriate congregations on the continent of Europe have become the Diocese in Europe.
The Church of England traces its formal corporate history from the 597 mission by Augustine of Canterbury, 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.
Christianity arrived in Britain in the first or second centuries 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. The Pope sent Augustine of Canterbury from Rome in the 6th century to evangelise the Angles (597). With the help of Christians already residing in Kent, he established his church in Canterbury, the capital of Kent, and became the first in the series of archbishops of Canterbury.
Simultaneously, the Celtic Church of St.Columba continued to evangelise Scotland. The Celtic Church of North Britain submitted in some sense to the authority of Rome at the Council of Whitby in 644. Over the next few centuries, the Roman system introduced by Augustine gradually absorbed the pre-existing Celtic Christian churches.
England remained a Catholic country for a thousand years, but then separated itself from Rome in 1534 during the reign of King Henry VIII, though it briefly rejoined Rome during the reign of Queen Mary I in 1555.
In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland serves as the established church, but a smaller Anglican church exists, known as the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The Church in Wales underwent disestablishment in 1920 and became an independent member of the Anglican Communion.
The Church of Ireland had official established church status in Ireland until 1871, although the bulk of the Irish people in practice remained mostly Roman Catholic.
The Church of England stands in full communion with the other provinces in the Anglican Communion and separately with the other signatories of the Porvoo Communion.