The Anglican Communion was founded at the Lambeth Conference in 1867 in London, England, under the leadership of Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury. The churches of the Anglican Communion consider themselves to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and to be both catholic and reformed. Although aligned with the Church of England, the communion has a multitude of belief, liturgies, and practices, including evangelical, liberal and Anglo-Catholic. Each retain their own legislative process and episcopal polity under the leadership of local primates. For some adherents, Anglicanism represents a non-papal Catholicism, for others a form of Protestantism though without guiding figure such as Luther, Knox, Calvin, Zwingli or Wesley, or for yet others a combination of the two.
Most of its 85 million members live in the Anglosphere of former British territories. Full participation in the sacramental life of each church is available to all communicant members. Due to their historical link to England (Ecclesia Anglicana means "English Church"), some of the member churches are known as Anglican, such as the Anglican Church of Canada. Some, for example the Church of Ireland, the Scottish and American Episcopal churches, and some other associated churches have a separate name.
The Anglican Communion has no official legal existence nor any governing structure which might exercise authority over the member churches. There is an Anglican Communion Office in London, under the aegis of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it only serves in a supporting and organisational role. The Communion is held together by a shared history, expressed in its ecclesiology, polity and ethos and also by participation in international consultative bodies.
Three elements have been important in holding the Communion together: first, the shared ecclesial structure of the component churches, manifested in an episcopal polity maintained through the apostolic succession of bishops and synodical government; second, the principle of belief expressed in worship, investing importance in approved prayer books and their rubrics; and third, the historical documents and the writings of early Anglican divines that have influenced the ethos of the Communion.
Originally, the Church of England was self-contained and relied for its unity and identity on its own history, its traditional legal and episcopal structure and its status as an established church of the state. As such Anglicanism was, from the outset, a movement with an explicitly episcopal polity, a characteristic which has been vital in maintaining the unity of the Communion by conveying the episcopate's role in manifesting visible catholicity and ecumenism.