Can primates enforce edict?

Published April 1, 2007

Can the primates’ meeting, which was created in 1978 to provide leaders of Anglican provinces with an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation” enforce penalties and offer recommendations to individual and independent provinces that sound more like edicts?

This was a question raised by some Canadian Anglicans and Episcopalians in the United States in reaction to a communique issued by primates, or senior bishops, who met in Tanzania Feb. 15-19; the statement set an ultimatum for the American church to ban the blessing of same-sex unions and the consecration of gay bishops.

Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church’s house of deputies (comprising clergy and laity), said she was “deeply troubled” by the communique’s implications for the U.S. church and the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

Ms. Anderson noted that by making such demands, primates had gone against the Anglican tradition of recognizing the autonomy of its churches. “All Anglicans must remember that the second Lambeth Conference in 1878 recommended that ‘the duly certified action of every national or particular church, and of each ecclesiastical province … in the exercise of its own discipline, should be respected by all the other churches, and by their individual members.'”

(A province is a national or multi-national church of the Anglican Communion.)

She added that the polity of the Episcopal Church is one of “shared decision-making” among bishops, priests, deacons and laity, she added. “The house of bishops does not make binding, final decisions about the governance of the church. Decisions like those requested by the primates must be carefully considered and ultimately decided by the whole church, all orders of ministry, together.”

Archbishop Andrew Hutchi- son, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, also mused about whether primates “can dictate” policies. While he acknowledged that the primates’ meeting was established by the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan “for deep sharing and consultation” the reality was that “the ground is shifting now.” He noted, however, that not all primates are comfortable with the notion of having authority over all provinces of the communion. “How dare we do this?” he quoted one primate as having said.

The granting of authority to the primates could be formalized if a proposed covenant is approved; the covenant between Anglican provinces has been put forward as a way of healing division and promoting unity within the Communion.

The draft covenant was presented to the primates during their meeting. It includes a potentially controversial section that calls on member churches to commit themselves to six things, including submitting before primates “matters in serious dispute among churches that cannot be resolved by mutual admonition and counsel.” It adds that, “If the primates believe that the matter is not one for which a common mind has been articulated, they will seek it with the other instruments (of unity) and their councils.” (The other “instruments of unity” in the Anglican Commu- nion include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of bishops, and the international Anglican Consulta- tive Council.) Earlier, some members of the Council had asked what authority the 2005 primates’ meeting had to request that the Canadian and American churches “voluntarily withdraw” from a meeting of the council in 2005.

The covenant also commits churches “to heed the counsel of our instruments of communion in matters which threaten the unity of the communion and the effectiveness of our mission.” While it notes that the instruments of communion “have no juridical or executive authority in our provinces,” they are nonetheless “bodies by which our common life in Christ is articulated and sustained, and which therefore carry a moral authority which commands our respect.”

If churches choose not to abide by the covenant “we will consider that such churches will have relinquished for themselves the force and meaning of the covenant’s purpose, and a process of restoration and renewal will be required to re-establish their covenant relationship with other member churches,” it added.

All Anglican provinces will be asked to study and respond to the document within the year. It will discussed at the Lambeth Conference, the decennial meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, in 2008. The final text of the covenant will then be presented to the Anglican Consultative Council for approval, after which it would be offered to the 38 provinces of the communion for ratification.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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