A history of the church in England

The early English church

Christianity became established in Britain during the period that the British were governed by Rome, probably by the second century CE. During the fifth and sixth centuries, however, England had been Augustine of Canterburyconquered by the pagan Anglo-Saxons (made up of Angles, Saxons and Jutes – tribal groups from the coastlands of north-east Europe) and the Christian communities which remained were scattered. In 597 CE, Pope Gregory I sent a groups of monks from Rome, led by Augustine of Canterbury, to plant Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. On arrival, he found groups of Christians around the Welsh borders and in the West of England, whose traditions were Celtic.

Though the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gradually adopted the Christian faith, Celtic and Roman Christians clashed over some aspects of Christian practice, and these differences were resolved by a synod in Whitby in 667. Roman Catholic practice largely prevailed, emphasising:

  • rule by bishops
  • urban Christian centres
  • uniform religious practice.

The influence of some aspects of Celtic Christianity remained, however, and it continued to predominate in some areas of Britain.

Despite further disruption caused by the invasion of pagan Vikings during the late eighth and ninth centuries, by the time of the Norman invasion (1066), the monarchs of Anglo-Saxon England were Christian, ruling over a Christianised land.

The medieval church

For 400 years, Christianity in England continued its allegiance to Rome, with periodic tensions between popes and monarchs claiming authority over each other. Mass (Holy Communion) was a spectacle watched by lay people, rather than a communion meal. The Church controlled social life through:

Religious orders of monks and nuns dominated the landscape. Such communities were centres of prayer, but also of learning, hospitality, farming and business.

Bishops were key political figures, influential in national decisions. At best, the Church was a spiritual and moral guardian, but at times it became corrupt, exercising power for financial gain or abusive social control.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was an increasing interest in direct spiritual experience of God and questioning of some of the emphases and attitudes of the church.

The Reformation in England

Under Henry VIII, the English (Anglican) Church became independent of Rome. Henry was responsible for closing all religious communities, for political and financial gain rather than for religious reasons. By 1600 it was a Protestant Church, emphasising:

The Protestant Reformation also removed:


Not all English Christians thought that this Reformation went far enough. Offended by the Church of England's link with the state, or rule by bishops, or a prayer book, they broke away and formed new groupings: Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist in particular. During the disrupted politics of the 17th century, more radical groups like the Quakers emerged. These are all Nonconformists because they did not conform to the state church.

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