Church of England

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For that other C of E, see the Council of Europe.
Like a toothless old woman muttering in a corner ignored by everyone
—Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey[1]

The Church of England (CofE; spoken /siːəv'iː/) is the historical (and still the formal) state church of England, and the "mother church" of Anglicanism, a Christian denomination based largely on national churches established in the CofE's tradition in Britain's colonies and former imperial outposts. Anglicanism comprises a very broad tradition - since its foundation as an independent entity in the 16th century, different factions within the Church of England have disagreed wildly on doctrine, aesthetics and, historically, whether or not to tolerate one another. In general, the modern Church represents a very pragmatic and liberal form of Christianity, with a focus on reconciling God and reality; around 2% of Anglican priests are atheists, 16% are agnostic, and its leader has said he sometimes doubts the existence of God. Historically, though, the CofE was very much the conservative establishment church[2], and there remain Evangelical and Anglo- Papalist wings which resent the increasingly progressive stance of the Church.

Role of the Church[edit]

Actual attendance[edit]

In essence, nobody turns up to Church of England services—least of all self-described Anglicans. So few people show up that, in 2019, the Church binned off the official rule that every church had to offer services on Sundays.[3] According to the Church's statistics, in 2017 only around 722,000 people regularly attended Sunday services, which is less than 1.3% of the English population and accounts for about 7.6% of self-described Anglicans. Though weekly attendance at Sunday services is the Anglican tradition, the Church also defines a separate statistic for the "Worshipping Community", defined as broadly as possible all people who do their best to participate in CofE-led acts of prayer at least once a month, including those who fail to attend once a month because of illness (colds and sniffles included), holidays or age; children who are made to pray at school; those who attend fellowship groups; etc. In 2017 the Worshipping Community was 1.14 million people, 2% of the English population and 12% of Anglicans.[4][5][6]


Many English people will go to CofE services around Christmas. This is actually common-ish practice among atheists, either for tradition or because of elderly Anglican relatives, and so it's no real indication that the Church continues to hold any real influence. In 2017 a respectable 2.68 million people (4.8% of the English population and 28% of Anglicans) went to church on Christmas Day, though only 33% of those actually accepted communion, suggesting that lots of those present were not exactly earnest Christians.


English Reformation[edit]

As every older English schoolkid knows, the Church of England was initially founded when, in 1534, King Henry VIII refused to put up with the Pope's objections to sanctioning his divorce due to Catherine's relation to the Habsburgs who controlled Spain and much of Italy. Henry, being King and having the wherewithal to do so, declared the English Church to be split from the Roman Catholic Church, and put himself at the head of the new church - after God/Jesus Christ of course. Some of the emerging Protestant theology was adopted to further the division, and Henry took advantage of his new ecclesiastical leadership to forcibly close down England's monasteries and convents, confiscating their wealth and land.

Although popular belief holds that the church in England was Protestant from that point on this is, in fact, incorrect. Following the accession the throne of Mary I of England in 1553 the Church again returned to Roman control. Perhaps unsurprisingly various executions followed.

It was Elizabeth I of England who made the definitive break with Rome when coming to the throne in 1558. Over the next century or so, the theology and practices of the Church shifted back and forth under various regimes, sometimes appearing Catholic but without allegiance to the Pope, sometimes fairly Puritan, before settling somewhere in the middle.

Transition to modern times[edit]

There is disagreement whether the CofE are Protestant, it seems they call themselves Catholic but not Roman Catholic.[7] The Church has a minor role in the British government, with Bishops sitting in the House of Lords and has usually backed government policy. The so-called Lords Spiritual represent only England: other branches of the Anglican Church, other faiths, and freethinkers are not specially represented in the House of Lords. The British monarch is still formally the head of the CofE.

For a large part of its history the CofE has been connected with maintaining the established order, that meant traditional upper classes in charge, the middle classes in the middle and the lower orders knowing their subordinate place. This is less true today and traditional ties between the CofE and the Conservative Party are weakening.

In recent decades, church attendance in Britain has dropped considerably and the Church of England's influence is becoming increasingly irrelevant in society, but they still have those Lords Spiritual.

It is under something of a hostile takeover bid by the Roman Catholics, who have set up a system where Anglican parishes can convert over without having to change any of their liturgy or dogma. They simply change "Anglican" to "Catholic." Their priests don't even have to be celibate![8] The Vicar of BrayWikipedia would have been proud.

The Church of England is the established church only in England. The CofE was disestablished in Wales in 1920, with its former dioceses being renamed as the Church in Wales (sic); the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871, long before the partition of Ireland, and Scotland has the Church of Scotland, which is in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition rather than Anglican. (The equivalent to the CofE in Scotland, is the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which is the second, perhaps third, church tradition in Scotland.)

