Various Anglican Communion documents refer to four "instruments" of the Communion's life – The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meetings. The Anglican Communion website consistently refers to the Primates Meetings (plural) and to them as one of the instruments of communion.
"The Primates' Meeting was established in 1978 by Archbishop Donald Coggan (101st Archbishop of Canterbury) as an opportunity for 'leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation' and has met regularly since."
It is increasingly apparent that neither the name of this instrument, "The Primates Meetings" nor the description given to it are true to current realities, and far from the role increasingly ascribed to them in various documents.
Reports from the last two meetings (Northern Ireland and Tanzania) have indicated anything but "leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation." Instead there has been high tension, broken prayer, and deep consultation not necessarily by all with all, but involving sub-groups situated nearby and within the larger group. What may have been understood to be a time away to think, pray and consult – something like Jesus getting away with the disciples – has turned into an ecclesiastical arena for struggle and contention.
But more importantly, these meetings have become increasingly the context for decision making by the Primates, so that in the end it is not the Primates Meetings that are an instrument of communion, but the Primates themselves. Making the body of persons called the Primates the instrumentality is to ascribe to them that which was part of their meeting, not their persons. This seemingly small point is at the center of what is increasingly seen as a group exercise of power where there was otherwise a vacuum.
One sign of this group acquisition of power is the willingness of the Primates to come together not for regular scheduled meetings, but for extraordinary or emergency meetings. They did this, at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, shortly after the 2003 General Convention. That meeting made the decision to call for a special commission and that commission produced the Windsor Report. The Commission was called the Lambeth Commission and the report the Windsor Report quite deliberately to give to both the commission and the report memorable titles related to the sources of power in the Church of England – namely the Archbishop and the State itself. But neither the committee or the report actually relied on those those powers. The names evoked power, but the power came from the authority given them by the Primates, particularly at the Northern Ireland and Tanzania meetings.
The October 2003 extraordinary meeting of the Primates resulted in a communiqué, in which they stated, "As Primates of our Communion seeking to exercise the "enhanced responsibility" entrusted to us by successive Lambeth Conferences, we re-affirm our common understanding of the centrality and authority of Scripture in determining the basis of our faith." The notion of "enhanced responsibility" then became the basis for the assumption of authority.
The 1988 Lambeth Conference first referred to this notion of enhanced responsibility. It stated (Resolution 18):
The Conference, "Urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters."
Concerning this, the Conference stated in a note: "We see an enhanced role for the Primates as a key to growth of inter-dependence within the Communion. We do not see any inter-Anglican jurisdiction as possible or desirable; an inter-Anglican synodical structure would be virtually unworkable and highly expensive. A collegial role for the Primates by contrast could easily be developed, and their collective judgement and advice would carry considerable weight."
Lambeth 1988 did not consider the Primates to be an "inter-Anglican jurisdiction" "an inter-Anglican synodical structure."
Lambeth 1998 reconsidered that disclaimer of jurisdiction and synod and reaffirmed the 1988 statement, and to that added the following:
"b: asks that the Primates' Meeting, under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, include among its responsibilities positive encouragement to mission, intervention in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and giving of guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of Holy Scripture and in loyalty to our Anglican tradition and formularies;
c. recommends that these responsibilities should be exercised in sensitive consultation with the relevant provinces and with the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) or in cases of emergency the Executive of the ACC and that, while not interfering with the juridical authority of the provinces, the exercise of these responsibilities by the Primates' Meeting should carry moral authority calling for ready acceptance throughout the Communion, and to this end it is further recommended that the Primates should meet more frequently than the ACC;
d. believing that there should be a clearer integration of the roles of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting, recommends that the bishops representing each province in the Anglican Consultative Council should be the primates of the provinces and that -
- equal representation in the ACC from each province, one presbyter or deacon and one lay person from each province should join the primates in the triennial ACC gathering;
- an executive committee of the ACC should be reflective of this broad membership, and;
- there should be a change in the name of the Anglican Consultative Council to the Anglican Communion Council, reflecting the evolving needs and structures to which the foregoing changes speak."
