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What are the limits of Primatial power?

What are the limits of Primatial power?

At the recent Primate’s gathering in Canterbury, the Episcopal Church was criticized for its moves towards inclusion and equality for LGBT persons and some “sanctions” (or “consequences” as the Archbishop named them) were announced.  It isn’t clear whether or not the Primates statements have any binding force on the institution known as the Anglican Communion.  As others have noted, this seems a back door drive to impose the structures of the failed Anglican Covenant’s section 4.  Bosco Peters is a priest from New Zealand who maintains the blog/website, Liturgy offers some clear thinking on this question, and though much of what he has to say comes from his own context in New Zealand, much of it is applicable in the Episcopal Church as well.  His writing also reminds us that the Communion is much broader than those Primates whose primary issue is the inclusion of LGBT persons as well as reminding us that this is not the only issue that divides us.  Below is an excerpt, but do check out the whole thing.

Liturgy Logo

Thereafter the communiqué states: [we formally require] “that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

This section deserves reflection. Who is the “us” that the Primates see TEC as “representing on ecumenical and interfaith bodies”? Do they see TEC representing the Primates on such bodies? Surely not! Or are the Primates here taking it upon themselves to speak for the whole Anglican Communion – that by “us” here they mean “Anglicanism”? If so, when and where, exactly, do they think they have received this mandate? Is a convenient crypto-papal ecclesiology at work here?

Furthermore, although I would be extremely surprised if TEC uses a vote in the next three years on international Anglican bodies, that will be out of respect for the Primates, rather than automatically – the Primates do not control these bodies. I would understand that not even the Primate of TEC can require this. Nor do the Primates control the ecumenical and interfaith bodies they mention. How did the Primates come to so patently overreach themselves?

Anglican bishops can sometimes (often?) sound like their Roman Catholic homonyms (or even like the pope!), giving the impression that they, rather than synods, govern the church. Primates, with double the plus-power of bishops, can sound even more so. But Primates are primus inter pares, first among equals on the bench of bishops. The primate of ACANZP is as subject to the church’s synodical governance as anyone else.


Peters then offers seven important reminders about the nature of a Communion of independent churches and the limits of episcopal power in a synodical governance structure such as most anglican/episcopal churches have.  Two that are especially worth considering for us in the Episcopal Church are numbers 2 and 3.

Reminder 2 The Primatial team of ACANZP can in no way impose their decision, or any decisions made at Primates’ Meetings (or of meetings of Primates) on our church. They (as anyone) can attempt to persuade, but our church is governed by synodical processes, not by primates, nor by bishops.

Reminder 3 The Episcopal Church is and remains a member of the Anglican Communion. I would posit that in many ways ACANZP is more in communion with TEC than it is with other parts of the Anglican Communion. All bishops in ACANZP can preside, preach, and share in ordinations in TEC, while some of our bishops, because of their gender, cannot function as bishops in, for example Central Africa, Melanesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, our neighbouring Sydney archdiocese, and even, until recently, in the mother Church of England itself. I am not aware that all Primates gathered at communion together last week.


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David Streever

I assume this is in response to me; Jon White has already explained this better than I would have.

I think it’s important to reiterate: the Anglican Communion is *not* a legal entity or organization. It’s legal status is similar to that of a book club. No one can choose what you read when you go home, nor would they presume to, but if you’re all reading different books, it’s true that you may stop getting together to discuss them. The Anglican Communion is a loose affiliation of people, with no bylaws or rules.

I do not think that anyone wants TEC out of the Communion. It currently contributes money & resources to the Communion that would not exist otherwise, even if ACNA were to replace us there; while some members may wish to moralize against TEC at the unofficial gatherings they attend, I have not seen any indication that they don’t want TEC money.

David Streever

I’m not sure that is really the take-away.

The Anglican Communion does not view things that way (‘power’); the power of Jesus is not in leading, but in serving. What you’re describing is usually considered ‘corruption’ or ‘abuse’ in theological terms.

Michael Russell

2015 was a year in which serious rapprochement happened over then Chalcedonian schism in 451 C.E. incalcuable damage was done to Christianity because people chose to fight over murky language. For 1560 years and yet in 2015 conversations made progress.

2015 also saw movement on removal of the filioque, a breach that has only separated us for 1200 years or so. Again huge damage was done to the body of Christmas by church people howling over orthodoxy.

We might take heart that schism over women and LGBT folks in ministry has a mere 40 years under its belt and at least the women in ministry issue is moving towards more rapprochement. LGBT issues may take longer, because the same orthopoxy is still loose in the world.

Of course on the tail of this momentous year the Primates also endorsed a fixed date for Easter. This has been another ancient and divisive battle. But now that those pesky Episcopalians have been firmly put in their place, the controversy platter has some fresh room on it.

Might we also call forth the Celtics Bishops and restore their litugies?

Ever hopeful….

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