When was the Church of England founded? This was a dangerously divisive question back in the 1630s, with daring Laudians favouring the year 597 (Augustine’s mission to Kent, sponsored by the Pope) and stout Puritans insisting on 1559 (the Elizabethan legislation which repudiated the Pope). A case could even be made, sentimentally if not legally, for Henry VIII’s earlier antipapal legislation of 1534. The reason the question mattered, of course, was not chronology but identity: was this a Reformed Protestant church built de novo on the ashes of papistical abominations, or was it the ancient Church of the English, ecclesia Anglicana, whose Reformation was not a clean break with the past?
Both positions remain defensible, but my recent spell working on the mid-17th century has persuaded me of another view. In the modern Church of England, ‘Anglican’ has become a denominational identity, not a geographical description. (Personally, I deplore this, and I am deeply uncomfortable with ‘Anglicanism’ as such; but I am ploughing a lonely furrow on that one.) This is, at the earliest, a 17th-century phenomenon, now entrenched by such deeply sectarian documents as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which effectively turns episcopacy into a shibboleth for true Christianity.
So I’d argue that the real foundation date is 1662, when the Restoration regime decisively turned its back on the idea of a Church of England – that is, of a national Church, designed to comprehend all those English Christians willing to belong to such a body as best it could. ‘The Church of England’ was set on its route to what it is now, an organisational identity and even a brand name, rather than a simple descriptive term. It celebrated this turn by expelling some 2000 ministers who wished to remain within it.
And again, the point is identity, not dates. If the Anglican Church was founded in 1662, what is it? Neither the historic English Church nor the standard-bearer of the Reformation. Instead, it is a sibling of the dozens of other churches rooted in the same period: English Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, many Baptist groups, the Quakers, and other more obscure or shortlived sects.
Of course, that’s not quite the truth. The older roots are still there. So are the wider horizons which the residual aspiration to be (and legal obligation to be) a national Church impose. But I see this struggle underneath most of the CofE’s current squabbles. What will it be? The Church of England? Or the Anglican church, the largest of the Civil-War era sects?