While the theology of the Anglican Church today has been affected by various movements such as Anglo-Catholicism and theological liberalism, Anglican theology is historically rooted in the Protestant documents that were developed in the period of the English Reformation, most importantly the Thirty-nine Articles, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer.


Anglican theology is historically rooted in the documents that were developed in the period of the English Reformation, most importantly the Thirty-nine Articles, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. The chief architect of this new communion was the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, an English Catholic influenced by Luther. The most foundational piece of Anglican theology composed by Cranmer is the Thirty-nine Articles, which were regarded as providing a comprehensive system of doctrine for the reformed Church and have remained unchanged since 1571. One of the more substantial developments within the Anglican Communion has been the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, a movement that seeks more conformity with their reconstruction of the pre-Reformation church against what they see as “Protestant innovations.” At the same time, the Anglican Communion has been assailed by widespread theological liberalism and has been unable to establish structures for ensuring a common discipline among the forty autonomous churches that constitute it. Whether the Anglican Communion can regroup around the doctrines of the Reformation or whether the Communion will disintegrate into its constituent parts remains to be seen.

The Foundations

Anglican theology is rooted in the particular circumstances of the English Reformation. When Henry VIII (1509–1547) broke with the Church of Rome in 1534, he created a “Protestant” church that had no Protestants in it. A few Englishmen were conversant with Martin Luther’s teaching, but there was little understanding of his deeper theological motivation. Henry VIII despatched an embassy to Wittenberg in order to confer with the Lutherans about forming an alliance against Rome, and in the process, some Lutheran ideas were introduced into England. But a real Reformation had to wait until the reign of Henry’s nine-year-old son Edward VI (1547–1553). Its main architect was the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), who had come under Lutheran influence and was moving increasingly in a Protestant direction. As a member of Edward’s regency council, he was given the authority to govern the Church, and it was this that enabled him to enact a broad range of reforms.

Cranmer had to teach Protestantism to an ignorant populace, and this explains the didactic nature of the doctrinal formularies he composed or authorized. First came a book of Homilies (1547), which set out the basic doctrines of the Church regarding the centrality of Scripture and of justification by faith, two key pillars of Lutheranism. A second book of Homilies was planned but did not appear until 1563. Next came a Book of Common Prayer (1549), which was subsequently revised in a more radical direction (1552). Soon after that the Ordinal appeared (and was annexed to the Prayer Book). This explained what was expected of each of the three clerical orders (bishops, priests and deacons). Cranmer also composed forty-two Articles of Religion (1553) which were later revised and became the Thirty-nine Articles that we know today (1563 and 1571). Finally, he produced a book of church discipline (1553) that failed to gain acceptance, although it was sometimes quoted in later times as if it were one of the foundational documents of the Church.

Taken together, these texts form the core of classical Anglican theology. The Articles are foundational and take pride of place. The Homilies are cited in the Articles as resources that provide more detailed doctrinal statements, and the Book of Common Prayer, last revised in 1662, illustrates how the doctrine of the Articles is applied in the worship and practice of the Church. Many Anglicans think that the Prayer Book is the Church’s chief source of doctrine, but this is a misunderstanding. In fact, it reflects the teaching of the Articles and the Homilies, not the other way around.

A number of disciplinary canons were enacted between 1571 and 1604, when what became the classical collection was produced, but these never acquired the status accorded to the other texts. Anglicans have never been able to devise a universally agreed form of Church discipline, a failing that continues to haunt the Anglican Communion to this day.

The Doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles

The Articles of Religion are not formally subdivided into different sections or categories, but careful study of them shows that they possess a coherent structure that resembles a systematic approach. The first eight articles are “catholic” in the sense that they affirm doctrines that their authors believed were both ancient and universal. The first five deal with God and the individual persons of the Trinity and are consonant with the Chalcedonian theology of both Rome and the other main Protestant churches. Article 5 affirms the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque), which is rejected by the Eastern Orthodox churches, but this had been determined at the Council of Florence in 1439 and the Church of England merely accepted the standard western position.

