By Christopher Wells and Mark Michael

Officially, the Church of England is not first among equals of the Anglican Communion’s provinces, and the foundational texts of the Communion’s life and work carefully avoid the beloved, if also loaded, phrase mother church. Officially, we are all equal, called alike to communion as the “limit to autonomy,” as The Windsor Report said.

But the Church of England has an undeniable centrality to our common life. The Anglican Communion’s churches all descend from, imitate, and share in her missionary impulse and have been blessed by her financial generosity. Her liturgy, architecture, devotional ethos, and party system, variously adapted, compose much of what unites and fractures us.

The Church of England is no longer the Communion’s largest province, but she provides a disproportionate share of its intellectual leadership and has a unique convening power amid our sad divisions, due to a persistent willingness to steer the middle course and keep open as many doors as possible. The Anglican Communion Office has always been in London, and now relies largely on the Church of England’s financial backing.


And, of course, the Church of England’s primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the Communion’s chief spiritual leader, one of its four Instruments of Communion, and the convener of the other three.

But the Church of England is unlike all the rest of the Anglican Communion’s provinces in important ways. She is nearly the Communion’s only ancient church, heir to an unbroken chain of episcopal succession. She alone remains established by law, with a unique place at the center of her nation’s spiritual life, despite the mass secularization of the society she serves. Of all of us, she would be best positioned to say, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21), while remaining what she has always claimed to be. The rest of us should be grateful that she has, so far, resisted the temptation.

Not that, in the haphazard, albeit graced, history of the development of our Instruments of Communion, she hasn’t sometimes toyed with the idea. Many English bishops, including the Archbishop of York, refused to attend the first Lambeth Conference, fearing that its decisions might compromise the Church of England’s autonomy. Most of the ideas that have led to the development of common councils and structures have been championed by other provinces, and none of the Communion’s secretary generals have been Church of England clerics. The Anglican Covenant’s ratification process famously died in her dioceses, where it failed to garner enough support to advance to the General Synod.

If, in the words of the Windsor Continuation Group — taken up in turn by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) — the Anglican Communion suffers from “an ecclesial deficit,” the Church of England has a special responsibility to start filling it. The main constraint on the Anglican Communion’s ability to develop a more robustly ecclesial life is probably not disagreement about human sexuality or a penchant for ecclesiastical border-crossing but the Church of England’s hesitancy to take the lead in sacrificing some of its autonomy.

In light of all this, we welcome the Archbishops’ Council proposal for significantly increasing the wider Anglican world’s representation on the commission that selects the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is just the kind of small step that has borne fruit in the past, and the fact that it comes from the Church of England makes this even more likely.

The Windsor Continuation Group’s 2007 report recognized the increasing weight that was being placed on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “personal ministry of primacy,” and suggested the sharing out of some of his duties with others, such as a second bishop appointed to oversee Communion affairs, or a system of regional apokrisarioi, that is, bishops charged with facilitating Communion work in their own provinces.

The proposal of the Archbishops’ Council uses a more businesslike approach to work toward the same goal. A more diverse panel, it concludes, would reckon appropriately with the realities of the archbishop’s diary, as he spends a full quarter of his time on Communion business. It also takes its cues from Justin Welby’s awareness of the deep ambiguities of the Church of England’s colonial past and his desire, as a white man, to lead with a humbler spirit — matters made even more relevant by a worldwide reckoning over racial justice. The proposal’s tacit assumption is that an archbishop chosen by a wider range of people would be better equipped for the Communion-wide focus of his or her role, while also collecting more social capital for his or her primatial ministry.

It leaves untouched the near impossibility of the archbishop’s role, but does invite the rest of the Communion to “consider, consultatively and collaboratively,” if the role should be recast in several ways, including imagining a future Archbishop of Canterbury who is not a citizen of the United Kingdom.

The invitation ought not go unanswered and should properly be accompanied with a Communion-wide consideration of the role of the church the archbishop will lead. Is the Church of England, in fact, first among equals, and if so, how should our structures accommodate this? She is undoubtedly our mother, but what are the bounds of filial deference and responsibility? This is a huge matter that should inspire new ecclesiological research, and that IASCUFO, when it resumes its work, could consider.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has surfaced some knee-jerk anti-papalism, although it proposes no change in the archbishop’s duties, much less the theological weight of the archbishop’s pronouncements. The papacy has itself come in for a reevaluation in the last few decades, and Pope Francis continues to shake things up, in a bid to achieve a healthy balance between the local and universal. Anglicans, facing the same global complexities, will not make progress by ignoring them.

Others have pointed out that no other Anglican province would welcome outside involvement in the selection of its leadership. It would be a fair point if the Church of England were like every other province. It remains singular in many ways, not least in the unique dual role its primate is called to assume.

Thanks in part to Justin Welby’s business background, the Church of England now has, for the first time in millennia, a strapline: “simpler, humbler, bolder.” It’s a reasonable summary of this proposal, and of the kind of common life based on mutual responsibility and interdependent love that it could help to foster among Anglican Christians. May the Holy Spirit grant General Synod wisdom and a passion for communion as it debates the idea in coming months.

About The Author

In continuous publication since 1878, The Living Church remains focused on the whole state of Christ’s Church, amid major shifts in the landscape and culture of global Christianity. We are champions of a covenanted Anglican Communion as a means of healing the wounds of division in the body of Christ.

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3 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    As former President of the Anglican Communion Institute, who lived and worked in the UK for ten years, who considers Rowan Williams a colleague and a friend (among other recent ABC’s), whose close ACI colleague worked on the major Communion committees, who holds a PTO in the CofE, the one lesson recent history has taught is: there is a difference between what AC members–from Primates down to individual provinces beyond the CofE–want, believe, conceive of as central to a “Communion” and what those in the Church of England itself believe or want. An extremely instructive lens onto this reality can be found in the reactions to a proposal for how the next ABC might be chosen (with greater non CofE involvement). Running from widespread caution to outright hostility and rejection. Alongside this comes the invariable conflation of “Communion” with Commonwealth/Empire, as though the latter is all there is to the former. The kind of ancestry charts one used to find in sacristies — from Augustine of Canterbury down to my diocesan Bishop — make virtually no sense and may even be wistful romance for those inside the CofE itself. It is hard to know how this has come about, but it was a fact to be reckoned with I do not believe was adequately grasped in recent communion work. It was well and good for Lambeth and Primates’ gatherings to propose this and that, but even the very idea of Instruments of Communion is either lost on the average English worshipper, or viewed as so much pomp and self-importance, irrelevant to the real job of the ABC: his proper role in the CofE and Parliament and that’s that. I say this with no relish. The underscoring of provincial autonomy so favored of late comes alongside seamlessly with the idea from within the CofE of the specific identity of itself as a church (now beset by huge problems) and the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury inside of it.

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