From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Authority versus autonomy an old debate for Anglicans

Date 23 Feb 2001 13:00:12


Authority versus autonomy an old debate for Anglicans 

by Jan Nunley

     (ENS) Archbishops Maurice Sinclair and Drexel Gomez say that their proposals 
in the book To Mend the Net are a response to recent actions of the Lambeth 
Conference of the world's Anglican bishops regarding the authority of the 
primates and the autonomy of provinces within the Anglican Communion. 

     But questions of the role and authority of the so-called "instruments of 
unity" within the Anglican Communion--the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth 
Conferences, the Anglican Communion Council and the Primates' Meeting--to 
discipline member provinces and bishops are as old as the Lambeth Conferences 
themselves. And the last two of those "instruments" emerged directly from Lambeth 

Asserting autonomy, searching for unity

     While bishops at Lambeth gatherings regularly called for some means of 
maintaining unity, they also repeatedly asserted the independent authority of 
each Anglican province to govern itself--and of each diocesan bishop to 
administer a diocese without interference from another bishop or primate of the 

     The first Lambeth Conference was convened in 1867 to address the deposition 
of South African suffragan bishop John William Colenso of Natal, by Archbishop 
Robert Gray of Cape Town for alleged heresy. Colenso appealed to the British 
government on the grounds that Gray lacked the authority to depose him, and the 
Privy Council upheld Colenso. 

     At Lambeth a committee was appointed to "consider the constitution of a 
voluntary spiritual tribunal, to which questions of doctrine may be carried by 
appeal from the tribunals for the exercise of discipline in each province of the 
colonial Church" (1867 Resolution 9), but the voluntary tribunal never came 

     The 1878 Lambeth Conference's first "recommendation" (there were no formal 
resolutions) affirmed "certain principles of church order," including the idea 
that "the duly certified action" of each province "should be respected by all the 
other Churches, and by their individual members." The conference also recommended 
that "no bishop or other clergyman of any other Church should exercise his 
functions [within another diocese] without the consent of the bishop thereof."

     The 1897 Lambeth Conference was the first to ask specifically for a 
consultative body to be formed "either for information or for advice by the 
Archbishop of Canterbury (1897 Resolution 5)--a kind of proto-Primates' Meeting. 
By the time of the 1920 Lambeth meeting, the bishops felt it necessary to pass a 
resolution (1920 Resolution 44) declaring that the Consultative Body, composed of 
18 bishops, "is a purely advisory body. It is of the nature of a continuation 
committee of the whole Conference and neither possesses nor claims any executive 
or administrative power… it offers advice only when advice is asked for."

     Resolution 49 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference defined the Anglican Communion 
as a "fellowship" of particular or national churches in communion with the See of 
Canterbury sharing "the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order" set forth in the 
Book of Common Prayer. "[T]hey are bound together not by a central legislative 
and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common 
counsel of the bishops in conference," the resolution concluded. 

     The next resolution (Resolution 50) reaffirmed the 1920 conference's 
statement that the Consultative Body of 18 bishops was advisory and not 
legislative in character. The duties of the Consultative Body were strictly 
limited to carrying on the work of the preceding Lambeth meeting, assisting in 
preparing for the next gathering and dealing with matters referred to it by the 
archbishop of Canterbury or any group of Anglican bishops, "subject to any 
limitations…which may be imposed by the regulations of local and regional 

Signs of a shift

     The 1948 meeting authorized the appointment of a network of provincial 
secretaries and called for a communion-wide Anglican Congress, which was held in 
1954 in Minneapolis. A curious final clause in a 1948 resolution on church unity, 
perhaps a hint of things to come, asked that "a part of our Communion 
contemplating a step which would involve its withdrawal from the Anglican family 
of Churches should consult the Lambeth Conference or the provinces and member 
Churches of this family of Churches before final commitment to such a course." 

     Not until 1968, however, did Lambeth approve a proposal for an Anglican 
Consultative Council (ACC), to include priests, deacons and laity as well as 
bishops in its mission "to serve as needed as an instrument of common action" for 
the Communion at its meetings every two years. Its functions included sharing 
information and advice, but also called for policy development--a first for 

     A regularly scheduled Primates' Meeting emerged 10 years later, at the 
request of then-Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, who envisioned the 
gatherings for "leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation," but not 
legislation. He also called for the primates to be in "the very closest and most 
intimate contact with the ACC." The minutes of the first Primates' Meeting 
declare that the gathering "was not desired as a higher synod... Rather it was a 
clearing house for ideas and experience through free expression, the fruits of 
which the Primates might convey to their Churches."

     By the 1978 Lambeth meeting, controversy over the ordination of women in the 
United States was roiling the Communion. For the first time, the tone of the 
conference on the issue of provincial autonomy shifts. The conference "advises 
member Churches not to take action regarding issues which are of concern to the 
whole Anglican Communion without consultation with a Lambeth Conference or with 
the episcopate through the Primates Committee, and requests the Primates to 
initiate a study of the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion" (1978 
Resolution 11). Resolution 25 established the Inter-Anglican Theological and 
Doctrinal Consultation, whose most recent work includes the Virginia Report to 
Lambeth 1998 on how the Communion makes authoritative decisions.

Most recent Lambeth actions

     The 1998 Lambeth resolution III.6, entitled "Instruments of the Anglican 
Communion," reaffirmed resolution 18.2(a) of Lambeth 1988, which called for a 
"developing collegial role for the Primates' Meeting…to exercise an enhanced 
responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters." 
The 1998 version included "intervention in cases of exceptional emergency which 
are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and giving of guidelines 
on the limits of Anglican diversity" within the scope of that enhanced 

     "While not interfering with the juridical authority of the provinces," the 
resolution adds, "the exercise of these responsibilities by the Primates' Meeting 
should carry moral authority calling for ready acceptance throughout the 
Communion, and to this end it is further recommended that the Primates should 
meet more frequently than the ACC." 

     Resolution IV.13, "Unity within Provinces of the Anglican Communion," 
invites the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a commission to make 
recommendations "as to the exceptional circumstances and conditions under which, 
and the means by which, it would be appropriate for him to exercise an extra-
ordinary ministry of episcope (pastoral oversight), support and reconciliation 
with regard to the internal affairs of a Province other than his own for the sake 
of maintaining communion within the said Province and between the said Province 
and the rest of the Anglican Communion."

     But Lambeth resolution III.3 also affirms the principle of "subsidiarity," 
which provides that "a central authority should have a subsidiary function, 
performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or 
local level," provided that these tasks can be adequately performed at such 

     And Resolution V.13 reaffirms and requests the primates to encourage bishops 
of their provinces to consider the implications of Resolution 72 of the Lambeth 
Conference 1988, which "affirms that it is deemed inappropriate behaviour for any 
bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry 
within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of 
the ecclesial authority thereof." 
     That would seem to preclude the option of a parallel jurisdiction for Anglicans who 
dissent from the majority in their diocese or province, an arrangement deplored by the 
Lambeth Conference as far back as 1968 (Resolution 63).

     Archive of Resolutions from Lambeth Conferences of Anglican Bishops
     The Lambeth Conference 1998
     The Virginia Report: The Report of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission, 1997

--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information.

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