The modern Church[edit]

The Canterbury Cross, a common symbol of Anglicanism.
The nice country vicar in effect inoculated vast swaths of the English against Christianity.
—Rev. Giles Fraser[9]

Unlike fundamentalist forms of Christianity, Anglicanism does not demand a literal interpretation of Biblical passages such as the creation, great flood and virgin birth; indeed, the Church of England has been part of efforts to oppose those who insist that one must make a choice between reality and God. Modern Anglicans are also usually very tolerant and respectful of other Christians. The Church of England doesn't tend to put the fear of Hell into people—all it really offers is tradition, rituals, tea, jumble sales, and cake.[10] On balance, Anglicanism should be considered a mostly harmless (though somewhat boring) branch of Christianity. Church attendance has been steadily declining and is now under 1 million on a typical Sunday.[11]

Despite a heavy presence of stuffy, old fashioned conservative types, the Church of England has become increasingly progressive compared to many other Christian churches. Justin Welby is the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and while he is an evangelical, he is well-liked by many branches of the Church and strongly supports female bishops.[12]

Atheist and agnostic clergy[edit]

Welby has even admitted to sometimes experiencing doubts over the existence of God,[13] however his views are commonplace, as Welby is not the only doubting Church of England cleric. A 2005 study suggested roughly 3% of the Church of England clergy admitted to doubting the existence of God.[14] A more recent 2014 survey suggests 2% of Anglican clergy in England, Wales, and Scotland are atheists while 16% are agnostic. Older Church of England clergy are more likely to disbelieve [15] It is suggested dealing with suffering parishioners, finding prayer problematic, and other life experiences may have lead older religious leaders to question Church of England theology and teachings.[16]

Child and adult sex abuse[edit]

While not approaching the horrific levels of abuse which the Catholic Church experienced, the Church of England has had to confront the issue of child sexual abuse at the hands of its clergy, there were noteworthy cases in Sussex[17][18] and Cumbria.[19] There was also systemic failure to prevent the late Dean of Manchester (Robert Waddington)Wikipedia from committing mass child abuse.[20]

The Archbishop of CanterburyWikipedia Justin Welby is allegedly working to ensure that complaints are not brushed off as has happened, files dating back to the 1950's are being examined and independent investigators are involved to a limited extent to prevent cover ups.[21][22] Keith Porteous WoodWikipedia of the National Secular Society stated:

The problem wasn't that bishops weren't trained in such matters, it is the institutional culture of denial and the bullying of the abused and whistleblowers into silence. One report suggests that 13 bishops ignored letters written in the 1990s warning of abuse by Ball on behalf of a victim who later committed suicide. I have seen evidence that such bullying persists to this day. I hope that the Archbishop's review into the case of Peter Ball will deal with such bullying and what appears to be the undue influence exerted on the police and CPS by the Church in dealing with this case. The total failure of procedures, outlined by Ian Elliott, echoes that revealed in the totally damning Cahill Report about the conduct of the Archbishop Hope of York in respect of Robert Waddington. The current Archbishop of York has decided that this report should remain in printed form rather than be more widely available on the web.

Peter Ball (bishop)Wikipedia has served a prison sentence for serious sex abuse against young adult men. There are allegations of serious earlier cover up's involving then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey and many other British establishment figures which prevented Ball's earlier prosecution. Ball served just a year and a half in prison for a decade and a half of abuse. One of Ball's victims committed suicide and others claim lasting harm. Abuse survivor, Graham Sawyer, claimed he and others were treated with contempt. Sawyer said, “The church continues to use highly aggressive legal firms to bully, frighten and discredit victims … In my own case, I continue to endure cruel and sadistic treatment by the very highest levels of the church”.[24]

Women in the clergy[edit]

Since the days of suffragettes in the early 20th century, women have militated for the right to serve the Church in all capacities; this movement gained momentum in the 1960's. The Church allowed women to become ordained deaconesses in the 1980s; since 1992, the Church has accepted women as priests. A long-delayed and divisive vote on female bishops took place in November 2012 with below two-thirds majority in the House of Laity. A year later, the Church's governing body voted overwhelmingly to allow women to become ordained as bishops, joining their counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.[25][26] In July 2014, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow women bishops. Dissenting parishes can insist on a man to govern them and there will be an independent arbitrator. Justin Welby claims women bishops are theologically acceptable and the primary duty of the CofE is to stay together connected to current society.[27][28] Libby Lane was consecrated as bishop of Stockport in January 2015, and became the first woman bishop in the Church of England.[29][30][31]

Official positions on social and political issues[edit]

