Running to the Primates

The move is on in the realignment / reactive crowd to run from the Archbishop of Canterbury as the “focus of unity” to the Primates as the new place of power, the new synod of unity. No doubt such a move is in part a threat to the Archbishop: either stand with us, or go down in flames as the leader of a small global north sect. But the mutterings in the direction of such a move is out there. Consider the following:

Chris Sugden wrote in an article on Anglican Mainstream pages,

“What will be problematic is if the Church of England tried to adopt a position of neutrality in the face of an ECUSA fudge. Silence by the English House of Bishops in the face of ECUSA doing anything else except embracing the full requests of the Windsor report will be understood as condoning their action and sympathising with their position. In maintaining silence, the Church of England will put itself at risk of being out of fellowship with many other Anglican Provinces as the Primates letter of October 2003 said: “This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).”

He then speaks of three challenges, the second of which is,

“To provide an ordering of the church such that those who are faithful to the biblical teaching on this matter which has been constantly upheld by the primates of the Communion are able to come under a jurisdiction which affirms their membership of the Anglican Communion and continue if at all possible with the material resources of property and salary to continue the mission of Jesus Christ unfettered.”

This challenge makes no mention of the Archbishop as a separate focus of unity. He becomes only one of the Primates. This challenge also pushes for an alternate jurisdiction.

In an article posted today on Anglican Mainstream, “Heresy and Schism” by Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti, who one recalls has been deposed by the bishops of the Brazilian church, he writes,

“An institutional realignment is as urgent as a fresh theological definition in the form of a Covenant. History demonstrates that within Anglicanism there have arisen certain exceptions in terms of institutional form. As I put it to the Archbishop of Canterbury when I met with him in Lambeth Palace last year: “If Your Grace wishes to save the Anglican Communion, be willing to enlarge existing exceptions and to create new ones” Clearly, insistence on a rigidity of form (geography + canons), coupled with a cultural relativism, will only accelerate the process of desintegration. Such a situation will be difficult to evade if we are left with politicians and without true statesmen.”

The “exceptions” he speaks of concerns breaking down the clear geographical boundaries of provinces and dioceses. The institutional realignment would include, of course, the formation of a Covenant, which he understands quite rightly to be a product of primates acting on behalf of their provinces. The multiplicity of “exceptions,” namely dioceses formed by one province but acting in another (as is the case of his diocese, which is part of the Province of the Southern Cone) provides the nucleus of a new province in the midst of the old. And the alignment around the Primates and the Covenant would replace any reliance on relations with Canterbury.

This is of course one of the reasons why the change in Nigeria’s canons to delete the references that define Anglicanism or the Anglican Communion as in any way connected to communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury is so troubling. Recall that the Nigerian Canons http://www.anglican-nig.org/canons.htm reads as follows:

“1. The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) hereinafter called “The Church of Nigeria” or “This Church” shall be in full communion with all Anglican Churches Dioceses and Provinces that hold and maintain the Historic Faith, Doctrine, Sacrament and Discipline of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as the Lord has commanded in His holy word and as the same are received as taught in the Book of Common Prayer and the ordinal of 1662 and in the Thirty-Nine Article of Religion.”

Again, there is no reference at all to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a focus of unity, and plenty of opportunity to pick and choose churches and dioceses in various provinces with which to be in communion.

Just a few months ago Anglicans spoke of the “four instruments of unity.” Those were: The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates. Then it was decided in the Windsor Report to suggest that the Archbishop be “the focus of unity” and the other three “the instruments of communion.” This suggestion was quickly made the order of the day by the Anglican Consultative Council who might have known better had there been full attendance and involvement of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church.

In strange ways similar to the marginalization of the English monarch’s power into the symbol of the state’s authority, making the ABC the focus of unity begins to take him out of the business of being an “instrument,” that actually has power. Just as the Queen’s address to Parliament is actually the program of the ruling party, so too the Archbishop’s statements might well become those produced by one or the other “instrument of communion,” but which?

One of the tragedies of the unfolding of this messy situation in the Anglican Communion is that the invitation to Lambeth, clearly the prerogative of the Archbishop himself, in his person, might well become an invitation screened and really made by one or the other instrument of communion.

Which of these instruments is moving into the power vacuum of the instrumentality of the Archbishop being reduced? Lambeth meets too infrequently. The Anglican Consultative Council meets regularly but was not called into special session by the Archbishop following General Convention 2003. Instead it was the Primates that he called together in emergency session. The decision that the famous Lambeth resolution 1.10 is to be regarded as “commanding respect” (Windsor par 25) was made by the Primates.

