Free Church of England

Free Church of England
Classification Protestant
Orientation Anglican
Polity Episcopal, Liturgical, Evangelical and Reformed[1]
Region England
Origin 1844
Separated from Church of England
Congregations 20
Official website

The Free Church of England (FCE) is an episcopal church based in England. The church was founded when a number of congregations separated from the established Church of England in the middle of the 19th century.[2]

The doctrinal basis of the FCE, together with its episcopal structures, organisation, worship, ministry and ethos are recognisably "Anglican" although it is not a member of the Anglican Communion. Its worship style follows that of the Book of Common Prayer or conservative modern-language forms that belong to the Anglican tradition.

The Church of England acknowledges the FCE as a church with valid orders and its canons permit a range of shared liturgical and ministerial activities.


The Free Church of England was founded principally by Evangelical or Low Church clergy and congregations in response to what were perceived as attempts (inspired by the Oxford Movement) to re-introduce Tridentine Roman Catholic dogmas and practices into the Established Church. The first congregations were formed in 1844.

In the early years clergy were often provided by the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion which had its origins in the 18th century Evangelical Revival. By the middle of the 19th century the church still retained many Anglican features such as the use of the surplice and the Book of Common Prayer.[3] In 1863 the annual conference of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion created a constitution for the new congregations under the title "The Free Church of England" (though the name had been in use since the 1840s).

The constitution made provision for the creation of dioceses, each to be under the oversight of a bishop. The first bishop was Benjamin Price, who initially had oversight of all the new congregations.

In 1874 the FCE made contact with the newly organised Reformed Episcopal Church in North America.[4] The founding bishop of the REC, George David Cummins, had been strongly influenced by William Augustus Muhlenberg, who advocated "Evangelical Catholicism" as a means of combining the best of both the Evangelical and Catholic traditions. In 1876 an REC bishop from Canada, Edward Cridge, came to the United Kingdom and consecrated Benjamin Price and John Sugden in the historic succession. The following year a branch of the REC was founded in the UK.

The two churches lived in parallel until 1927, when the Free Church of England united with the UK branch of the Reformed Episcopal Church. The full name of the united church since 1927 is "The Free Church of England, otherwise called the Reformed Episcopal Church in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".[5]


The Free Church of England is a conventional Anglican church body, worshipping in the Low Church tradition and holding to the principles of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles. Presbyters and deacons wear surplice, scarf and hood; bishops wear rochet and chimere, though a wider range of liturgical vesture is coming into use. Pictures on their website show use of albs, chasubles, and stoles.

The church has recently created the category of "associate congregations". These are pre-existing groups of Christians who have come under the oversight of the FCE bishops but continue their existing liturgical practice.

Some of the parishes have youth activities of various kinds. Each congregation elects churchwardens and delegates who, together with the clergy, constitute the diocesan synod and annual convocation.

The provision of contemporary language liturgies has been approved by convocation and a process of drafting and authorisation has begun. The church has continued to ordain bishops in the apostolic succession, with Moravian, Church of England and Indian Orthodox bishops taking part on occasion.[6]

The presiding bishop is chosen annually by convocation and takes the title "Bishop Primus". Only baptised males are ordained to holy orders as bishops, presbyters and deacons, or admitted to the public teaching office of reader. In 2013, there were reported to be 23 clergy and around 900 members of the FCE in England.[7]

The Central Board of Trustees for the denomination, The Free Church of England Central Trust, operates as a registered UK charity (No. 271151) and is a company limited by guarantee with no share capital. It holds as loans funds deposited by the churches for investment and lends money and makes grants to further the objects and work of the FCE.


The united church enjoyed modest growth in the first part of the 20th century, having at one point 90 congregations, but after the Second World War, like most other denominations in the UK, suffered a decline in numbers, though there has been a modest increase in the number of congregations in recent years.[8] Currently, the Free Church of England has two dioceses in England (designated North and South). There are twenty churches in England, divided between the two dioceses. The Northern Diocese bishop is John Fenwick, while the Southern Diocese bishop is Paul Hunt. The twenty churches are located as follows:

Holy Trinity Church Free Church of England, Oswaldtwistle

Northern Diocese

Southern Diocese

Overseas churches

From the 19th century congregations of the Free Church of England have been planted in other parts of the world, though most of these have not survived. Currently there are congregations in Russia and France (under the oversight of Paul Hunt) and two congregations, each with dependent missions, in Brazil. In 2016 a new congregation was licensed in Brisbane, Australia. The Brazilian congregations are registered as the Igreja Anglican Reformada (IARB)[9] and are under the oversight of the Commissary of the Bishop Primus, Bishop Josep Miquel Rossello Ferrer.


