Christianity, introduced by the Romans, was fairly well established in Britain by the 4th cent., but was almost destroyed by the Anglo-Saxon invasions beginning in the 5th cent. Surviving in isolation, the Celtic Church developed practices at variance with those on the Continent. This led to conflict when St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived (597) to reconvert England. Roman usages were eventually adopted in preference to Celtic ones (see Whitby, Synod of), but the English Church remained somewhat isolated until the Norman Conquest, when Continental churchmen undertook its reform.
During the Middle Ages the church in England was affected by the same clashes that bedevilled the relationship between church and state elsewhere in Europe. A modus vivendi was finally achieved in the matter of investiture, but quarrels over the taxes demanded by Rome and appeals going from English courts to Rome were not resolved until Henry VIII broke the union of the English church with Rome. This action, which created the Church of England, was occasioned by the pope's refusal to grant Henry's request for an annulment of his marriage to Katharine of Aragón. The Act of Supremacy (1534) acknowledged the king as "the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England." Thus the Reformation in England under Henry was at first a matter of policy, not doctrine.
The theology of the new national church as shown in the Six Articles (1539) and the King's Book (1543) was largely unchanged, although some Lutheran influence may be detected. Henry authorized the Great Bible (1539), a revision of the English translations of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, and some slight alterations in service. The monasteries were suppressed, chiefly at the hands of Thomas Cromwell. Under Edward VI changes came rapidly, and Protestantism gained ground. The first and second Book of Common Prayer, produced by Thomas Cranmer, were adopted in 1549 and 1552, respectively, and a statement of doctrine, the Forty-two Articles, was drawn up.
Under Mary I all the measures that had separated the Church of England from Rome were reversed; the Roman ritual was brought back, and the nation was received again into the communion of Rome. Elizabeth I restored independence. The Elizabethan Settlement steered the English church upon a middle course between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. The prayer book of 1552 was restored, and the Forty-two Articles, revised toward a more Catholic position and reduced to Thirty-nine, were adopted as a doctrinal standard. The national church maintained the historical episcopate and retained its continuity with the early church of Britain and much of the ritualism sanctioned by the older rubrics. By the Act of Supremacy (1559) ecclesiastical jurisdiction was restored to the crown to be exercised by a court of high commission. The classical statement of the peculiar Anglican position was made by Richard Hooker.
Under James I the steadily rising tide of Puritanism made necessary the Hampton Court Conference (1604). At that conference, James gave his decision for the existing doctrine. The great achievement of the conference was the King James, or Authorized, Version of the English Bible (1611).
Under Charles I the extreme measures of the party headed by Archbishop William Laud, in maintaining the discipline and worship of the church against the Calvinists, had much to do with bringing on (1642) the English civil war. The Long Parliament, after excluding the bishops, substituted Presbyterianism for the episcopacy in 1646, in accordance with the Solemn League and Covenant (see Covenanters). Under Oliver Cromwell, Independent rather than Presbyterian doctrines triumphed; it was a penal offense to use the Book of Common Prayer. Many bishops were imprisoned, and many churches were pillaged.
With the Restoration (1660) the episcopacy was reestablished. After failure of the Savoy Conference (1661) to create a compromise with the Puritans, the prayer book was revised in a Catholic direction (1662) and made the only legal service book by an Act of Uniformity, which required the episcopal ordination of all ministers. About 2,000 nonconformist clergymen, instead of complying, resigned and with their adherents established their own worship in Protestant nonconformist chapels, in spite of severe acts passed against them by Parliament (see nonconformists).
The Roman Catholic James II attempted to move the church toward Rome, but in 1688 William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, and six other bishops refused the king's order to read his declaration of toleration in all churches. They were imprisoned but acquitted by trial. After the overthrow of James in the Glorious Revolution (1688), the Bill of Rights (1689) declared that the monarch must be Protestant and the Act of Settlement (1701) required that he or she be a member of the Church of England. Some of the clergy, however, including Sancroft, refused to swear allegiance to William and Mary and therefore lost their positions (see nonjurors).
In the 18th cent. latitudinarians held control in the church; dogma, liturgy, and ecclesiastical organization were subordinated to the appeal to reason, abhorrence of religious enthusiasm, and Erastianism. In 1701 the first Anglican missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), was founded for work overseas, and much of its early work was done in America. In George I's reign the Bangorian Controversy led to the prorogation of convocation in 1717; the next council of the church was not reconvened until 1852. The revival of religious fervor in the late 18th cent. resulted both in the rise of the evangelical movement within the Church of England and in the Methodist schism. The Church Missionary Society, founded in 1799, grew out of the evangelical movement.
In the first half of the 19th cent., the Catholic and apostolic character of the Church of England was strongly reaffirmed by the Oxford movement, which was led by John Keble and Edward Bouverie Pusey and also by John Henry Newman until he converted to Roman Catholicism. The Oxford movement—with its emphasis on ritual and its belief in the doctrines of apostolic succession and the Real Presence—gave new life and direction to the High Church tradition, which became known also as Anglo-Catholicism. At the same time the Broad Church movement was developing. It advocated liberal views in theology and biblical studies. Both of these movements challenged the position of the Evangelical, or Low Church, party, which emphasized the Bible and preaching and was the leading party of the church through the 19th cent.
In the 20th cent. the Church of England became involved in revision of canon law and the prayer book, in church building, in attempts to minister to the world of industry (e.g., the Sheffield Industrial Mission), and in the ecumenical movement. The traditional divisions within the church remain, though the focus of their disagreements have changed. The issue of homosexuality among the clergy has been divisive, and the selection of a celibate gay priest as a candidate for bishop of Reading in 2003 led to a sometimes bitter public fight over the choice that was only resolved when the candidate decided to withdraw his name. In 2012 the church's bishops, however, approved the candidacy of celibate gay priests for the episcopate. Traditionalists within the church also have objected to the consecration of women as bishops; the general synod narrowly failed to approve women bishops in 2012. The current archbishop of Canterbury is Justin Welby.