From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Authority versus autonomy an old debate for Anglicans
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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