Constitutional Authority in Anglicanism

What on earth were the Primates up to, and why we should be worried.

‘Baton passes to ACC over Episcopalian’s status.’

I found this article in the Church Times (4th March) intriguing; extremely so.

It is not so much the issue itself that is exercising me for it appears that come what may the Episcopalian Church will end up finding itself on the naughty step, for where power has a will it tends to find a way, but rather what we might learn about the exercise of leadership, and church governance, from this article.

My intrigue derives from my former life in busineswhat wes and then as a lecturer in Business Ethics (which is not an oxymoron!)

Now it may well be true that the Primates Conference did have the power and authority to ‘sanction’ (whatever this means, the Episcopal Church of the USA). I don’t know enough about the legal structures of the Anglican Communion to pass a definitive judgement, but let’s assume that there is some real legal and ecclesiastical merit to the Bishop of Connecticut’s comments that:

‘The primates had spiritual and pastoral significance and not constitutional authority.’ 

If the Bishop of Connecticut is correct several questions follow:

  • Were the Primates aware that they possessed no real ‘constitutional authority?’
  • In setting the agenda for the meeting was the scope of the primate’s authority to act, or advise other bodies within the communion to act, laid clearly before the primates? There should be some form of source document that precisely defines the Primate’s remit.
  • What  model of collective episcopal leadership did the majority of primates bring to the decision-making process?

These are all leadership questions and they lead to some bleak conclusions about how leadership has been exercised.

If the Primates thought that their leadership was of  ‘spiritual and pastoral significance’ and that they possessed ‘constitutional authority,’ when in fact they didn’t then the Communion faces a ‘crisis of governance.’

The Communion and its individual churches have a right to expect the highest standards of governance with decisions being made where decisions should be made (subsidiarity in other words).

In the world of corporate governance it is well-known that various groups (executives) are prone to claim supererogatory powers and, this is one of the ‘moral hazards’ that governance structures seek to mitigate.

Primates, just like ‘executives’ in any field of endeavor should not simply assume powers that are not rightfully, or constitutionally, theirs even if they think (hence their mental model) they are the people best equipped to make a given decision. Perhaps Psalm 131 verse 1 should be burned onto the heart of every aspiring leader, whether ordained or lay, whether dressed in purple or otherwise:

‘O Lord my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high, I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvellous for me.’ 

If the Bishop of Connecticut is correct in his analysis there can only be two explanations:

Either, they acted out of ignorance,

Or, they chose to override the communion’s formal structures and mechanisms.

Acting out of ignorance would be the lesser sin, choosing to assume powers which may not be theirs to assume would be a catastrophic example of the abuse of position, status and rank, acting as a stark reminder to all of us of the simple fact that power has a terrible tendency to seek even greater power.

The decision to impose sanctions on the Episcopalian Church may or may not be without merit. But could it be that the process through which the decision was taken is completely without merit, and is therefore indicative of a crisis not only in governance, but dare I say it, in episcopal leadership?


Referring to an article in this week’s CHURCH TIMES (see previous kiwianglo post) writer Andrew Lightbown points to the fact that the Primates’ Meeting, held recently in Canterbury at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has no contstitutional power to do what it has presumed to have done – issue an ultimatum to TEC (The US Episcopal Church) that it must opt out from participation in matters governing the affairs of the Anglican Communion world-wide.

This is one reason why most of the Provinces of the Communion took pains to reject the ‘Anglican Covenant’, which would have given specific authority for an Anglican type of Magisterium – having authority over the individual Provinciasl Churches of the Anglican Communion, which, in fact, has never existed.

The Founding See of the Communion, the See of Canterbury, was never, in fact, given constitutional primacy over the emerging provinces of the Anglican Communion. Instead, the title of ‘Primus inter pares’ was assumed by the Canterbury Primus as an agreed acknowledgment of the Church of England’s founding provenance. The organic growth of Anglicanism around the world has become, de facto, a group of independent Provincial Churches, with filial ties to the Church of England.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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