A Brief History of the Church of England

Jesus (Jeshua), later said to be born in Bethlehem but probably born in Nazareth, is attested in and out of Christian Scriptural sources as a charismatic teacher and healer whose mission in Galilee and Judea resulted in his execution by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish religious authorities.

There is no evidence that Jesus wished to establish a formalised, hierarchical church. Jesus appointed an 'inner cabinet' of Peter, James and John among his twelve Apostles/disciples and then a further group of 70.  The term Ekklesia and the notion of one person, the Bishop of Rome, or Pope,  holding the "keys of the kingdom" (Matthew 16.18-19) have been 'read back' into the text from a later period.

Jesus and his followers, including the highly influential 'apostle', Paul, believed that the Kingdom of God/heaven was at hand. It was therefore not necessary for the Apostolic Christian sect to lay down any rules about worship. Within the first hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, however, his followers differentiated themselves from the Judaism from which Christianity grew. At the 'Council of Jerusalem' c51 AD, the whole Christian leadership, the conservatives led by James the "Brother of the Lord" and the radicals led by Saint Paul, agreed a compromise which spared Gentile converts most Jewish observance, including circumcision.

Paul the 'Apostle' continued Peter's work of preaching Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, culminating in his visit to Rome where he and Peter are supposed to have been executed during the persecution of Nero c66. In his letters Paul established some of the basics of Christian doctrine and observance:

The documents which came to be known as the gospels were written in the second half of the First Century and although there are some overlaps between the 'synoptics' and John, the latter is largely distinctive:

During the First Century when Christians believed that the Parousia, or end time, was near, there was little interest in Christian 'power dynamics', other than continuing tension between conservatives who saw Christianity as a sect of Judaism and radicals who steadily moved it into the Gentile milieu. Women were apparently equal to men, presiding at the domestic Eucharist, performing the function of teachers and of helpers but as it became clear that the end time horizon was extending and that the Christian sect was becoming a religion in its own right, there is evidence in the letters to Timothy (early 2nd Century, not written by Paul), of the emergence of a hierarchy of Deacons, elders "presbyters" and bishops. The Didache confirms the growing institutional importance of the Eucharist. In the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, the Bishop became the key church pastor, teacher and administrator of a city, assisted by Deacons and a council of elders. Although the fact that all of Jesus Apostles had been Jews did not bar Gentiles from the 'Apostolic Succession', the power dynamics of the time, in the context of public office rather than private status, pushed women out of the hierarchy.

When the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the Roman Empire's state religion (313), state persecution of Christians ceased.  As the Christians were given former temples, the trend of the Eucharist's move from houses to public buildings was completed; and, where the Bishop could not attend the Sacrament in person, he appointed a representative Presbyter (priest) to act on his behalf (vicar).

Issues that had been problematic for 200 years came to a head in the Fourth Century once Christianity could turn its attention from survival to consolidation, notably, the status of Jesus Christ. The principle of Lex orandi, lex credendi had long held that Jesus was god in the same way that the Creator was God but the church's bishops had been much more cautious. The new theocratic settlement of Constantine made religious issues a central concern of the state, particularly when theological disputes became bitter. The 'presenting' issue for the Council of Nicaea was whether Jesus was human or divine. The resulting Creed designated Jesus both divine and equal to 'The Father' and, perhaps just a little less certainly, assigned equality of the Spirit with the Father and Son. How Jesus was both human and divine continued to arouse fierce controversy until the issue was largely resolved at the Council of Chalcedon (451) when it was declared that Jesus simultaneously possessed a divine and human nature in one person. In spite of the Greek speaking Eastern predominance, or perhaps because of it, the major conciliar disputes at Nicea and Chalcedon strengthened  the role of the Bishop of Rome (self styled Apostolic successor of Peter, or Pope) as, initially, the primus inter pares but increasingly the sole arbiter in theological disputes, a position which consolidated in spite of the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410 and the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Visigoths in 476. The power of the Papacy steadily increased in the Latin West but met increasingly stubborn resistance in the imperial-theocratic East. The outstanding figure of this period was Pope Gregory I "The Great" who established Papal authority over the city of Rome, regularised monasticism, established liturgical practice and sent missions to the outer fringes of the Christian world; he sent a mission under Augustine, later first Archbishop of Canterbury, to check the spread of Celtic Christianity.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, was massively symbolic of a new theocratic settlement in the Latin West, with the new Emperor as the successor of Julius Caesar, mirroring the Greek East, but the reality of secular power dominating the ecclesiastical, though less clear-cut in the West, was nonetheless obvious. Nonetheless, in preaching the First Crusade (1095) and in the iconic tableau of Canossa (1077) when the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, walked barefoot in the snow to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII, a Papacy claiming power over the prospects of eternal life could exert considerable leverage.

