Occasionally I hear someone say they have never heard of the Anglican church, or denomination. I usually answer that they likely have, but they didn’t realize it. The Anglican Church, or it’s also called the Anglican Communion, in one sense has been around since the 1500s. It is a product of God through the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. In the United States it has been primarily, but not exclusively, known as The Episcopal Church. The term Anglican (not an-gel-i-can, as in angels, but ang-li-can as in Anglo of Anglo Saxon) points us to the Church of England. Let me state quickly though that the Anglican Communion traces its beginning all the way back to the days of the Apostles. It would not be wrong to say that because we accept the Old Testament we could be said to trace our beginnings right along with the Jewish people back to the days of Genesis. So we don’t need to understand the Anglican Communion as having begun in the 1500s. It may have been identified as the Anglican Communion then, but its beginnings do go back to “the beginning”!
In the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation the part of the Roman Catholic Church in England broke away from the Roman Church and it formed the Anglican Church. The Anglicans did not embrace as much reformation as some of the other groups, or denominations, that broke away at about that same time, but Anglicans kept many of the significant parts of the faith present in the Roman Church. A few of these parts are things like the office of bishops, an emphasis on the sacraments, liturgy (or the rituals or order of service when conducting formal worship services) and other parts too. The word “Episcopal” comes from the Greek word episkopos which means “overseer” or “bishop” so the Episcopal Church is known as a church with bishops.
When we speak of the Anglican Communion, we are referring to the world-wide association of Anglican Churches that conduct their life and ministry in an Anglican tradition. There is much more to it than that, but in its broadest sense, that’s what is often meant when someone refers to the Anglican Communion. Depending on who you are conversing with, it may (likely?) will mean something significantly more restrictive than that, but I’m not going into all that here and now (maybe later).
The Anglican Communion is made up of autonomous “provinces.” A province is the grouping of Anglican congregations within a given country. Some Provinces will cover multiple countries due to size needs. So there is the Province of England, the Province of the United States, the Province of Canada, the Province of Nigeria, etc. There are currently 38 Provinces in the Anglican Communion. Each Province is led by an Archbishop, or they also may be called a Primate as in being the first of the Bishops of that Province. Each diocese is led by a bishop. A bishop has jurisdiction over a smaller specific geographical region, called a diocese. Bishops are responsible for guarding the faith once delivered to the saints, as is stated in the book of Jude in the Bible. And because they can’t be in all the places that need this oversight, the next level of authority in the Anglican Communion under a bishop is the priest.
Priests function under the approval of a bishop. If a priest is found to be misrepresenting the faith, it is the bishop’s responsibility to correct that priest, or remove him/her from functioning as a priest.
Deacon is another office in the Anglican Communion. The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos which means “servant.” The deacon is one who helps the local congregation take the ministry of the church out into the world, meeting the needs of the local community and thereby sharing the love God has for all people. The deacon will see needs that the church could help meet and then will assist the priest and other clergy of the local congregation in equipping the people of the congregation to go meet those needs, bringing people into relationship with God through the redeeming work of Christ on the cross and in the power of Holy Spirit.
Because the Christian faith is a “missionary” faith, some bishops will have jurisdictional authority over priests and deacons that are outside their geographical boundary. Also, some bishops will exercise this kind of oversight over clergy that are within another Anglican Province because it has been determined that the Archbishop, or Primate, of that other Province is knowingly permitting a representation of the Christian faith that is very much at odds in very significant ways with what is revealed to us in the Bible. In these types of cases, it is the responsibility of the other bishops of that Province to “bring in line” the Archbishop, and if they do not do so, then the Archbishop of Canterbury (appointed by the King or Queen of England) should lead the way in bringing the errant bishop/province back in line with the revealed will of God in the Bible. (Well… I just opened a big “can of worms” with that, but we’ll leave it there for now.)
So to summarize a bit, to be Anglican means in part we conduct our life and ministry in the traditions of the Church of England, and we trace our spiritual lineage back in time through the Church of England and we are under the oversight of a Bishop who has valid jurisdiction, and is in “communion” with the Archbishop of Canterbury.