Primacy and Anglicanism

The Primates of the Anglican Communion at their 2016 Meeting

The Primates of the Anglican Communion at their 2016 Meeting

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.

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10 Responses to Primacy and Anglicanism

  1. Nelson says:

    How can any primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury be enforced/applied when the daughter Church (TEC) democratically can change doctrine and dogmas? He can’t enforce anything because it is not the Bishops who have primacy in TEC but the General Council. Primacy makes no sense when the Church is somehow democratic. Revealed Truth is not something one can vote on and that is one reason I fail to see Anglicanism as truly Catholic.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I think there is a point in there that I agree with, but you’re conflating a couple of things together. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate only of the Church of England. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is the Primate of the Episcopal Church. The authority of the latter within TEC is considerably weaker than the authority of the former in the C of E. Our General Convention is bicameral. There is a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies, the latter being comprised of laity, deacons, and priests elected by dioceses. The bishops cannot force an agenda onto the Episcopal Church as a whole, but they can certainly slow down or even halt something that is being thrust upon them from some other source.

      Where I would agree with you is that the dogmas of the Church cannot be up for debate. A democratic vote does not change the truth of the Scripture one way or another. In the American Church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, we have too much faith in such things. But that’s not an issue touching primacy. After all, a church with a very strong primate could see a unilateral changing of doctrine and be powerless to stop it. The issue you’re addressing is not primacy as a means of polity, but the eternal nature of God’s revelation. It is not an issue of polity but of faithfulness.

  2. MichaelA says:

    “It could be argued that no one authorized them to do this.”

    The first and primary duty of a bishop is to proclaim the truth. Many times in church history, that alone has been enough to get them killed.

    • MichaelA says:

      I should add, that is not meant to be a comment on the spat between the Pope and the ABCs in the 19th century, but rather a wry comment on how many bishops today (in many countries) seem to think their main virtue lies in NOT rocking the boat by taking a public stance on any position.

      Whilst I don’t think much of public monuments for clergymen, there is a reason why ++Janani Luwum is commemorated by a statue on Westminster Abbey. A few courageous words signed his earthly death warrant. His real memorial and reward will of course endure long after Westminster Abbey is dust.

  3. Jereme says:

    If the best of the Churches work was done in conciliar fashion, as in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, cannot it be argued that the precedent set in the first 5-8 centuries was the benchmark for the Church? What is the main opposition to Conciliarity in Anglicanism today? And thanks Father Jonathan for an interesting article.

  4. acilius says:

    Just a few minutes apart, I saw this post and an announcement of a new book from Saint Vladimir’s Press about primacy and conciliarity in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The book, “Primacy in the Church: The Office of Primate and the Authority of Councils,” is the first volume of a projected series edited by John Chryssavgis, an Archdeacon and top advisor to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Here’s the press release about it, in case anyone is curious:

  5. Philip says:

    Quote from Fr. Jonathan (above): “The early Church patterned much of its organization off of the civil structures of the Roman Empire.”
    Rome was not the earliest of the 5 Patriarchates in the ancient Pentarchy comprised of Jerusalem, Antioch (where Peter was first a Bishop), Alexandria,Rome and Constantinople. I don’t understand haow one can say that the “Early Church” (the undivided Church of the early centuries which began in Jerusalem) was “organized off of the civil structures of the Roman Empire”. Obviously the Roman Bishopric was. Is it correct to say that any or all of the earlier churches in the east were so affected?
    If the conversation regarding the ‘Suspension’ devolves immediately into a conversation about who has the right to do this, or not… isn’t the whole point being missed?… that is, the majority of those representing those in the Anglican Communion voiced their opinion/belief in a definitive, declarative way that the ECUSA is on a moral slippery slope… which slide affects, necessarily, other things as well… including polity doctrine, tradition and the inability of the ‘sheep’ to continue to trust a ‘leadership’ that has brought down such a suspension and its affects upon not only itself, but those layfolk who become just more ‘collateral damage’.What’s done is done… and it is quite significant, especially if we espouse such a commitment to ‘catholicity’, conciliarism and unity. That commitment cuts both ways, and the ECUSA is the body now threatening such unity.

  6. acilius says:

    Well, we call it “the Roman Empire,” a label which tends to direct our attention to the city of Rome. And it pleased the ancients to use Latin in legal documents and terminology derived from the old Roman Republic as titles of the empire’s high officials, practices which the Eastern Empire continued right the way down to 1453.

    But of course the empire wouldn’t have lasted for several centuries if it had just been a matter of people from the city imposing their will on everyone. The institutions which operated on an empire-wide scale, forming the backbone of civil administration in the East and elsewhere, not only relied on leadership from local elites, but also continually adapted to local customs and norms. Rome, along with the language that was spoken there and the aristocrats who lived there in the first century, were important in the empire as symbols of continuity, much as a sword on the hip of a twenty-first century military officer’s uniform might be important as a symbol of continuity between that officer’s unit and groups of warriors who lived centuries ago. As a center of political or economic power, however, Rome was finished by the ends of the Third Century Crisis (which ran from 235-284 of our era); Milan and Ravenna were the seats of the Western Empire in its Christian phase, the Bishop of Milan the principal religious adviser of the Western emperor and therefore, for all practical purposes, the head of the church in the West.

    • Philip says:

      Thank you for your comments and the time invested in answering!

      Having worshiped with and among both the Latins for many years, and then those of the Eastern churches as well, I hope to understand, given Rome’s trajectory and beliefs and dogmas up to and through 1054 (an ‘official’ date) to the present, what Anglicanism’s basis for the attribution of legitimacy to contemporary Rome consist of. I am referring to not only it’s post-1054 promulgation of absolute authority and infallibility as a Bishopric over the entire Church and world, but it’s novel doctrines and ‘dogmas’ in the years following 1054: Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, Assumption, infants as sinners/Limbo?, indulgences, Inquisition, “Crusades”, etc.etc. If in fact the Church is fractured, and has long been so, then for anyone to claim that itself is the “One True Church”, or that failure to be in communion with IT on ITS OWN TERMS places one outside the environs of salvation, is ludicrous and does violence to simple souls. This is implicit in my initial query/concern about a Rome-centric (or Constantinopolitan-centric) application to the Church-at-large.

      I am in hopes that Anglicanism can in fact be a true and not imagined safe haven (not in imitation of the Eastern Catholic Unia), but as a path in and of itself, and not, of necessity, in relation to the historical difficulties that came (and still come) with the Great Schism, (Rome in particular).What I understand so far (and have a very long way to go) is that Anglicanism avoids the temptation to decry and/or disparage others as schismatic or invalid or graceless who don’t goosestep in line with its understanding and practice of the Faith. This is, for a poor and ignorant pilgrim like myself, a true source of encouragement. My many years in the West, then the East, have only left me battered and confused about things ecclesiological. I must return to seeking Christ the Head of His Church, and leave off running after sectarian pontifications. (I Corinthians 3:21-23). Somewhere along the way I let a sectarian way of seeking Christ’s Church remove me from “the simplicity that is in Christ” HImself. I long to be one with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I have read how the Lord “feels” about “them that sow discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6: 19b).

      I am very thankful to have come across this website, and have been greatly encouraged by Fr. Jonathan’s writings and others as well. Again, thank you for your time and helpful response.

      Kind regards,


      • acilius says:

        Fr Jonathan does a terrific job of explaining the Branch Theory of the Church elsewhere on this site, I would definitely start with his postings on that topic to explore how Anglicans think about the unity of the Church and Christ’s Headship of it. Best wishes!

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