‘A mirror for the life of our church’: The history and role of the primacy

The primatial cross is the only official symbol of the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. It was first presented to General Synod in 1937 after the submission of numerous designs. The cross is made of silver gilt and features the arms of General Synod and of the four original dioceses of the Canadian church. Photo: Saskia Rowley
Published February 20, 2019

When delegates meet in Vancouver this July for the 42nd General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, they will vote for a new primate to succeed Archbishop Fred Hiltz. But what does being primate of the Anglican Church of Canada really entail?

The primacy has evolved throughout the history of the church. In 1893, the church’s first primate was a diocesan bishop chosen from among the metropolitans, whose only specific duties were to serve as president of General Synod and of the House of Bishops.

Since that time, the office of primate has steadily grown to encompass a national episcopal ministry, in which the primate serves as a figure of unity and a reflection of the diversity, challenges and ministries of the church.

‘The voice of the Anglican Church of Canada’

Bishop of the diocese of Huron Linda Nicholls, who served on the primacy task force in 2010, describes the primate as “the voice of the Anglican Church of Canada—to the wider Anglican Communion and the world.”

The primate leads, she says, by “sharing and telling the story of our church to itself from coast to coast to coast…theologically leading and reflecting the mission of our church.”

This model distinguishes the Canadian church from many of its counterparts around the world, as Michael Ingham, bishop (ret.) of the diocese of New Westminster and chair of the 2010 task force, points out. In most Anglican provinces, the primate continues to serve double duty as a diocesan bishop, and consecrates other bishops.

By contrast, the primate in Canada has no role in episcopal ordinations. New bishops, when consecrated, swear loyalty to the metropolitan of their ecclesiastical province, not to the primate.

Rather than jurisdictional authority as supreme governors of the church, primates in Canada exercise “pastoral ministry in the service of God’s mission,” Ingham says.

The primate is considered the first among equals of the bishops and metropolitans across Canada—providing leadership to and extending pastoral care to the bishops, supporting them in their ministries.

The primate leads the Anglican Church of Canada “in discerning and pursuing the mission of God,” according to Canon III of the Handbook of the General Synod. He or she exercises “pastoral and spiritual leadership” throughout the national church by visiting parishes, dioceses and provinces, and travels abroad to represent the national church internationally and ecumenically.

As president of General Synod, chair of Council of General Synod and chair of the House of Bishops, as well as the CEO of General Synod staff, the primate has a demanding ministry.

Misunderstandings about the primate’s role are common, according to Archdeacon Paul Feheley, who has served as principal secretary to the last two primates. Anglicans on different sides of various debates will often send letters to Hiltz asking for him to intervene in order to resolve an issue.

But, Feheley notes, metropolitans actually have far more influence over matters than the primate.

“People think that if the primate could [snap] his fingers or click his heels…suddenly, something would be fixed,” Feheley says. “It doesn’t happen, because the primate doesn’t have that authority.

“If you’re looking for a whole ton of power, it’s not the position to go for,” he adds.

‘The undoing of empire’

In its early days, the mandate of the primate was considerably more modest than it is today.

When Robert Machray took office in 1893 as the first primate of the Church of England in Canada, it was as a diocesan bishop with some additional responsibilities pertaining to the church national.

Such was the case for the first nine primates in Canada, each of whom continued to serve as bishop of his diocese while also handling the national and international duties of primate. No financial resources were provided for the primacy by General Synod until 1934, and the position remained chronically underfunded for decades.

The mounting responsibilities of the primacy during this time—the country’s vast size, competing demands from primates’ own dioceses, and the relative lack of funding—began to take a serious toll on the primates’ health.

“Many of our early primates died from overwork,” says Ingham. “The job is just too large for an incumbent to exercise responsibilities as a diocesan bishop as well. This has only become more true over time, rather than less.”

In 1969, General Synod adopted the model of a detached primacy, in which primates were no longer burdened by the responsibilities of a diocesan bishop.

