Like all Christian communities this Anglican church understands itself to be directly descended from Jesus’ first disciples. The Anglican Church became a distinct community in the sixteenth century when a combination of international politics and a desire to reform some practices culminated in a declaration by the senior bishop of England (Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury) that Christians in England could set their own priorities independently of Rome. From that time on, the Anglican Church in England became the official state church of that country. As England extended its influence in explorations and colonization around the world, the Anglican church was planted on every continent, so that there are now Anglican churches in 164 countries.
By the twentieth century, each country or region in the world had a local Anglican Church composed of parishes, groups of parishes called dioceses, and groups of dioceses called provinces. Each of these provinces retains a substantial degree of independence, while maintaining some fundamental similarities. Thus, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to ordain women to the priesthood in 1975 while this was still not allowed in England. In fact, the church in England, and its Archbishop of Canterbury, have no authority over the church in Canada, which is free to pursue its own policies. And although the Anglican Church is still the official church of England, the Anglican Church in Canada has no official status in this country, and is headed by the Canadian Primate (currently Archbishop Fred Hiltz), and not by the Queen.
There are three characteristics, which keep these various Anglican churches together. Firstly, unlike most other denominations, the Anglican church has no unique set of beliefs which define it, and to which members are required to agree. Instead, it has a common set of worship practices, which retain some of the traditions used in the medieval world as well as a central emphasis on Holy Communion. The Anglican Church prefers to express its beliefs in the wording and ceremony of its official worship and prayers, rather than in theoretical documents. This explains why the Book of Common Prayer (which contains all the official services) is so central in Anglican discussions, and why its revision generates a great deal of discussion. The Book of Common Prayer (and its revisions) is as central to the Anglican Church as canon law is to the Roman Catholic church, or as various “confessions” are to the Lutheran or Presbyterian churches. The first official prayer book, containing prayers that indicated a significant change from some medieval beliefs, was published in 1549, and had been revised several times since. In Canada, the most recent revision is a book called “The Book of Alternative Services”, in which the prayers are expressed in more contemporary language, and in which there is a wider range of interpretations of Christianity.
Secondly, the various national Anglican churches remain connected through a common community of leaders, the bishops, who meet every 10 years. Even though the Anglican Church in each local country considers itself independent, the local bishops understand themselves to be part of a world-wide community.
Thirdly, Anglicanism is frequently characterized by an attempt to express the implications of Christianity within the forms of the local culture. Thus music, literature, and even practices of government become integrated into the Anglican style. In contrast, some traditions emphasize the difference between their church and the surrounding society, while others attempt to create an alternative society within their church. Anglican practice has been to remain deeply integrated within the local society. Because the Anglican Church was one of the earliest communities to claim local autonomy, its style combines much of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. For example, its clergy are often called “priests”, and the Eucharist is usually the main service on Sundays, but our bishops are selected by the membership, not appointed,and local congregations are governed by democratically elected boards. Ceremony in Sunday worship varies from very little (“low church”) in some congregations to very elaborate (“high church”) in others.