The role of the primates

Abp. Michael Peers, retired primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, has responded to the Rev. Canon Robert Brooks’ memo from last week in which he elucidates on whether the primates can make ultimatums about who stays in or leaves the Anglican Communion. Peers goes another step further, by explaining the relationship between the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting, having a long relationship with both institutions.

But the stated purpose of the Primates Meeting was the provision of occasions of mutual support and building of a community of persons of similar ministries within the Communion. The very name and the style of the meetings express it well. Even though a resolution of the 1978 Lambeth Conference refers to a “Primates Committee,” that name was never used. The ACC consults. The Lambeth bishops confer. The primates meet.

Archbishop Donald Coggan, in presiding over the first meeting, made it clear that the meeting was not going to become a resolution-producing body. The Meetings have traditionally produced statements, and the preparation of those statements certainly produces debate; but no resolution is ever taken, or even proposed, about the statement or any other subject. Even Archbishop George Carey, who arguably contributed to the higher visibility of the Primates Meeting by acceding to the request from some members for annual meetings (an innovation advised against by those primates who chaired the Inter-Anglican Finance Committee!), resisted any attempt to introduce the proposing of motions. Such a change would overstep the mandate agreed upon from the first meeting.

Confusion of roles between the ACC and the Primates Meeting is not new. Soon after the 1988 Lambeth Conference, there arose an issue where the Primates Standing Committee (originally simply an Agenda Committee) wanted to act in order to resolve a difficult question concerning the future of the Anglican Centre in Rome. They were unaware that the ACC Standing Committee was also working on the same issue, and the two bodies were soon at cross-purposes. In order to prevent such problems in the future, it was proposed that the two Standing Committees meet jointly. This has been the practice at the annual meetings ever since. The nine members of the ACC Standing Committee and the five members of the Primates’ Standing Committee vote as a body. But, crucially, the Primates Standing Committee members may not vote on the approval of the audited financial statement because the ACC is a legally constituted body, registered with the Charities Commissioners of the United Kingdom, and only the constitutionally elected members are allowed by law to vote.

The ACC has its place and, because it is the only Communion-wide “Instrument” with representation from orders other than episcopal, it was designed to have the greatest authority. I pray that it may have the freedom and grace to use that authority wisely. The Primates Meeting has its place in a church which is “episcopally led and synodically governed” in the words Archbishop Coggan used. I pray that it may have the grace to use its leadership humbly.

The whole thing is here. Both essays were published at the Episcopal Majority blog.

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