How did the Primates suddenly emerge as possible final arbiters of the definition of Anglicanism, moving from a non-existence to ascendancy? What has happened in the years between 1979 when they held their first meeting until today? These are the questions that The Rev. Francis (Frank) H. Wade, former chaplain to the House of Deputies and retired priest in the Diocese of Washington answers in his essay in The Living Church, Coup d’Elise:
In 1851, French President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized dictatorial powers that eventually allowed him to become Emperor Napoleon III, the last monarch of France. His actions gave currency to the term coup d’ètat, literally “strike the state,” which has described political takeovers from that day to this.
The parallel phrase coup d’èglise (strike the church) has not made it into the common lexicon but may be the only way to accurately describe the lightning ascendancy of the primates of the Anglican Communion. From their first meeting in 1979 to their asserted role in the proposed Anglican Covenant, the group has moved from non-existence to centrality. This may or may not be what the Anglican Communion needs; it may or may not be what every devoted Anglican wants; it may or may not be the leading of the Holy Spirit; but we should all know that it is happening.
For most of its history the Anglican Communion lived with three basic facts of life: The members had a common root in the Church of England, a common focal point in the Archbishop of Canterbury, and common mission on a selective basis. A common doctrinal base was assumed but basically unexamined.
The idea of ecumenicity in the late 19th century led to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which was as close as the Communion ever came to formal doctrinal expression. The Quadrilateral was so broad that it was said that when we speak neither the pope nor the premier of China can say for certain they are not Anglicans.
This hazy sense of communion lasted until the emergence of indigenous leaders in the post-colonial church brought pre-existing differences of perspective and orientation into clarity and conflict. These differences became an Anglican crisis when the American and Canadian provinces gave tangible expression to a faithfully developed, but to many intolerable, view of human sexuality. That crisis provided the platform for the primates’ move to power.
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