Anglican Organization

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

The Anglican Communion is an organization of autonomous national churches connected with the Church of England, which has its roots in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. "Anglicanism" is the general form of doctrine, worship and structure based on the tradition of the Church of England; not all Anglican churches are official members of the Anglican Communion.

On a worldwide level, there are four "instruments of unity" that discuss issues impacting Anglicanism and often issue statements of decisions. These statements are more counsels than decrees, but they are taken seriously by Anglican churches around the world. They are:

  • Lambeth Conference (bishops; meets every 10 years)
  • Primates Meetings (primates; regular meetings)
  • Anglican Consultative Council (laity, bishops, priests, deacons; meets every 3 years or so)
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury in his international role as "first among equals."

The Church of England is headed by the king or queen of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Outside of England, Anglican churches are led on the national level by a primate, then by archbishops, bishops, priests and deacons. The organization is "episcopal" in nature (bishops and dioceses) and similar to Roman Catholic organization.

Anglicanism and the Monarchy

The monarch of England has been the head of the Church of England and the "Defender of the Faith" since the Act of Supremacy enforced by King Henry VIII in 1534. The role is primarily symbolic, but the king or queen of England does have a hand in selecting the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as legal jurisdiction over all properties of the Church of England. The British Prime Minister plays a more significant role, as he nominates his choice for Archbishop of Canterbury (see process, below). Beyond this influence, the English rulers have no authority in the Anglican Communion outside of England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

The current (105th) Archbishop of Canterbury is the Most Reverend Justin Welby. He was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on February 4, 2013.

The Archbishop of Canterbury plays four major roles in the Anglican Communion:

  • Bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, England. The diocese consists of about 270 parishes and 825,000 people.
  • Metropolitan of the Southern Province of the Church of England. In this role, the Archbishop has supervisory authority over all the bishops and clergy in the 30 dioceses of southern England. The Archbishop of York is the Metropolitan of the 14 dioceses of northern England.
  • Primate of All England. Each national or regional Anglican church has a primate (a senior archbishop), and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primate of the Church of England. The designation "All England" identifies him as the chief primate. The Primate of England is the Archbishop of York.
  • Leader of the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the respected spiritual and moral leader of the 38 provinces around the world that are members of the Anglican Communion. In this role the Archbishop has no direct authority but significant moral and symbolic authority. His authority is similar to that of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople with respect to Greek Orthodox churches.

The process for appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury is as follows:

    - The retiring Archbishop of Canterbury informs the Queen of his intentions. - The Queen accepts the resignation; the Privy Council subsequently declares the See and Archbishopric of Canterbury vacant. - The Archbishop announces his decision, including the date on which it is to take effect. - The Prime Minister consults on the identity of and appoints the Chair of the Crown Appointments Commission, which will oversee the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. - The Vacancy-In-See Committee in the Diocese of Canterbury meets to: produce a Statement of Needs (the diocese’s assessment of the qualities and skills required of the next occupant); choose four members of the Crown Appointments Commission. - The Crown Appointments Commission is formed, comprising the Chair, the four diocesan members, three clergy and three lay members chosen by General Synod and two episcopal members. (In addition, the Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary and the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary are non-voting members.) - The Crown Appointments Commission meets, following an extensive consultation process. The gathering continues over two and a half days—in three phases: Review of background material; Consideration of candidates; Shortlisting and voting - The Commission sends two names to the Prime Minister for consideration. - Assuming he is content with them, the Prime Minister commends a name to the Queen. (If he so wishes the Prime Minister may request a further name or names from the Commission). Once the chosen candidate has indicated a willingness to serve, Ten Downing Street announces the name of the Archbishop-designate. - The Archbishop-designate is presented at a news conference. - The Dean and Chapter of the diocese of Canterbury formally elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury. - The election is confirmed in a legal ceremony. - The new Archbishop takes up office. - The new Archbishop is formally enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral.