Two former primates reflect on the church’s top job

Published May 1, 2004

Later this month, the meeting of General Synod will convene in St. Catharine’s, Ont. One of the first responsibilities of the delegates will be to elect a primate from a slate of four candidates (featured on these two pages), as chosen by the house of bishops. The election will take place on May 31. The last two men to hold the job, archbishops Michael Peers and Edward (Ted) Scott, served the church for the last 33 years. Anglican Journal features some of their thoughts on the job of the primate. Pastor. Manager. Executive. Leader. Spokesperson. Guide. Priest. Conciliator. The next person to hold the position of primate, or presiding bishop, of the Anglican Church of Canada needs to fill all these roles – and mould the job according to his or her passions.

As the two previous holders of the office – archbishops Michael Peers and Edward Scott – amply demonstrated, it is a multi-faceted job.

The canon, or church law, governing the office of primate sets out the scope of the job: maintain a “pastoral relationship” with the Anglican Church of Canada, lead in the development of policy and strategy for the national church, implement the decisions of General Synod (the governing convention), function as chief executive officer to the national staff in Toronto, speak in the name of the church, and be, ex-officio, a member of all committees, councils, boards and commissions.

Some aspects cannot be controlled by the incumbent, noted Archbishop Peers in a recent interview. “Circumstances and the opinions of others mould it,” he said. “For instance, the life of the church in Cuba was relatively stable in the time Archbishop Scott was primate. That wasn’t the case for me,” he added. (Since 1967, Canada’s primate has served as president of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, which ceased to be part of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 1967, due to political tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. In the last 14 years, due to divisions among the clergy, the Cuban church has not been able to elect a presiding bishop.) Archbishop Peers was primate from 1986 to February 2004. Archbishop Scott served from 1971 to 1986.

Archbishop Peers’ facility with languages – he is fluent in French and Russian and was able to preach in Spanish to the Cuban church – was an advantage since the international aspect of the primate’s job has grown over the years. The primates of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces – many of whom speak English as a second or third language – have in recent years met annually, more often than they used to. In his day, Archbishop Scott was also asked to be a member of the so-called Eminent Persons Group that helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Physical stamina is important. Archbishop Peers, who said he found the travel both tiring and invigorating, kept famously detailed records of his trips. Travel accounted for 48 per cent of his time as primate. Archbishop Scott also traveled extensively and was called “Holy Flyer” when he was made a Blackfoot Chief in Alberta in 1981.

As a national church leader, the primate often speaks about social issues, uses his or her scholarly knowledge to illuminate theological questions or provide religious inspiration. Being in the limelight obviously requires skills in handling the media.

The primate’s diplomatic skills must be finely honed – in the domestic sphere as well as the international one. He or she chairs the twice-yearly meetings of Canadian bishops and of the Council of General Synod, which governs the church between General Synods. Debate can get quite heated at these conferences and the chair must be impartial.

The primate also receives dozens of invitations during the course of a year – parishes celebrating their 100th, 150th anniversaries, diocesan special occasions, episcopal consecrations – that maintain a connection with the Canadian church.

Another role – one that Archbishop Peers has said he felt was not his strong suit – is as manager of the 100 or so employees at Church House, the church’s national office in Toronto. The canon on the primacy says that the primate may delegate any executive duty to executive members of the staff and the day-to-day running of the national office is generally in the hands of the general secretary and department heads.

Administration was also Archbishop Scott’s weak spot and he made sure that he organized a good team to assist him. “Scott’s inability to delegate would dog him through the years of his primacy, as would his administrative style, which verged on the chaotic,” writes Hugh McCullum in his soon-to-be released biography of Archbishop Scott, Radical Compassion. “The modern cult of efficiency was never Scott’s ideal. Over the years his closest staff colleagues quietly assumed responsibilities for matters that he had no time for, or interest in.”

Often a primate continues to wear many hats even after retirement or the end of his or her term of office. Archbishop Peers, who retired last February, accepted an appointment as the first Ecumenist-in-Residence at the Toronto School of Theology. Archbishop Scott, who retired in 1986, also remained busy: aside from being a part of the Eminent Persons Group he became involved in many other social causes and assumed numerous pastoral duties in Toronto.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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