Articles 6 and 7 define the place and canon of the Scriptures and take a definitely Protestant position. The canon is that of Jerome (as Article 6 expressly states), omitting the non-Hebraic books of the Old Testament, which are relegated to a secondary status. These so-called Apocrypha or deuterocanonical books may be read for spiritual edification but not used to support any particular doctrine. In addition, Article 6 states that whatever is not found in the Scriptures cannot be imposed on Christians as a belief necessary for salvation. Non-scriptural beliefs and practices are not explicitly rejected, but they cannot be taught or imposed on the Church as part of its core doctrine.

Article 7 upholds the use of the Old Testament and (in typically Reformed fashion) subdivides the law of Moses into ceremonial, civil and moral aspects. The first two of these have been made obsolete by the coming of Christ, but the last retains its importance for the Church. Article 8 proclaims the authority of the three ancient Creeds (Apostles’s, Nicene and Athanasian). The first two are regularly used in worship and the Athanasian Creed, though rejected by the American Episcopal Church in 1801, retains its place in the Book of Common Prayer and is considered authoritative by most Anglicans, even if it is little known or used today.

Articles 9–34 are specifically Protestant and state the position adopted by the Church of England on the theological controversies of the 16th century. Broadly speaking, they reflect what would now be regarded as a moderate Calvinism. They were composed during Calvin’s lifetime and were influenced by him, but they say nothing about the controversies that would shape the Calvinism that we know today—double predestination, covenant theology, and the five points of the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) being the most obvious omissions. Individual Anglicans have often held these more developed Calvinist doctrines, but they are not found in the Articles and attempts to add them were resisted from the start.

Articles 9–18 outline an order of salvation (ordo salutis), which begins with an affirmation of original sin and is followed by a denial of free will. Next come affirmations of justification by faith alone, the necessity of good works after justification (and the useless of them beforehand), and the impossibility of acquiring grace through works, however good or numerous they may be. These articles are then followed by ones detailing the sinlessness of Christ, the possibility of forgiveness for sins committed after baptism, predestination (and election), and the uniqueness of salvation in and through Christ alone. None of these is particularly controversial among Protestants, but they reveal a clear departure from Roman Catholic teaching. The article on predestination affirms that doctrine very clearly, but it warns about the dangers of preaching it indiscriminately and says nothing about the fate of those who are not among the elect.

Articles 19–34 deal with the doctrine of the Church, including the ministry (23–24, 32) and the sacraments (25–31). The Church is defined as a body of faithful people in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are properly administered, but that at the same time every church has erred at some point in its history. This suggests a leaning towards belief in an invisible Church that is not to be identified with any particular institution, but at the same time these articles appear to assume that the Church of England has succeeded in providing what is required. The Church is recognized as having the authority to decree rites and ceremonies and also to decide matters of faith, so long as nothing it does contradicts the Scriptures.

Article 21 says that general (ecumenical) councils can only be summoned at the behest of the secular authorities and insists that they can err in their decisions. Today most Anglicans would agree that church councils can meet without the consent of secular rulers, but the belief that they can be mistaken remains part of Anglican doctrine.

Article 22 is a denial of purgatory and of other corrupt practices of the Roman Church. Article 23 says that ministers must be called by the appropriate Church authorities and properly ordained, though it does not specify who those authorities are nor what orders of ministry are being considered. Article 24 states that public worship must be conducted in a language that people can understand but does not specify that this must be the mother tongue of the worshipers.

Article 25 makes a clear distinction between the two sacraments of the gospel (baptism and holy communion), which are retained, and the five so-called sacraments that either misinterpret the New Testament or represent states of life (like matrimony), which may be valid in themselves but have no sacramental character. Sacraments are meant to be used properly and are effective in those who receive them in the right spirit, but the unworthiness of a minister does not invalidate them. Bad ministers must be disciplined, but their sacramental ministry is regarded as effective for those who receive it correctly. In this way, the Articles achieve a balance between the objectivity of the administration and the need for worthy reception by those who partake of them.

Baptism is a sign of regeneration, forgiveness of sin, adoption as children of God, and incorporation into the Church, but it does not produce these things automatically. In 1850, a court decision known as the Gorham Judgment determined that the Church of England does not teach baptismal regeneration, and that remains the standard Anglican position. Infant baptism is retained as being “most agreeable” to the teaching of Christ, although no attempt is made to defend it theologically. The Prayer Book makes it clear that the Church expected all newborn babies to be baptized and to be brought up as believers, but the rite itself could not guarantee their salvation.

Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is a sign of Christian love, but more importantly it recalls Christ’s death for our salvation. Transubstantiation is firmly rejected, and Christ can only be received by faith, in a heavenly and spiritual way. Catholic ritual practices associated with transubstantiation are rejected, as is the Lutheran belief that unbelievers partake of Christ when they consume the consecrated elements of bread and wine. Communion must be offered to everyone in both kinds, and it is in no sense an extension or repetition of Christ’s sacrifice, which was made once for all on the cross.

Ordained clergy are given permission to marry at their own discretion (32) and excommunicated people are to be kept out of the church until they are formally reconciled (33). Finally, Article 34 allows every national church to adopt its own traditions and patterns of worship but gives the secular authorities the right to enforce its decisions within their jurisdictions. The Church of England could allow that foreign churches might have quite different rules and patterns of worship, but at the same time discipline its members if they tried to introduce those customs into their own Church.

Articles 35–37 are peculiarly Anglican. They commend the Homilies (35) and the Ordinal (36) and also recognize the legitimate role of civil government (37). Article 37 states that the “bishop of Rome” has no jurisdiction in England and that it is lawful both for the secular government to administer the death penalty for serious offences and for Christians to serve in the military. Articles 38–39 are an appendix designed to counter radical forms of Anabaptism. The first defends the right of believers to have their own property and the second says that it is lawful to swear an oath when one is required to seal a contract, or to tell the truth in a court.

The Articles of Religion were regarded as providing a comprehensive system of doctrine for the reformed Church and have remained unchanged since 1571. Much has happened since that time, but they remain the foundation for all authentically Anglican theology to this day.

Subsequent Developments and Controversies

Until the mid-19th century there was very little dissent from the doctrine of the Thirty-nine Articles. Disputes arose over Church discipline, with the so-called Puritans wanting stricter conformity to the teaching of the Bible and the practice of other Reformed churches and their opponents tending to defend traditional practices and the right of the state to determine the worship of the Church as it saw fit. This consensus broke down after 1832, when the admission of non-Anglicans to Parliament drove many to seek a more purely “spiritual” doctrine of the Church. The result was the emergence of Anglo-Catholicism which looked back to the pre-Reformation Church and turned its back on what it regarded as “Protestant innovations.” Anglo-Catholicism was a fanciful reconstruction of church history and widely denounced as such, but it had considerable success in defining “Anglicanism” as a fully Catholic branch of the universal Church, but one that (like the Eastern Orthodox Churches) was not subject to the Roman papacy.

Anglo-Catholics sought to eliminate the Church’s Reformation heritage as much as possible. They rediscovered the 16th-century lawyer Richard Hooker (1554–1600) and made him the true founder of Anglicanism because he argued against the Puritans and preached conformity to the Church establishment. They also appropriated virtually every anti-Puritan writer of the 17th and early 18th centuries, even though most of them were just as Protestant in doctrine as the Puritans were. They exploited the lack of discipline in the Church by innovating liturgically, reintroducing clerical vestments and a number of ritual practices that other Protestants thought were Roman Catholic but now often regard as typically “Anglican” also.

The Anglo-Catholics’s greatest success was their ability to insist on the “historic episcopate” as fundamental to Anglicanism, which it had not been before. Their intention was to align Anglicans with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, as well as to distance themselves from Protestants, who felt increasingly alienated. The Catholics and Orthodox spurned their overtures however, and modern ecumenism has blurred the issues to some extent. Traditional Anglo-Catholicism has faded as more Anglican churches ordain women, admit non-Anglicans to Communion and join in ecumenical projects, mainly with other Protestants. Historical research has debunked most of its claims about early Anglicanism and in recent years there has been a revival of interest among more conservative groups in the Church’s Reformation formularies as the basis for inter-Anglican unity. At the same time, the Anglican Communion has been assailed by widespread theological liberalism and has been unable to establish structures for ensuring a common discipline among the forty autonomous churches that constitute it. The problem is that the Church now contains a breadth of opinion on theological matters that is unparalleled elsewhere in the Christian world and makes the term “Anglican theology” almost meaningless. Whether Anglicans will be able to regroup around the doctrines of the Reformation or whether the Communion will disintegrate into its constituent parts remains to be seen and may fairly be regarded as the great unanswered question of our time.

Further Reading

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0