Although the final schism of authority in the Catholic Church took place in 1054, it had been long coming. Throughout the first five hundred years of Christianity, precedence had been given to the 'Metropolitan' Patriarchs of Jerusalem, antioch, Alexandria and Rome to which Constantinople had been added. Suspicion of the increasing power of Rome from primus inter pares to supreme arbiter, was exacerbated by the pessimistic turn which Latin Christianity took after the Sack of Rome (410) with Saint Augustine's theology of 'Original Sin'. A dispute arose in c797 over the translation of the Greek Nicene Creed into Latin (the 'Filioque' controversy') and the final break took place for no critical reason in 1054. Both the Greek and Latin churches were "Catholic" but were schismatic in terms of jurisdiction. The preaching of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II (1095) to regain the Holy city of Jerusalem from Islamic conquest; initial success was followed by ultimate failure. The complexity of Byzantine politics (perceived by the Latins as effete at best and treacherous at worst) and the direct approach of the Latins (perceived by the Byzantines as uncouth at best and rapacious at worst) led to further suspicion and hostility which resulted in the sack of Constantinople by a Western army, under the auspices of a Crusade, in 1410. Fatally weakened, the Greek branch of the Roman Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Throughout the period from the coronation of Charlemagne to the Reformation, Papal jurisdictional power was more often than not theoretical rather than practical with secular leaders - first Dukes and then kings - exercising power over ecclesiastical appointments. But the Papal power was supreme in matters of doctrine and church discipline. At the Fourth Lateran Council, called by Pope Innocent III in 1213, the Latin Church reached the zenith of its power, symbolised most clearly in the proclamation of its theological understanding of the nature of Eucharist as "Transubstantiation", based on the integration of Aristotelian philosophy into Christian thought, monumentalised in the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). But the centralising force of Papal doctrinal authority was undermined by the very philosophical methodology which had made it possible; the age of theological Papal fiat was over, replaced by philosophical investigation, metaphysics, philology and textual criticism, disseminated by Guttenberg's invention (1436) of movable type for the printing press. Further, the susceptibility of the Papacy to manipulation by secular powers was starkly exposed in the Great Schism (1378-1415) from which it never fully recovered as the  power of centralised monarchies in England and France grew and as city states in the Italian Peninsular the the 'Germanic' Holy Roman Empire became independently powerful. The forces which had assisted Papal centralisation in the early middle ages - the creation of surplus wealth, improved maritime and road communication, investment in literacy and administrative education - (1000-1250) radically reversed its impact in the late  Middle Ages, fostering geographical particularism.

The birth of the Protestant Reformation is often ascribed to the broad intellectual movement of philosophical investigation (nominalism) and Biblical criticism, disseminated through printing, and the slow but visible jurisdictional and doctrinal decline of the Papacy but its outbreak, symbolised in Martin Luther's nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, was peculiar to the circumstance of Luther's objection to the corrupt preaching of a Papal indulgence and his own deeply pessimistic psyche; but the Papacy, long freed of Conciliar constraint, and more interested in the dynastic entanglements of The Empire,  Spain and France, was incapable of the necessary flexibility and, in due course, supposed religious matters were remitted to the battlefield where supposedly 'Catholic' France fought alongside German Protestants (and 'infidel' Turks) against German and Austrian 'Imperial' Catholics.

Luther and other reformers, such as Calvin, tended initially to cite Scripture - Sola Scriptura - as the sole authority for deciding theology but it soon became clear that this individualist approach led to chaos. Theological authority therefore passed from the Papacy of Christendom to the secular authority in Protestant/reformed jurisdictions. Nowhere was this more peculiar than in England where King Henry VIII's breach with Rome was not theological but biological, a temporary expedient (1534) to regularise his marriage to Anne Boleyn and secure a male heir. The supposed area of dispute was the power to appoint bishops but these had been appointed by the English crown for more than 300 years. Henry's death (1547) during negotiations to restore links with Rome converted the temporary leadership of the English Church by the Crown in Parliament to a permanent arrangement in the reign of Edward VI. There was a reverse under the Catholic Queen Mary  (1553-58) but the Accession of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) brought about a settlement (1559-62) which we would recognise today in the Book of Common Prayer (1662 edition), followed 50 years later by the King James Bible (1612). The Church of England by law established is not bound by a written confession (the 39 Articles are a rag-bag of salient mid 16th Century polemical issues which serve to emphasise differences with Rome) but is united in worship. The most serious attempt to make the Church doctrinally based was the series of disputes, triggered by 'Puritans', which led to the English Civil war (1642-51) which deposed and then 'martyred' King Charles I in 1649. In spite of continued friction between 'Puritans' and the mainstream after the restoration of the Crown  in Parliament as the head of the English Church (1660), based on the authority of the episcopacy and attempts by Stuart monarchs to insinuate Roman Catholicism back into the ecclesiastical polity, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688  finally settled the fate of the Church of England as a 'broad church' of mediocre spiritual and theological ambition immortalised in the worldly clergy of Jane Austen. The Crown in Parliament continued to exercise total authority in the Church of England in respect of Scripture, doctrine, liturgy and discipline until the foundation of the General Synod in 1970.

