The Anglican Communion - a term which was coined in 1885-includes an estimated 70 million people in more than 450 dioceses located on all the continents of the world. They include more than 64,000 individual congregations in 164 countries, organized as 38 independent, self-governing, national or regional churches known as Provinces. The member churches of the Anglican Communion represent the world in miniature, a wide variety of races, languages, cultures and political conditions. They are nevertheless one worldwide family, held together by affection for one another, loyalty to common traditions and the continuing practice of consultation and mutual support.
The churches of the Anglican Communion:
While the Anglican Communion as such is a relatively recent development, its English roots go back to the unknown soldiers and traders who first brought Christianity to England under the Roman Empire. By the year 341 it had been firmly established in England but the Saxon invasion pushed the young church west and north.
The Celtic churches gradually began the task of trying to convert the invaders and at the same time St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great for this purpose. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (597-604) converted Ethelbert, the king of Kent, and appointed new bishops for the ancient dioceses of Rochester and London. His personal attempts at reconciliation of the Roman and Celtic churches ended in failure but further negotiations in the 7th century, as at the Synod of Whitby in 664, proved more successful.
The Reformation in England caused no break in the continuity of the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. The English sovereign replaced the Pope as head of the Church of England. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1533-1556) accepted the Act of Supremacy in 1534.
The Anglican Communion has developed in two stages. Beginning in the 17th century, Anglicanism was established by colonization in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Southern Africa and the eastern part of the present USA. Colonial bishoprics were set up under the authority of Canterbury in many parts of the British Empire; in other parts (e.g. North America) the Bishop of London exercised a distant supervision of local churches. When the American colonies achieved independence a new plan was needed. In 1784, Samuel Seabury of Connecticut was consecrated in Scotland. This was followed by more consecrations of bishops for the USA (and elected in the USA) and by the establishment in 1789 of the first independent daughter church of the Church of England, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA. The two churches were in full communion and had many informal relationships but no formal or legal ties, thus setting a pattern for the Anglican Communion of the future.
The second stage of development was the result of missionary expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries to other countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America and the formation in independent Province of the church in what was to become the British Commonwealth. The growth of autonomy in various branches of Anglicanism and the need for consultation led to the first Lambeth Conference in 1876.
The Church in England was for many centuries a constituent part of the Western or Latin church, headed by the Bishop of Rome. It has also been for centuries the Church of England "by law established," with particular rights and responsibilities in the political and social life of the nation as a whole. In contrast, most other Anglican Provinces have no memory of being part of the Roman Catholic Church and no experience of the privileges and problems of establishment. Their own histories are relatively brief and they are more likely to be minority churches, sometimes tiny minorities, in societies dominated by other faiths, by other Christian communions or they may find themselves, as in North America, only one of many religious bodies.
It has been said that the Anglican Communion is rapidly outgrowing its Englishness but has not yet established its own identity as a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural family. It has never had a central executive authority or a legislative body able to make decisions for the Communion as a whole nor does there seem to be any great desire to develop such structures.
It is aptly named a communion since it comes alive in worship and mutual intercession, in shared experience of community in the body of Christ, in the bonds of affection developed for one another by Anglican leaders at Lambeth Conferences and other meetings and in consultation and encouragement through a variety of instruments for inter-Anglican partnership.
(Taken from "Who Are the Anglicans?" - Charles Henry Long, Editor)