Ecclesiology, polity and ethos
The Anglican Communion has no official legal existence nor any governing structure which might exercise authority over the member churches. There is an Anglican Communion Office in London, under the aegis of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it only serves in a supporting and organisational role. The Communion is held together by a shared history, expressed in its
ethos and also by participation in international consultative bodies.
Three elements have been important in holding the Communion together: first, the shared ecclesial structure of the component churches, manifested in an
episcopal polity maintained through the
apostolic succession of bishops and
synodical government; second, the principle of belief expressed in worship, investing importance in approved prayer books and their rubrics; and third, the historical documents and the writings of early Anglican
divines that have influenced the ethos of the Communion.
Originally, the Church of England was self-contained and relied for its unity and identity on its own history, its traditional legal and episcopal structure and its status as an
established church of the state. As such Anglicanism was, from the outset, a movement with an explicitly
episcopal polity, a characteristic which has been vital in maintaining the unity of the Communion by conveying the episcopate's role in manifesting visible catholicity and ecumenism.
Early in its development, Anglicanism developed a vernacular prayer book, called the
Book of Common Prayer. Unlike other traditions, Anglicanism has never been governed by a
magisterium nor by appeal to one founding
theologian, nor by an extra-credal summary of doctrine (such as the
Westminster Confession of the
Presbyterian Church). Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and its offshoots as a guide to Anglican theology and practice. This had the effect of inculcating the principle of
Lex orandi, lex credendi (
Latin loosely translated as "the law of praying [is] the law of believing") as the foundation of Anglican identity and confession.
Protracted conflict through the seventeenth century with more radical
Protestants on the one hand and Catholics who recognised the primacy of the
Pope on the other, resulted in an association of churches that were both deliberately vague about doctrinal principles, yet bold in developing parameters of acceptable deviation. These parameters were most clearly articulated in the various
rubrics of the successive prayer books, as well as the
Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563). These Articles have historically shaped and continue to direct the ethos of the Communion, an ethos reinforced by their interpretation and expansion by such influential early theologians as
John Cosin, and others.
With the expansion of the
British Empire, and hence the growth of Anglicanism outside Great Britain and Ireland, the Communion sought to establish new vehicles of unity. The first major expression of this were the
Lambeth Conferences of the communion's bishops, first convened by Archbishop of Canterbury
Charles Longley in 1867. From the beginning, these were not intended to displace the autonomy of the emerging provinces of the Communion, but to "discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action."