In spite of sporadic revivals in personal piety both in Protestant Northern Europe and in the Roman Catholic territories observant of the Edicts of the Council of Trent (1545-63) which solidified doctrine and liturgy for the next 400 years, both forms of Christianity suffered from secular (Erastian) interference, the growth of capitalist materialism and the evolution of philosophical speculation into natural science, the 'Enlightenment' and the French REvolution (1789).

Ironically, the great expansion of Christianity in both South and North America which began with Columbus' voyage to reach the Indies by a Westerly route (1492), following the new salience of the concept of a spherical planet earth, was regarded as marginal by Euro-centric churches. Missionary activity in all parts of the world expanded rapidly between 1600 and 1900 but jurisdictional matters remained largely untouched until the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886-888 which, in response to a variety of local practices not sanctioned in the Church of England, regularised the main tenets of  the Anglican Communion as:

Meanwhile, the Church of England was jerked out of its 18th Century torpor: from the 'evangelical, fundamentalist’ left by John Wesley (1703-91) who took the message of Jesus to the fields and factories but whose enthusiasm could not be contained and who left in 1795 to develop Methodism; and from the 'catholic, conservative, right' by a coterie of Oxford academics led by Keble and Newman, which affirmed the 'catholicity' of the English Church within the Christian framework both, doctrine, liturgy and, crucially, Sacramentality and personal piety. Some adherents of the latter became Roman Catholics (notably Cardinal Newman) but, significantly, both standpoints gained substantial traction in the 19th Century Church and persist to this day.

Under pressure from a more educated laity, the massive expansion of its work  in 'developing' countries and the perception that it was too defensively introvert after the secularisation of many Catholic countries following the French Revolution (1789), Pope John XXIII called a Second Vatican (Ecumenical) Council in 1962 which produced some revolutionary ecumenical a Theological and inter-faith theology; but its effects have largely been neutralised by a harking back of subsequent Popes to the ultramontanist position of the First Vatican Council which declared  the Pope infallible in matters of faith and morals, but which might have been even more centralist had it not  been for its sudden dissolution at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war.

Although not directly attributable, the movement of the Church of England towards broad 'democratic' control culminated in the establishment of its General Synod in 1970, transferring power over all ecclesiastical matters, save the appointment of Bishops (which has since been transferred) from the Crown in Parliament to a Synod of three Houses, Bishops, clergy and laity, which must pass any Measure (law)) by a 2/3 majority in each house. Thus, the Church of England is said to be "Episcopally led and Synodically governed" but, perhaps inevitably, the Synod does not act synodically, through reaching a consensus through in prayer and attention  to the Spirit, but behaves like a democratic legislature of parties, usually described as:

Thus, it is now largely Synodically led and not governed, with Bishops shoring up their role by enacting post legislative massively complex regulatory and guidance structures.

RAther than being a largely non-doctrinal 'broad church',,, the Synod has led to attempts  by one faction to legislate against the interests of the others, destroying the logic of the Elizabethan Settlement which specifically ruled  out Church of England membership by extreme Catholics or 'Puritans'.

Classically, the Church is:

The gathered people of God called by Jesus Christ in his gift, the Church, to worship and bear witness to God through Christ in the Spirit, in the lives of its members.

The following issues arise:

  1. Does this Church require a commonality of doctrine, scripture, worship and ethics?
  2. If so, how is this commonality to be arrived at? If not, is a 'congregational' model viable?
  3. Can the Holy Spirit only operate through an 'Apostolic succession' of Bishops who have passed on authority in the power of the Spirit through the laying on of hands?
  4. What is the special role of the clergy who are the fruit of that succession?
  5. Can the Spirit work through the secular medium of state churches and elected Synods?
  6. How is the Church gathered, or 'catholic' when it is manifested in a variety of denominations defined by creeds, professions and/or secular jurisdictions?
  7. How do we understand continuity and change? What is fixed and what can the Spirit achieve through organic development?
  8. In the Church of England, where does authority lie for defining worship, Scripture, Sacrament and ethics?