From the Primates 2016 Website
The Anglican Communion isn’t itself a church; it’s a family of churches, spread across 165 countries, with around 85 million members. Many of these churches trace their parentage to missionaries from Britain who, from the 17th Century onwards, left home to spread the Christian faith in regions which had not yet received it.
The Church in England was itself started by missionaries from other countries. This practice of Christians emigrating and bearing the Christian message had been the pattern from biblical times: sometimes they had been persecuted at home and were exiled, sometimes they were following trade routes or colonisation, but always they were motivated by the conviction that Jesus Christ is God’s gift to the whole of humanity without exception, and every Christian carries the divine warrant to share it.
In some places, the expansion began because expatriate Anglicans wanted to continue to worship together in their new surroundings. They founded churches, employed clergy from home to serve them and then shared the faith with their new neighbours. Gradually over the years, British nationals – both clergy and laity – were succeeded by indigenous Christians. In 2015 the first three native Peruvian bishops were consecrated.
An Anglican church of sufficient size can apply to be recognised as a ‘Province’. There are 38 Provinces today, each represented by its senior bishop or archbishop, known as a Primate. From time to time the Archbishop of Canterbury invites the Primates to worship together and to discuss matters of importance. One of these Primates’ Meetings is being held 11-16 January 2016, in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral, which is known as the ‘Mother Church’ of the Anglican Communion.
The Archbishop isn’t a Pope. He doesn’t control the Anglican Communion, or any of its member churches, for each is self-governing. He is recognised by other bishops and archbishops as the first among equals and is thus one of the four ‘Instruments of Communion’. The other three are
- the Primates’ Meeting;
- the Lambeth Conference of all the bishops, convened periodically by the Archbishop of Canterbury;
- the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The ACC is a legally constituted body and comprises bishops, other clergy and laity who meet approximately every three years.
The four instruments do not control the member churches, either. Affiliation is voluntary. As with other families, they are held together by ‘bonds of affection’. These bonds can be strained: Christians may disagree with each other, sometimes passionately. The first ever Lambeth Conference was convened in 1867 to handle a serious theological dispute.
No Anglican church sees itself as uniquely possessing the truth. Rather, it is part of the ‘One, Holy, Catholic (i.e. universal) and Apostolic Church’, alongside many other churches. Historically, it shares some of the doctrines recovered at the Reformation, yet without severing its ancient roots. Within each member church may be found those who regard themselves as evangelical, liberal, catholic or charismatic, though these descriptions may be over-simplifications, used here for the sake of brevity.
Today, the Anglican family is the third largest Episcopally-led communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. With them, it prays for unity and like them, anticipates the Day when the knowledge of God will be honoured among all people, everywhere.