As the Anglican world continues to chatter about the Primates’ Communique that came out last week, the question is worth pondering what view of primacy, if any, has been a part of classical Anglicanism. It is not an easy question to answer. Discussions of primacy in the writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century reformers and divines is almost universally concerned with the specific claims of the Pope. The primacy of an archbishop or a presiding bishop in a national church that is part of a global fellowship of national churches was simply not something on their radar.
In the Beginning
Primacy seems to be something that developed early and naturally in the life of the Church. The early Church patterned much of its organization off of the civil structures of the Roman Empire. The bishop was the authority in each diocese, but within each province there was a metropolitan archbishop who had authority over not only his own diocese but the rest of the province as well. This metropolitan was generally whoever was bishop of the capitol city within the province.
By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, many of these Metropolitan Sees were already well established and the amount of authority exercised by each metropolitan archbishop was determined by the local assembly of bishops. In some places, the Primate held great power, being able to intervene even in the work of other bishops. In other places, the Primate was largely a figurehead, chairing provincial meetings and settling disputes but otherwise more of a symbol of unity than an actual unifying force. In most cases, though, the Primate was responsible for caring for the bonds of communion that existed between his province and the other provinces around him. The fourth canon of the Council of Nicaea normalized the practice of having a Primate in each region and began to regularize the responsibilities of the office. This led eventually to the recognition of Patriarchs–essentially Primates of Primates–in the ancient Sees of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The See of Rome acted as the Primate amongst the Patriarchs, though the subject of just what the role and limits of that primacy was and should be is still a matter of some debate.
Primacy in England
Two provinces developed early on in the Church of England, one in the north with York as its Primatial See and one in the south with Canterbury as its Primatial See. Due to a complex set of historical circumstances, both provinces have at one time or another claimed primacy over the whole of England. This has led to the anomaly today in which the Archbishop of York is referred to as the Primate of England while the Archbishop of Canterbury is called the Primate of All England. In effect, Canterbury holds the big chair, but York is still considered a Primatial See and does not have to confess allegiance to Canterbury.
Primacy in the Anglican Communion
As the Anglican Communion came into recognizable form in the nineteenth century, the role of primacy began to shift. The Anglican Communion was not a planned phenomenon, though it may be a providential one. It developed out of the spread of the English Empire which took the Christian faith around the globe with it. Since by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Church of England was already divided in its varieties of churchmanship, so also the various new Anglican Churches that formed during that time differ from one another in churchmanship. Those founded by Anglo-Catholic missionaries tended to take on a more Catholic ethos, while those founded by Evangelical missionaries looked and felt more Evangelical. This affected the character of the office of Primate in each church, though probably not as much as the character of the nation itself. In the American Episcopal Church, for instance, the Presiding Bishop was given weak executive power while the bicameral legislature known as the General Convention was given a greater authority, though authority on all but the most necessary issues was delegated to the individual dioceses. In this way, the brand new American Church looked an awful lot like the brand new American state, which is not surprising given how much overlap there was between the framers of the Constitution of the nation and the framers of the Constitution of The Episcopal Church.
While most developing Anglican churches had a Primate with more authority than the Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, there was nevertheless a variety of expressions of the office amongst Anglican provinces just as there was in the ancient Church. What is striking, however, is not what these early Anglican Primates differed upon but what they had in common. In each place, as a new Anglican Church emerged and moved towards autonomy from its mother Church, the need for a Primate was perceived. Though bishops are equal in sacramental character and authority, the need for one bishop to be over the others became quickly apparent, not necessarily in an oversight role but at least in an administrative role. Somebody needed to call the Church to order. Somebody needed to articulate a common vision. Somebody needed to be able to speak to the other Churches of the world on behalf of the Anglican Church.
When the Lambeth Conference first met in 1867, it was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the Primate of Anglican Primates, the first among equals. It was a primacy of honor rather than power. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Thomas Longley, was explicit about not wanting to usurp the authority of local bishops. Much of the Conference’s reason for being was to deal with the Colenso affair. Longley refused the pleas of American Presiding Bishop John Henry Hopkins to interfere directly in what was happening in the Church in Natal, but he did guide the process that led to censure over the matter. At the same time, the Lambeth Conference advocated for a Synod in the Anglican Communion that could oversee the Communion as a whole and deal with such matters of controversy and division between provinces when they arise. The Synod idea was heartily endorsed but never materialized. This was the first in a long line of failures to achieve conciliarity and catholicity that continue in the Anglican Communion to the present day.
After Pope Leo XIII declared Anglican orders “null and void” in 1896, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Frederick Temple and William Dalrymple Maclagan respectively, gave the official response in Saepius Officio. It could be argued that no one authorized them to do this. The document did not arise out of a broader listening process or a lengthy legislative agenda, but simply emerged from the Primates of the Mother Church of the Communion as a fait accompli. Regardless of how one weighs the merits of Saepius Officio as a theological work, the mere fact of this action says something about the emerging and evolving importance of primacy in Anglican life.
It was not until 1978 that the first official Primates Meeting happened, gathering together all the Primates of the Anglican Communion for what Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan described as a gathering for “leisurely thought, prayer, and consultation.” There has been no fixed timetable for Primates Meetings, but they have continued apace on an average of about once every other year since their inception, excluding a large gap between 2011 and 2016 owing to the fact that many of the Primates boycotted the 2011 meeting. Over the years, the Primates have taken on greater responsibilities for setting the agenda for Communion life. They have become essentially a steering committee for the Communion as a whole, while nevertheless respecting the autonomy that each individual national Church enjoys in governing its own affairs.
Prime and Proper
Is this a good or a bad development? Have the Primates become too powerful? Is the very notion of a small circle of bishops taking on oversight for the Communion un-Anglican?
The answers to the first two questions are very much a matter of perspective. In my experience, it seems the discomfort that people in the west have with the very notion of primatial authority is in direct proportion to how much the decisions of the Primates on any given topic lines up with their own views. Those who are deeply troubled, for instance, at what the Primates have said in recent years on the topic of human sexuality seem significantly less concerned about the Primates exercising their authority to attempt to regularize Anglican theological education (2003) or to encourage governments to work towards the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (2005 and 2007). Nevertheless, a case can certainly be made either way for increasing or decreasing the amount of power and authority exercised by the Primates as a whole or that of individual Primates within their provinces. I would merely suggest that much of the authority the Primates Meeting has exercised in recent years has been to fill the vacuum left by our long and careful dodge of conciliarity and catholicity noted above. If a wider Synod had come into being after 1867 to deal with issues of Communion, that vacuum would not exist.
The third question, however, has a more definitive and objective answer. Primacy has been an important part of the life of the Church as a whole for most of its life. It has been an important part of the Church of England and her daughter churches since their founding. Like the historic episcopate itself, primacy has been adapted to meet the needs of local churches, but it has always been present. To deny the necessity of primacy is far more un-Anglican than its opposite, at least in the historical sense. Primacy is integral to the life of the Church. The question for us today is not whether or not we shall have primacy but whether or not we shall find within it a gift from God.