The Primates called for the Windsor Report. Windsor Report, par 104 said, “In part, it is the task of the present Commission to consider proposals made at the Lambeth Conferences in 1988 and 1998, and reiterated in To Mend the Net, for the primates to have an “enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters”.

The focal point of power and authority in the Anglican Communion is turning from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Primates, where, depending on the day some 20 of the 38 Primates strongly oppose what the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada (at least the Diocese of New Westminster) has done, is doing, and is likely to do.

The Primates have no power and authority at this point, except so far as they are given that by the symbolic head of the Communion, by their own self definition, or by the Anglican Consultative Council, the only body actually made up of representatives of the churches. What the Windsor Report has inadvertently done is taken recommendations of Lambeth Conferences on the matter, joined them with a paper commissioned by an Archbishop (Gomez) opposed to the directions that the Episcopal Church was taking, and positively considered their recommendations.

In the mean time, Chris Sugden, the deposed Bishop of Recifi, the Archbishop of Nigeria and others are pointing in the direction of the Primates. They are joined in this run to the Primates by the Anglican Communion Network, which is knitting a new net rather than mending the old, and placing all its confidence in the growing power of the Primates to make the essential decisions about Anglican Communion affairs and the inability of the Archbishop of Canterbury to act independently to do the one thing that by rights is his to do – invite those he wishes to share Eucharist and time.

The temptation in the church to give extraordinary power to bishops, groups of bishops or primates is always there. There is a resolution before this General Convention that suggests that while the trial court of a bishop on other matters might include lay and ordained persons, if it is a trial about doctrine all the judges will be bishops. But why is that good?

Guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters require the best we can offer, and often our bishops are that best. But guidance is not the same as governance, and when we mix up the two, giving enhanced governance to the bishops alone, or in this case the Primates, we move directly and distinctly into the end of genuine participatory church governance, and that is what the Americna experiment has to a large extend been about.


  1. Mark, you say, "The focal point of power and authority in the Anglican Communion is turning from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Primates, ..."

    I would more likely say that the focal point, or the focal interest is moving from authority to power. Perhaps that's an American distinction, but I think it's worth considering. Just as the interpretation of the Windsor Report in some quarters is less about inclusion and invitation (to express regret, but invitation nonetheless) and more about exclusion and enforcement, this move to the Primates seems a straightforward effort to establish a structure with the capacity of exclusion and enforcement. The Primates are a good tool for that, because they can look democratic (it is pitched as a majority of the Primates, after all) while still being a means of imposition.

    It is an effort reflecting hollow rhetoric. Because they cannot persuade they must impose - or find someone who can impose on their behalf.

  2. Consider the strange trajectories of Norman Doe, Cardiff Law School senior lecturer, member Eames Commission and ubiquitous legal person on commissions bent on siphoning canonical lawmaking power to the primates.

    Doe writing his 1998 book "Canon Law in the Anglican Communion" described (at 343) only three not four "principal institutions of the Anglican Communion," and did not mention the primates even as representative of one of the three. Again in 2003, in "The Common Law of the Anglican Communion," 7 Ecclesiastical Law Journal 4, his aim was "to examine whether and how canon law might be acknowledged as one of the instruments of Anglican unity"; and again, no mention of any discernable root of authority in the primates.

    American lawyers will think of the American Law Institute's "restatement of the law" dating from the early 1950's, when reading Doe's description of the accretions of common law among autonomous Anglican provinces each acting on its own - just exactly as the courts of the several American states created a common law consensually, which was then deemed recognizable by the ALI, and then in turn cited by states late-arriving to the consensus.

    That was, through 2003, Doe's prescription for recognizing a common body of canonical law in the autonomous Anglican provinces.

    When I wrote him in 2004 asking how he got from that position to the centralizing impetus of the Windsor Report, which Doe helped craft, the professor did not answer.

    Maybe if Preludium addressed that question to the learned professor, he might answer.

    Bob Smith

  3. "I would more likely say that the focal point, or the focal interest is moving from authority to power. Perhaps that's an American distinction, but I think it's worth considering."

    I don't think that's an American distinction at all. However, it may be so in the particular context. In Roman times, authority belonged to the conscript Fathers of the Senate and power to the popular assembly (and later to the demogogues...the emperors).

    I see authority as conservative, deliberative, but ultimately receptive, but power as radical, impulsive, and blind to reason. But I suspect that's personal prejudice. I frankly hope that the present shift is not heading in that direction.


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