This change gave rise to ministries shaped by incumbents’ personal passions, the concerns and priorities of the church and the wider historical context.

The office evolved greatly after Howard Clark became the first full-time primate, Feheley says.

“Ted Scott, for example, [Clark’s] successor, became deeply, deeply involved in the work in the Commonwealth, particularly against apartheid in South Africa, and had an incredible ministry,” Feheley says. “Had he still been a diocesan bishop, I don’t think he would have been able to have the freedom and the time to be able to expand the ministry the way that he did.”

The primacy of Scott’s own successor, Archbishop Michael Peers, marked a shift in the church’s focus towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Through his 1993 apology for the church’s role in the residential school system, Peers helped lay the foundations for later developments such as the appointment of a national Indigenous Anglican bishop and support for a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada.

In a 2002 article for the Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society, “Colonial Anglicanism: Imperial to Episcopal,” Peers, then primate, reflected on the journey of the Anglican Church of Canada from what he called a “satellite of the Church of England—deposited as is—in a colonial territory.”

Much of the church’s history, Peers wrote, “has been—to use a phrase of Janet Somerville, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches—‘the undoing of empire.’ ”

This historical task has played out in the church’s reckoning with the legacy of residential schools. But, Peers noted, there has also been a project of decolonization within the church’s very structure.

Peers traces the seeds of reform to the 1830s, when Thomas Fuller proposed a synodical model of church government, in which dioceses would be led by a synod, or governing body of licensed clergy, lay representatives from the diocese’s parishes, ex officio members, and the bishop. Over the following decades, this became the model the church follows today.

As late as the 1850s, Peers wrote, “bishops and dioceses were still created by Letters Patent, colonial bishops still looked to [the Archbishop of] Canterbury as Metropolitan, and anyone appointed bishop still made the trip to London to be consecrated.” In 1893, the church as it now exists took definitive shape with the first meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in Canada.

An 1893 Declaration which established the Church of England in Canada as a separate and independent body described the church as being “in full communion” with the Church of England (as opposed to “an integral portion”), Peers noted. “I think it signaled an entirely different way of thinking about ourselves—self-government was in our own hands, and more importantly in our own heads,” he wrote.

“In a time when there has been pressure to make the Communion more monolithic, more a single entity presided over by primates, I continue to look to this foundational document.”

In a discussion paper on “The Role of the National House of Bishops” from 1998, then-bishop of the diocese of Algoma Ronald Ferris recognized this dispersal of power. With primacy, he wrote, “decision making power always resides in the body. Where episcopal assent is required, it rests corporately with all bishops present.” It also notes that “the primate does not give a charge to the General Synod, but rather a Presidential Address.”

The future of the primacy

The true power of the primacy resides in its pastoral authority as a focus of unity for the national church. With the growth of new forms of communication such as social media, the primate has gained the ability to offer statements and reflection on current events in a more vital and immediate way.

With the election of a new primate at General Synod 2019, the position will continue to evolve.

“Whoever is elected as our primate will bring [their own] gifts in,” Feheley says. “If a woman is elected, for example—we haven’t had a woman as a primate in Canada. What difference will it make in terms of the gender of the person, if any?”

General Synod also marks the second vote on the proposed amendment to the marriage canon to allow for same-sex marriage, he notes. “To what extent will that finish the conversation?…The grace that that person brings to that [issue] will be a critical thing.”

Reflecting on the examples set by the most recent primates, Nicholls highlights Scott, who oversaw the period of approval of the ordination of women; Peers’ “profoundly moving apology to Indigenous people”; and Hiltz for “representing Canada in the wider Communion with grace in difficult times,” and for his “unfailing pastoral sensitivity” in listening to the church.

“Our primates have been and are people of exemplary faith and integrity, asked to hold together the wide diversity of our Anglican Church of Canada with its challenges of geography, cultural and theological differences,” Nicholls says.

“Our primate is a mirror for the life of our church, and deserves our deepest commitment of prayer and support.”


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