Church of England
It is not out of place to trace the history of the Wesleyan Methodist mission better known as the Methodist Mission. The roots of the Wesleyan Mission can be traced to the Church of England for the founders of the mission were followers of the Church of England. The Church of England has its beginning with the Roman Catholic Church. A brief look at the Church of England is not misplaced.
The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when a Christian church came into existence in what was then the Roman province of Britain. The early Christian writers Tertullian and Origen mention the existence of a British church in the 3rd century AD and in the 4th century British bishops attended a number of the great councils of the Church such as the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Rimini in 359. The first member of the British church is known to be St. Alban, who was martyred for his faith on the spot where St. Albans Abbey now stands.
The British church was a missionary church with figures such as St. Illtud, St. Ninian and St. Patrick evangelising in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but the invasions by the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th century seem to have destroyed the organisation of the church in much of what is now England. In 597 a mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great and led by St. Augustine of Canterbury landed in Kent to begin the work of converting these pagan peoples. What eventually became known as the Church of England (the Ecclesia Anglicana – or the English Church) was the result of a combination of three streams of Christianity, the Roman tradition of St. Augustine and his successors, the remnants of the old Romano-British church and the Celtic tradition coming down from Scotland and associated with people like St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert.
These three streams came together as a result of increasing mutual contact and a number of local synods, of which the Synod of Whitby in 664 has traditionally been seen as the most important. The result was an English Church, led by the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York that was fully assimilated into the mainstream of the Christian Church of the west. This meant that it was influenced by the wider development of the Western Christian tradition in matters such as theology, liturgy, church architecture, and the development of monasticism. It also meant that until the Reformation in the 16th century the Church of England acknowledged the authority of the Pope.
At the Reformation the Western Church became divided between those who continued to accept Papal authority and the various Protestant churches that repudiated it. The Church of England was among the churches that broke with Rome. The catalyst for this decision was the refusal of the Pope to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, but underlying this was a Tudor nationalist belief that authority over the English Church properly belonged to the English monarchy. In the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI the Church of England underwent further reformation, driven by the conviction that the theology being developed by the theologians of the Protestant Reformation was more faithful to the teaching of the Bible and the Early Church than the teaching of those who continued to support the Pope.
In the reign of Mary Tudor, the Church of England once again submitted to Papal authority. However, this policy was reversed when Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558.
The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of Elizabeth gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it has retained to this day. It resulted in a Church that consciously retained a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods in terms of its use of the catholic creeds, its pattern of ministry, its buildings and aspects of its liturgy, but which also embodied Protestant insights in its theology and in the overall shape of its liturgical practice. The way that this is often expressed is by saying that the Church of England is both ‘catholic and reformed.’
At the end of the 16th century Richard Hooker produced the classic defence of the Elizabethan settlement in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a work which sought to defend the Church of England against its Puritan critics who wanted further changes to make the Church of England more like the churches of Geneva or Scotland.
In the 17th century continuing tensions within the Church of England over theological and liturgical issues were among the factors that led to the English Civil War. The Church was associated with the losing Royalist side and during the period of the Commonwealth from 1649-1660 its bishops were abolished and its prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, was banned. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 this situation was reversed and in 1662 those clergy who could not accept this decision were forced to leave their posts. These dissenting clergy and their congregations were then persecuted until 1689 when the Toleration Act gave legal existence to those Protestant groups outside the Church of England who accepted the doctrine of the Trinity.
The settlement of 1689 has remained the basis of the constitutional position of the Church of England ever since, a constitutional position in which the Church of England has remained the established Church with a range of particular legal privileges and responsibilities, but with ever increasing religious and civil rights being granted to other Christians, those of other faiths and those professing no faith at all.
As well as being the established Church in England, the Church of England has also become the mother church of the Anglican Communion, a group of separate churches that are in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and for whom he is the focus of unity.