A good deal of my writing is spurred by dissatisfaction, irritation, or provocation: perhaps a vice, but one that I cannot seem to get over. Pray for me.

This time around it is Anglicanism and primacy. What a surprise, right? Since the January Primates’ Meeting (or Gathering, if you prefer), there’s been a lot of handwringing over whether Anglican primates have the authority to do anything. Some think the primates are especially ineffectual or irrelevant when they gather in a group: a source merely of “primatial angst,” with no formal juridical authority to enforce their decisions (and therefore, it seems we are to conclude, no authority at all).

One of the most common statements involves claiming that the idea for a Primates’ Meeting was originally floated by Archbishop Donald Coggan in 1978 for “leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation.” A friend of mine has said something along these lines on Facebook (or in person) just about every day for the past 10 weeks: it’s like a gnat in my ear, or a rock in my shoe. The retired Bishop of Tonbridge, Brian Castle, raised this point in a piece for the Church Times this past week. But it’s been in the water for a while, and pops up in surprising places: even in the description of the Primates’ Meeting on the Anglican Communion website.

Now is a good time to address this matter, since the Anglican Consultative Council will be meeting soon in Zambia.


The error of this idea has been corrected by others: Coggan’s phrase has been taken out of context. He spoke also of the representative role of the assembled primates and their need to consult with their respective provinces’ bishops, clergy, and laity in order to express “maturity in the exercise of authority.” Moreover, he was speaking at the 1978 Lambeth Conference, which requested in Resolutions 11-12 that he and the other primates begin coordinating the Communion’s diverse bodies and committees and that a “Primates’ Committee” serve as a consultative body for issues of dispute. It was formed.

Ten years later, Lambeth 1988 (Resolution 18.2a) urged

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. (emphasis added)

Really. Read the whole Resolution; it’s amazing stuff. This encouragement was reaffirmed at Lambeth 1998 (Resolutions II.2 and III.6) and even expanded to include cases that could not be resolved “within provinces.” Needless to say, the Anglican Covenant affirmed this role (3.1.4), naming the primates as those who interpret and articulate the “common faith” of the Communion, as well as “representatives of their Provinces” in a collegial role with each other when addressing “doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters that have Communion-wide implications.”

This puts paid to Mark Chapman’s claim, shortly before the Primates’ Meeting this January, that 1978 marked “the beginning of the end of a unified sense of Anglican mission.” Rather, it was the beginning of an intensification of a unified sense of Anglican mission, as well as united governance from the 1970s onward. To be sure, in the past 13 years some have deliberately attempted to roll back the Communion’s trajectory toward unity and common governance, an attempt that reached its zenith at the 2011 Primates’ Meeting in Dublin, when many of the primates were absent.

This ground has been well trod in the past (notably, by the Anglican Communion Institute), and dismissed by many. So I want to add something here. An emphasis on Anglican unity and the importance of primacy were not simply the focus of Anglican consultative bodies of various kinds since the 1970s. They are also the common fruit of continued ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics (and others) since the 1960s, as well as reflection in (among other places) the Church of England’s House of Bishops.

From the way some Anglicans talk, it would be hard to gather that we have spent nearly 50 years in ecumenical dialogue on this topic through bodies like the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). We produced documents like ARCIC II’s The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III (1998), with its reflections on the nature of primacy, episcopacy, and collegiality among bishops, but also on the role of the whole body of Christ in teaching authoritatively and receiving teaching. Dare we even read ARCIC I’s Authority in the Church I (1976), which declared that Anglicans and Roman Catholics share “a consensus on authority in the Church and, in particular, on the basic principles of primacy” (para. 24)? What about Authority in the Church II (1981), which discussed the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as patriarch of the West?

And, again, many of these documents were received and affirmed through the Lambeth Conference. Such ecumenical statements, too, are the context in which the Primates’ Meeting was formed and its role developed.

I’d like to counter here a potential objection. Perhaps many think that these are discussions that take place internationally, among egghead theologians and bishops having a jolly little vacation. But this is not the case. Various documents from the Church of England’s House of Bishops have raised and appropriated many of these points as well:

Moreover, some of these documents have been cited in later publications, reports, and discussions of the English House of Bishops, not least the beloved Mission-shaped Church. So it is remarkable that so many seem unaware of them.

Our scholars and church leaders, not least bishops, need to do better, and students should take note of this vast ecclesiological literature and dive in. As Ephraim Radner has recently argued on this blog, “Forgetting or setting aside the history of our life together may well be a big part of the Communion’s ecclesial problem.” A sort of amnesia has set in, sometimes wilful, sometimes lazy, but nearly always pernicious. The only way to counter it is to return ad fontes, to the Communion’s shared history, struggle, and documents (many of which are online) and to the major developments in our ecumenical dialogues, pursued so recently and with such zeal.

Happy swimming.

Zachary Guiliano is the editor of Covenant and an ordinand in the Diocese of Ely. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image is a stained glass in St. Mary the Virgin, Witney. The photo was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. 

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2 Responses

  1. Zachary Guiliano

    As an addendum (for future reference), I’m adding here a statement from the Eames Report (1997), VII. 58: “It is clear from the experience of the last decade that the precise relationship between the episcopal collegiality of the Lambeth Conference, the collegiality of the Primates’ Meeting and the conciliar structure of the ACC does need clarifying. Legal and binding decisions can only be made at the provincial level. Nevertheless, the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Meeting must surely have an authority – particularly a moral authority by vitue of the office of those gathered together. If Anglicans are to hold together as a World Communion, then they must seek a deeper understanding of the recently created structures of unity and authority at the world level and the relation between them. They must be prepared to support and provide the necessary resources for them (cf. The Virgnia Report).”

  2. Fr. Thomas Reeves

    Well stated and informative for those of us newer to the Anglican Communion. It seems to me a Modern-Post Modern sentiment to think that we can have any true scriptural unity connected to the character our Triune God without a central authority to enforce the definition of ideas, words, and actions. How can Bishops defend the church from heresy if they are not willing to take up the authority to do so? It seems so basically childish to avoid authority and conflict as if error will not then have free reign so as to “all get along”. It becomes depressing if one chooses to dwell on this reality instead of the hope we have in Christ as Lord of the Church.


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