We might note that none of the subsections of "d" have been developed, and the name has remained the same – it remains a "consultative" council.
The matter of consultation with relevant provinces and with the Anglican Consultative Council has not been a feature of the most recent communiqués of the Primates.
The drift to a Primatial synod that has both judicial and synodical powers is happening, quite without approval or engagement of the Provinces and their several governments. The earlier denial of binding authority has been superseded by the claim of "moral authority calling for the ready acceptance throughout the Communion." That claim to moral authority is now slowly turning to the claim of authority to act without the full acceptance of either the governing bodies of the various provinces, and in particular the provinces where intervention is proposed, and without the approval of or consultation with the ACC.
The Primates, in other words, are out of the box. They are assuming the power to move from moral persuasion to moral authority to authority.
The Archbishop of Canterbury made a telling comment when he stated in a conversation with Bishop James Kelsey, ""When asked what would happen after the Sept. 30 deadline set by the primates' communiqué, and who would decide about the adequacy of the response of The Episcopal Church to its demands, Rowan Williams responded that it would not be he who would decide since, as he said, 'I'm not a pope; that's not how our system works... I'll take it to the primates, and they will decide'." (reported in the Living Church online.)
The Archbishop has taken the bait: "The adequacy of the response of the Episcopal Church to its demands" could rightly be regarded as within the responsibility of the party making the demands (in this case the Primates) but the Archbishop easily gave way to the Primates decision to impose a September 30th deadline. He determined that "what would happen" was not in his hand either, but in the hands of the Primates.
What is beginning to be apparent is that the Archbishop of Canterbury is no longer the focus of unity, and indeed perhaps not even an instrument of Communion, but in reality the titular chair of a body of Primates who have de facto BECOME the central decision making body in the Anglican Communion. The ACC, Lambeth, and the Archbishop of Canterbury are in secondary roles in this emerging scheme.
All of this, of course, is happening without any reference to an emerging Covenant that might or might not actually address matters of governance. The current draft does propose the Primates as the final judge and jury of inclusion or exclusion from the Communion, but that may not stay in any future version of a covenant.
It is also increasingly clear that many in the Communion want no part of this realigned Anglican Communion, with the enhanced role of the Primates as juridical beasts.
The House of Bishops made it clear that "the meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church is determined solely by the General Convention of The Episcopal Church." That statement of essential autonomy is echoed in a variety of other settings, including the Church of Nigeria's constitution that makes its own system the arbiter of what its canons and constitution mean, and the Church of England's canons that set out its own definition of what constitutes the Anglican Communion, namely the churches it lists as the Anglican Communion at the end of the Canons.
So we have moved from having Primates who meet on a regular but not too frequent schedule for some time away to Primates who get called together with increasing frequency to DO something – to make decisions, call for studies, make statements that carry moral authority and command the respect of the Communion, to determining what happens next.
There very well might be an extraordinary meeting of the Primates following the September 30th deadline. If so, we will no doubt see an attempt to pass judgment on the actions or inactions of The Episcopal Church, this by a body that as yet has no mandate from the Provinces of the Communion. George Conger, no slouch in such matters, reports the possibility of such a meeting in his recent article in the Living Church.
The stunning communication to the Episcopal Church from the House of Bishops meeting in March included in it a clear warning that the Primates may not assume to act in the context of The Episcopal Church without its explicit approval and that such approval will not be forthcoming. About the assumed power to put in place a "Primatial scheme," the bishops had a lot to say, one point of which is, "It sacrifices the emancipation of the laity for the exclusive leadership of high-ranking Bishops. And, for the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th Century it replaces the local governance of the Church by its own people with the decisions of a distand and unaccountable group of prelates."
They were of course speaking of the Primates, no longer a meeting, but a political force interfering in the life of the Church in ways that molest and do not serve.
Time to get clear: usurpation takes many forms, but has one end – dominance.