Anglican Communion, the name used to denote that great branch of the Christian Church consisting of the various churches in communion with the Church of England. The necessity for such a phrase as "Anglican Communion," first used in the 19th century, marked at once the immense development of the Anglican Church in modern times and the change which has taken place in the traditional conceptions of its character and sphere. The Church of England itself is the subject of a separate article (see ENGLAND, CHURCH OF); and it is not without significance that for more than two centuries after the Reformation the history of Anglicanism is practically confined to its developments within the limits of the British Isles. Even in Ireland, where it was for over three centuries the established religion, and in Scotland, where it early gave way to the dominant Presbyterianism, its religious was long overshadowed by its political significance. The Church, in fact, while still claiming to be Catholic in its creeds and in its religious practice, had ceased to be Catholic in its institutional conception, which was now bound up with a particular state and also with a particular conception of that state.
To the native Irishman and the Scotsman, as indeed to most Englishmen, the Anglican Church was one of the main buttresses of the supremacy of the English crown and nation. This conception of the relations of church and state was hardly favourable to missionary zeal; and in the age succeeding the Reformation there was no disposition on the part of the English Church to emulate the wonderful activity of the Jesuits, which, in the 16th and 17th centuries, brought to the Church of Rome in countries beyond the ocean compensation for what she had lost in Europe through the Protestant reformation. Even when English churchmen passed beyond the seas, they carried with them their creed, but not their ecclesiastical organization. Prejudice and real or imaginary legal obstacles stood in the way of the erection of episcopal sees in the colonies; and though in the 17th century Archbishop Laud had attempted to obtain a bishop for Virginia, up to the time of the American revolution the churchmen of the colonies had to make the best of the legal fiction that their spiritual needs were looked after by the bishop of London, who occasionally sent commissaries to visit them and ordained candidates for the ministry sent to England for the purpose.
The change which has made it possible for Anglican churchmen to claim that their communion ranks with those of Rome and the Orthodox East as one of the three great historical divisions of the Catholic Church, was due, in the first instance, to the American revolution. The severance of the colonies from their allegiance to the crown brought the English bishops for the first time face to face with the idea of an Anglican Church which should have nothing to do either with the royal supremacy or with British nationality. When, on the conclusion of peace, the church-people of Connecticut sent Dr. Samuel Seabury to England, with a request to the archbishop of Canterbury to consecrate him, it is not surprising that Archbishop Moore refused. In the opinion of prelates and lawyers alike, an act of parliament was necessary before a bishop could be consecrated for a see abroad; to consecrate one for a foreign country seemed impossible, since, though the bestowal of the potestas ordinis would be valid, the crown, which, according to the law, was the source of the episcopal jurisdiction, could hardly issue the necessary mandate for the consecration of a bishop to a see outside the realm (see BISHOP). The Scottish bishops, however, being hampered by no such legal restrictions, were more amenable; and on the 11th of November 1784 Seabury was consecrated by them to the see of Connecticut. In 1786, on the initiative of the archbishop, the legal difficulties in England were removed by the act for the consecration of bishops abroad; and, on being satisfied as to the orthodoxy of the church in America and the nature of certain liturgical changes in contemplation, the two English archbishops proceeded, on the 14th of February 1787, to consecrate William White and Samuel Prevoost to the sees of Pennsylvania and New York (see PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL CHURCH).
This act had a significance beyond the fact that it established in the United States of America a flourishing church, which, while completely loyal to its own country, is bound by special ties to the religious life of England. It marked the emergence of the Church of England from that insularity to which what may be called the territorial principles of the Reformation had condemned her. The change was slow, and it is not yet by any means complete.
Since the Church of England, whatever her attitude towards the traditional Catholic doctrines, never disputed the validity of Catholic orders whether Roman or Orthodox, nor the jurisdiction of Catholic bishops in foreign countries, the expansion of the Anglican Church has been in no sense conceived as a Protestant aggressive movement against Rome. Occasional exceptions, such as the consecration by Archbishop Plunket of Dublin of a bishop for the reformed church in Spain, raised so strong a protest as to prove the rule. In the main, then, the expansion of the Anglican Church has followed that of the British empire, or, as in America, of its daughter states; its claim, so far as rights of jurisdiction are concerned, is to be the Church of England and the English race, while recognizing its special duties towards the non-Christian populations subject to the empire or brought within the reach of its influence. As against the Church of Rome, with its system of rigid centralization, the Anglican Church represents the principle of local autonomy, which it holds to be once more primitive and more catholic.
In this respect the Anglican communion has developed on the lines defined in her articles at the Reformation; but, though in principle there is no great difference between a church defined by national, and a church defined by racial boundaries, there is an immense difference in effect, especially when the race - as in the case of the English - is itself ecumenical.
The realization of what may be called this catholic mission of the English church, in the extension of its organization to the colonies, was but a slow process.