“Anglican” and “Anglicanism” derive from the Latin word for “English.” During the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation the precedent of a native English Church was used to emphasize the English Reformers’ claim of continuity with the ancient Christian Church and England’s independence from the Bishop of Rome. Though the origins of the modern Anglican Communion lie in the sixteenth-century debates concerning the authority of the Bishop of Rome, there is a strong 2,000 year old tradition regarding the presence of the Christian faith in what is now the United Kingdom. Yet, it was only in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries that the word “Anglican” began to refer more specifically to a distinct theological position. Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth century the adjective “Anglican” had come to mean not simply “English” or “pertaining to the Church of England,” but “historically descended from the Church of England.” In the words of John Henry Newman, “Anglicanism claimed to hold that the Church of England was nothing else than a continuation in this country… of that one Church of which in old times Athanasius and Augustine were members.” In 1930, the Lambeth Conference (the once-every-ten-year gathering of all Anglican leaders) stated that the word “Anglican” was no longer used in the sense it originally bore (as a local church in England) but was now a reference to an ecclesiastical and doctrinal system, and the Anglican Communion included not only those who were racially connected with England, but included many others whose faith was grounded in the doctrines and ideals for which the Church of England has always stood.
Anglicanism’s special characteristic is its peculiar contribution to the universal Church, arising from the fact that, owing to historic circumstances, Anglicans have been enabled to combine in one fellowship the traditional faith and order of the Catholic (Universal) Church with that immediacy of approach to God through Christ to which the evangelical churches especially bear witness. In the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey,
Our church has two aspects… On the one hand we claim to be a church possessing Catholic tradition and continuity from the ancient Church, and our Catholic tradition and continuity includes the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament; the order of episcopacy and priesthood, including the power of priestly absolution. We possess various institutions belonging to Catholic Christendom like monastic orders for men and women… Our Anglican tradition has another aspect as well. We are a church which has been through the Reformation, and values many experiences derived from the Reformation, for instance the open Bible: great importance is attached to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and to personal conviction and conversion through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Today there are an estimated 80 million Anglicans belonging to a number of provinces and “local” churches, such as the Anglican Church in North America. Anglicans observe an episcopal structure of church government comprised of bishops (the pastors to the pastors), priests (pastors) and deacons (servers). Anglicans worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and subscribe to the Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasian creeds along with the sixteenth-century “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.”