The Anglican Church of Australia (of which St. George’s is a part) is linked with the worldwide Anglican Communion. The churches of this fellowship or communion are all derived originally from the Church of England and share its traditions of faith and worship as set out in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662.
That’s the textbook answer to what the Anglican Church is but like most textbook definitions it lacks the colour. Now for the coloured, hopefully more interesting version.
Christianity came to ancient Britain with the Romans and flourished in some regions, including an expansion into the Celtic world. Patrick took Christianity to Ireland, Illtud founded a great monastery in the mountains of Wales and Ninian built a monastery in Galloway and began the difficult task of evangelising the Picts. Then in 597 the Bishop of Rome, Pope Gregory the Great, sent Augustine to evangelise Britain with instructions to establish Dioceses at London and York. However, when Augustine arrived he was met by Bertha, the Christian wife of Ethelbert, King of Kent, so he established his first church in Ethelbert’s capital, Canterbury. This became the centre of his missionary activity and Canterbury to this day is seen as the mother church of the worldwide Anglican communion. By the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century, the church in England was part of the Holy Catholic Church as it was known and was under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
The church was immensely wealthy; the Pope exerted enormous political power and in the minds of the more enlightened it had moved a long way from the original teachings of its Founder, Jesus Christ. There were movements for reform but challenging the authority of the Church was a risky business and you were likely to get burnt at the stake. Then along came that fascinating monarch, King Henry VIII. Henry was a true son of the Church – he was even given a medal by the Pope bestowing on him the title Defender of the Faith because he had written a tract condemning the notorious German heretic, one Martin Luther. (Actually Henry didn’t write it – he got one of his theological advisers to do it but he did sign his name to it.)
Henry was keen to have a son and heir so that the succession would be secure but the problem was his wife Catherine seemed incapable of bearing him a son. He convinced himself that this was because she had been formerly married to his now deceased brother. Marriage to your brother’s wife was a technical breach of an ancient and obscure Law of the Old Testament so Henry believed he should have the marriage annulled. He was further encouraged in this view because he had fallen in lust with a comely young lass by the name of Anne Boleyn.
Normally, the Pope would have popped the annulment in the post as soon as the required fee was paid but unfortunately Catherine was Spanish and the Pope was relying on Spanish support to hang on to his job. No matter how much pressure Henry brought to bear the Pope would not budge. Things were getting a bit sticky in England because Anne Boleyn was by now well and truly in the family way and everyone in court knew who Dad was. Henry decided that if the Pope was going to play hardball he would too. He told the Pope he was no longer head of the church in England; he Henry would take on that role and the spiritual head would be The Archbishop of Canterbury.
He appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop and set about reorganising the whole structure of the church in England which now became the Church of England – autonomous and free to determine its own future. It was a bold move and the Pope went ballistic but there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Henry married Anne and then another four poor women after her: being married to a man who can write his own divorce certificates is not a recipe for a happy marriage.
Meanwhile in all the ferment caused by these events, the reformers in the church, of whom Thomas Cranmer was one, saw their opportunity. They rewrote the liturgy of the Church in the language of the people which happily turned out to be Shakespearean English and they allowed English translations of the Scriptures. They simplified the church services so they were more meaningful and they reformed some of the abuses. Sadly they did some silly things as well like closing all the monasteries and other religious houses, but taken all in all, the reformation of the church was a good thing.
After Henry’s reign things became even more complicated. There were some like Queen Mary who wanted to bring back all the old “Catholic” ways and others who wanted to take the reformation even further, like the Puritans. England experimented with both extremes but by the time of Charles II and the restoration of the monarchy, most people were happy to stick with being Church of England using the Book of Common Prayer, which had been first introduced in 1662.
When the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour, on board was a Church of England clergyman named Richard Johnson, who had been included at the last minute as a Chaplain to the fleet. He had a tough time. As he wrote in his log, the First Fleeters ‘were more interested in building pubs than churches’ but he persevered and thanks to him the first Church of England church was built on Australian soil. Inevitably the C.of E., as it was often known, struggled with the legacy of being the church of the establishment even though Australia has never had a state religion.
It was not until 1962 that the Church of England in Australia became the Anglican Church of Australia with its own constitution and its own General Synod (Governing Body) and completely autonomous. In Australia as in the rest of the world, the Anglican Church is divided into dioceses or regions which are made up of the individual local churches called parishes. Each diocese has its own bishop and is able to govern its own affairs. So, for example, most dioceses in Australia ordain women as priests but a small number, including Sydney do not.
The Anglican Church because of its peculiar history has always been an inclusive church which embraces a wide diversity of belief and expressions of worship. Broadly speaking there are two major historic divisions in the Anglican Church with all kinds of variations. These divisions are usually referred to as Low Church and High Church, or Evangelical and Catholic. The Catholic wing of the church values the ancient heritage of the church and its links with the spirituality existing prior to the Reformation. Hence there is a greater attention to liturgy, ritual and the centrality of the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
The Evangelical wing is more focused on the heritage of the Reformation, in particular its emphasis on the Scriptures alone as the source of doctrine and order. Their worship is simpler and there is a tendency for preaching to replace the Eucharist as the centre of worship. Sydney Diocese has historically been noted for its evangelical stance and ‘Catholic’ parishes within the diocese have at times felt almost ostracised by the majority view.
Where does St George’s fit in this spectrum? We try to avoid labels and value the rich heritage that the Anglican Church has to offer. We regard the Eucharist as the central act of Christian worship but also value and encourage intelligent, relevant exposition of the Scriptures.
We hope you will find a welcome with us.