Primates' Meeting: Briefing #2

On day three of the meeting, Primates of the Anglican Communion began to more closely consider ‘primacy’. In small groups they discussed their understanding and experience of the theology and practice of primacy in their Provinces, at the Regional level and at the Communion level. The purpose of the morning was to share in plenary the differences and similarities of primacy in the Provinces of the Communion.

Aspects of primacy shared among all Provinces included the Primate having a ministry of reconciliation and peace building; of linking the local with the global and vice-versa; of being a consensus builder, a symbol of unity in the Province and the wider community; of being a pastor to other bishops; and of having a prophetic voice, to interpret the signs of the times in their local context.

“A Primate is the first among equals,” one Primate fed back to the meeting, “an apostle, a servant, who is often on the road visiting dioceses, carrying and embodying the vision of the Province, the mission of the church and the values that hold that Province together.”

Also many considered a Primate to be someone who represented the voice of his/her Province. One Primate explained to the plenary session that in their small group the Primates had agreed that, “none of us are able to or are inclined to speak for ourselves only, but always after consultation with the bishops, with the synods and council.” He added that there had also considerable conversation around the Primates’ voice as representatives of their Province when they went into other councils that were ecumenical, inter faith or political in nature.

There were, however, some clear differences in the responsibilities and scope of the role of Primate between Provinces. Some Primates are also diocesan bishop as well as Primate, while others had no diocesan responsibilities. The length of primatial service varies across the Communion between two years renewable, and serving until retirement. Some Primates are responsible for a lot of administration, others are not. Whereas in some Provinces the Primate can veto a synodical decision (after consultation with the Council/House of Bishops), in other Provinces the Primate needs permission from the bishop before even travelling to that bishop’s diocese. A few Primates have responsibilities of an extra-provincial nature—the example being Cuba where three Primates form the Metropolitan Council that oversees the ministry there.

The question was raised, though not addressed in plenary, about how far Primates had a role in safeguarding the life of the Communion as a whole.

Whatever the similarities or differences between the roles and responsibilities of Primates across the Communion, seeing primacy as a gift rather than a right was a concept expressed by Archbishop Winston of The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia as he explained the concept of ‘Tikanga’.

He said the word meant “The place where you stand”, that your position was sacred ground gifted to you by your ancestors, your people, the environment. He said that the position of Primate was gifted to the role-bearer as a responsibility for a time and for the future. “You don’t own it,” he said, “the place [role] owns you. It’s a gift, not a right. It’s a privilege.”

Primates spent the afternoon sessions sharing their expectations of Primates’ Meetings. Following a request to the Archbishop of Canterbury he shared with them a short history of the meetings. He explained that, although it had altered over the years, the original purpose of the meeting established in 1978 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan was an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation”.

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