Canterbury Cathedral.
  • Evolution – In 2010, the CofE officially stated that not only is evolution compatible with Christianity, it is a disservice to both science at large, and scientists who are Christian, to deny the facts and findings of science.
  • Homosexuality – The Church allows that homosexuality "in and of itself is no bar to faithful Christian life", but at the same time "sexual activities outside of the bonds of marriage are a sin", and that marriage is as defined, one man and one woman. The upshot? It's fine to be gay, as long as you are celibate. The Church was one of the most vocal groups in opposition to government plans to introduce same-sex marriage in the UK,[32] as it would dilute the sanctity of marriage. Informal prayer for a gay couple is allowed provided there is pastoral discussion why the couple go against church teaching.[33]
  • Gay men as clergymen – Some homosexuals have also been accepted as clergy in Anglican churches outside England, including Bishop Gene Robinson in the New Hampshire diocese of the Episcopal Church. These moves have been met with strong opposition from many traditionalists. Some of the more homophobic branches of the Anglican church refuse to stay in communion with those branches that are "open and affirming". In England, gay men in civil partnerships can serve as CofE priests and bishops provided they make an unenforceable promise to remain celibate.[34] Ordained deacons, priests and Bishops may not enter same sex marriage and people in same sex marriage may not be ordained.[33]
  • Divorce – Ideally, the CofE believes that marriage should last a lifetime, but divorce sometimes happens for varied and painful reasons. Vicars have discretion to allow divorcees to remarry in church and failing that a service following a civil wedding is possible.[35] It is also not exactly helpful that the head of the Church has divorced and remarried - with a divorcée, or that the CofE was founded specifically to condone a divorce that the Pope had refused.
  • Involvement in War – The Church of England also broke with historical tradition by opposing UK involvement in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,[36][37] as well as subsequent governmental policies on the Middle East.[38]
  • Poverty – Unlike the American Religious Right, the Church of England speaks up "for the poor and the marginalized," but relatively few listen.[39] The CofE was accused of failing the poorest citizens; examples include selling social housing to the highest bidder while homelessness increases[40] and betraying London protestors from the Occupy Movement by permitting the police to remove protestors from St Paul's Cathedral.[41] Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury also wanted church based credit unions to out compete loan companies, notably Wonga though he acknowledged that would take decades. Welby was not promoting legislation which would protect victims of loan sharks much sooner.[42] A week later, it was discovered that the Church had invested in Wonga – and the stake had not been sold about six months later because the Church wanted to avoid losing money on the payday loans.[43] Actions speak louder than words.

See also[edit]


  1. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey (in office 1991-2002)
  2. Traditionally characterised as "the Tory Party at prayer".
  8. Well, any new ones would, but the old ones don't.
  9. Quoted in Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, p.41
  10. Or death
  11. Church of England weekly attendance falls below 1m for first time
  12. Justin Welby named as next Archbishop of Canterbury; Justin Welby set to become new Archbishop of Canterbury; Justin Welby: Ex-oil executive facing Church of England's 'impossible job'
  13. Archbishop of Canterbury admits he has doubts about God
  14. Clergy who don't believe in God
  15. Two per cent of Anglican priests don't believe in God, survey finds
  16. Can a Priest Be an Atheist?
  17. Archbishop of Canterbury condemns child abuse failings
  18. Church of England makes Chichester child abuse apology
  19. Ex-canon of Carlisle Cathedral Ronald Johns jailed
  20. Batty, David (10 May 2013). "Church of England facing new child abuse allegations". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  21. Inquiry into CofE cleric abuse claim set up
  22. Church of England to examine 1950s records in child abuse investigation
  23. Church cut contact with child abuse victim on order of insurers
  24. Sexual abuse coverup by Anglican Church includes the former Archbishop of Canterbury
  25. Church of England Votes in Favor of Female Bishops, NBC News, 20 November 2013
  26. Church in Wales backs women bishops
  27. Justin Welby: Women bishops vote 'based on theology'BBCYouTube video
  28. Justin Welby: Women bishops vote 'based on theology'
  29. First female bishop named as the Reverend Libby Lane
  30. Church of England's first female bishop named as Libby LaneLibby Lane: First female bishop to be consecrated
  31. Not all Anglicans are comfortable with women's ordination and small numbers have left to join the Roman Catholic Church over the issue, such as former Tory MP Ann WiddecombeWikipedia and others. See History overturned as Anglican bishops are ordained as Catholic priests.
  32. Church of England Gay Marriage
  33. 33.0 33.1 Gay couple blessings ruled out by Church of England bishops
  34. Mixed response to CofE decision to allow gay bishops
  35. What is the Church's teaching on divorce?Marriage after divorce
  36. "Church issues prayer against Iraq war". BBC NEWS (England). 3 January 2003. Retrieved 4 June 2015. 
  37. Hall, Sarah (30 December 2003). "Blair acted like a 'white vigilante' by invading Iraq, says bishop". The Grauniad. Retrieved 4 June 2015. 
  38. Townsend, Mark (16 August 2014). "Church launches bitter attack on PM's 'incoherent' Middle East policy". The Observer. Retrieved 4 June 2015. 
  39. Analysis: new Archbishop's challenge
  40. The church is failing our poorest citizens
  41. Occupy London protesters accuse St Paul's of betrayal
  42. War on Wonga: We're putting you out of business, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tells payday loans company
  43. Archbishop Justin Welby admits Wonga stake has not been sold