What is the CofE?
Christianity was established in Roman Britain but when the Legions withdrew and migrating tribes from the continent took to burning towns and their churches Christians fled west to Wales and Cornwall. It was St Augustine (died 604 AD) who began the task of converting the new Saxon kingdoms. Established without papal authority by King Henry VIII the Church of England provides pastoral care for everyone in England - every square inch of the country is the responsibility of a vicar or rector; whether you live in a small village or large town, if you follow another religion or someone for whom ‘God’ means nothing - your vicar is still there for you!
The Church of England talks about God in different ways, mainly by praying or living within all sorts of communities, rarely by dogmatic statements. Unlike Protestants who look to the Bible alone or Roman Catholics who look to the ‘Magisterium’ or teaching authority of the Church the Church of England is 'defined' by the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Communion has found various ways to describe what it does believe and sits on a hermeneutical 'stool' with three equal legs - ‘Scripture, Tradition and Reason’.Scripture is the Bible which is the Word of God. This Word spoke into our world in Jesus and through Christian men and women was collected together, edited and put together in the way we today understand it. It belongs to the Church, as well as standing over the Church, which recognises the Bible’s power to allow God to speak today.
Tradition isn’t just about what has happened long ago - it’s the living power of the Holy Spirit feeding us, members of the Body of Christ, that we might live for ever. Sometimes bits of the Tradition become death dealing, examples of this over the years include: keeping slaves is OK, that biology proves women to be failed men thus therefore inferior beings or that paying interest on bank loans is against God’s will. So Spirit leads us into new ways of being Christ’s body on earth. Living within the Tradition is what keeps the Church healthy and alive - its keeps us close to the Risen Lord Jesus.
Reason is the use of our God-given minds. In the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council famously called on the Church to use the sciences of sociology and psychology to help explain and illuminate to modern men and women the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, in the nuclear age. Alone humanity looks small, dangerous and insignificant but putting our reason, our rationality, to the service of the Gospel makes us come truly alive.
The Church of England finds this balance a pragmatic way of living out Jesus’ call to ‘make disciples of all nations’.
But, of course, the best way to see how any church makes sense of itself is to see how it works in practise.