The structure that lies behind the doors of your neighbourhood Anglican Church is not often known. Nevertheless there is an organisational, legal and relational structure that ties the all the local churches together together into an national institutional, which is itself part of a larger international community known as the Anglican Communion.
Most people encounter the Anglican Church through their neighbourhood church or parish. Parishes are defined by a geographical area or region. These can be quite small in the case of inner city parishes where the population is dense and may include a handful of suburbs. They can also be quite large taking in several townships with quite a drive between them.
Responsibility for local decision making by a parish is taken by the Parish Council (in some dioceses called the Vestry). The Priest (also called Rector or Vicar) serving in the parish usually acts as the Chairperson. The Parish Council are elected from the members by the annual meeting of the parish. They discuss and make decisions on budgets, building maintenance, local ministry needs and priorities. In consultation with parishioners they will usually look after coordinate the parishes approach to ministry, worship, pastoral care, outreach and commitment to overseas mission work.
Parishes are bound together in a diocese, which usually encompass a large geographic region.
Each diocese is lead by a diocesan Bishop who chairs a synod consisting of both Clergy and Laity. The bishop is responsible for ordaining and licencing ministers, doctrine and worship within the diocese. Each parish elects lay persons to represent them in the House of the Laity which all ordained clergy who are incumbents of parishes are also represented. In large dioceses like Sydney and Melbourne, the bishop (otherwise known as an Archbishop) has several assistant bishops who look after different sub-regions. Decisions made by synods must be passed by both clergy and laity and be agreed to by the diocesan bishop.
At the national level the church meets every three years in what's known as the General Synod. The General Synod is a meeting of representatives from all 23 dioceses. Representatives are grouped into three Houses, namely:
- the Bishops, which consists of all 23 diocesan bishops (assistant bishops do not sit in this house);
- the Clergy, which includes priests as elected representatives of the dioceses; and
- the Laity, who are elected representatives of the dioceses.
Non-diocesan representation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglicans in all three houses was agreed upon at the General Synod in 1998 and came into effect in time for the 2001 General Synod.
Decisions on important matters made at General Synod must pass all three houses.
While there is a General Synod, the dioceses maintain a great deal of independence. Canons (or rules) passed by the General Synod must be adopted by the individual diocese. Changes to the Constitution cannot come into effect until a certain number of dioceses, especially those in the capital cities have agreed to them.
The Anglican Church of Australia belongs to the family of the world-wide Anglican Communion, of which the Primate (head) is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
There are 38 provinces in the Communion plus five regions that come under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. While these provinces are legally independent of each other the family bonds of a shared Gospel, heritage, worship and approach to ministry are strong even though their social, cultural and linguistic contexts vary greatly.
The Communion finds a sense of common ground through four major mechanisms or instruments, namely:
- the Archbishop of Canterbury;
- the Anglican Consultative Council, which gives a voice to lay people who are involved in the governance of their own provinces. This Council was formed in 1968 and meets every 3 years; and
- the Primates' Meeting, made up of each of the 38 Provincial heads or Primates from around the Communion which has been meeting every year or so to consider matters of doctrinal, moral and pastoral concern.
A thorough discussion of nature of communion between Anglicans internationally may be found in the Windsor Report from October 2004.