The FCE is in communion with the Reformed Episcopal Church, which itself is now a member of the Anglican Church in North America. Within the UK the FCE is a member of the Free Churches Group[10] and Churches Together in England. From 1992 to 1997 the FCE was in official dialogue with the Church of England, which the 1998 Lambeth Conference saw as a sign of hope.[11] It is a Designated Church under the Church of England's Ecumenical Relations Measure 1988.[12] FCE bishops have attended the enthronements of George Carey, Rowan Williams and Justin Welby as Archbishops of Canterbury. The Free Church of England is currently in dialogue with the Churches of the Union of Scranton.[13]

Recognition of ordinations

In January 2013 it was announced that the Church of England had recognised the ordinations of the Free Church of England.[14] This move followed approximately three years of contact between the bishops of the Free Church of England, the Council for Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission. The recognition was not voted on by the General Synod but was endorsed by the standing committee of the House of Bishops. John McLean, Bishop Primus of the Free Church of England, said: "We are grateful to the archbishops for this recognition of our common episcopal heritage. I pray that it will not be an end in itself, but will lead to new opportunities for proclaiming the Gospel." Christopher Hill, Bishop of Guildford and chair of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity, said: "I hope there will be good relations between us and especially in those places where there is a Free Church of England congregation."[15] Female clergy in the Church of England have protested this.

Recognition of the orders of the Free Church of England under the Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure 1967, means that FCE clergy can be licensed to minister in the Church of England in the same way as clergy from overseas Provinces of the Anglican Communion. The measure also permits FCE bishops to ordain and perform other episcopal functions at the request of the bishop of a diocese in the provinces of Canterbury and York, subject to the consent of the relevant archbishop.[16]

The FCE is currently considering how best to respond to the realignments within the Anglican Communion. In October 2013, the Bishop Primus attended the second Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON 2) in Nairobi. In February 2016, Foley Beach, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, signed an instrument declaring the Anglican Church in North America to be in Full Communion with the Free Church of England, and recognising 'their congregations, clergy, and sacraments, while pledging to work together for the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the making of his disciples throughout the world'. Archbishop Beach's declaration was ratified by the Provincial Council of the ACNA in June 2016.


  1. "What We Believe". Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  2. Richard D. Fenwick, "The Free Church of England otherwise called the Reformed Episcopal Church c. 1845 to c. 1927", PhD thesis, University of Wales, 1995.
  3. John Fenwick, The Free Church of England: Introduction to an Anglican Tradition, London, Continuum, 2004, pp. 9-33.
  4. Allen C. Guelzo, For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians, Pennsylvania, State University Press, 1994, pp. 224-227.
  5. Archived November 19, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. John Fenwick, The Forgotten Bishops: The Malabar Independent Syrian Church and its Place in the Story of the St Thomas Christians of South India, Piscataway, NJ, Gorgias Press, 2009, p.582; The Glastonbury Review, vol. XXII, no. 114, (November 2006), p. 299; Free Church of England Year Book, 2006-2007.
  7. Whitaker's Almanack 2014. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 7 November 2013. ISBN 9781408193334.
  8. Year Books 2007-2013.
  9. "Igreja Anglicana Reformada do Brasil". 2014-06-20. Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  10. "". Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  11. Mark Dyer et al. (eds.), The Official Report of the Lambeth Conference 1998, Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing, 1999, p.228.
  12. "Canons 7th Edition". Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  13. "Den nordisk-katolske kirke » for den udelte kirkes tro". 2015-08-29. Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  14. Gledhill, Ruth (January 28, 2013). "Church of England recognises 'free' order that is against women bishops". The Times. London.
  15. "Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure 1967". Retrieved 2015-12-06.
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