Ronald Stevenson, QC, the former Chancellor of the Anglican Church of Canada, has produced another useful article. In this piece, the retired Court of Queen's Bench judge points out the long history of resistance to centralized authority within international Anglicanism.
Some History of Resistance to Centralizing Authority in the Anglican Communion
These notes are largely based on a paper on The Autonomy of the Canadian Church within the Anglican Communion written by Archdeacon Harry Huskins. I have also drawn from my 2003 paper, An Anglican Understanding of Authority.1
1. The autonomy of the overseas branches of the Church of England was established by decisions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the Colenso cases in the mid 1860s. The events that led to those decisions, and the decisions themselves, preceded and in part precipitated the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.
2. In the invitation to the first Conference Archbishop Longley said the meeting would not be competent to make declarations or lay down definitions on points of doctrine and in his opening address he said it had never been contemplated that the Conference should assume the functions of a General Synod of the Churches in full Communion or take on the role of enacting Canons binding on those represented at the Conference.
3. That conference rejected attempts to (1) establish the Conference as a General Synod of all the Churches in full Communion with the Church of England, (2) create a structure that would see diocesan synods and bishops subordinated to provincial metropolitans and synods and those in turn subordinated to some form of Anglican Patriarchate, (3) establish a Spiritual Court of Appeal in matters of Faith and uniformity in matters of Doctrine, and (4) create an executive power for the Conference.
4. When Archbishop Tait called the second Conference in 1878 he said there was no intention to gather the bishops to define any matter of doctrine and no intention that questions of doctrine should be submitted for interpretation in any future Lambeth Conference.
5. The 1878 Conference concurred in a recommendation that there should not be a central tribunal of appeal in disciplinary matters and said the duly certified action of every Province in the exercise of its own discipline should be respected by all other Churches and by their members.
6. The 1888 Conference expressed reluctance to consider creating an authority which might, whether as a Council of Advice, or in a function more closely resembling a Court, place the bishops in circumstances prejudicial alike to order and to liberty of action. The Conference confirmed the position in an Encyclical Letter.
7. Thus the early Conferences established that the individual Provinces of the Communion were the highest level at which legislative, judicial or executive authority would be exercised.
8. The 1867 Conference had said, and subsequent Conferences reaffirmed, that Provinces could adapt or add to the services of the Church , i.e. the Book of Common Prayer.
9. The 1930 Conference recognized the autonomy of particular churches and said the Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury were 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 1930 Conference also reaffirmed that the formation of a central appellate tribunal was inconsistent with the spirit of the Anglican Communion and that the establishment of final courts of appeal should be left to the local and regional churches.
10. A Report to the 1948 Conference affirmed the Communion’s consistent repudiation of centralized government or of any legal basis of union. That Report said the positive nature of the authority which binds the Communion is seen to be moral and spiritual, resting on the truth of the Gospel, and on a charity which is patient and willing to defer to the common mind.
11. In his opening address to the 1988 Conference Archbishop Runcie said:
We are traditionally suspicious of the Lambeth Conference becoming anything other than a Conference. We may indeed wish to discuss the development of more solid structures of unity and coherence. But I for one would want their provisional character made perfectly clear . . . we have no intention of developing an alternative Papacy.
12. The 1897 Conference had said it was advisable that a consultative body should be formed, in part to act between Lambeth Conferences, to which resort might be had by the national churches, provinces and extra-provincial dioceses for information or for advice. Such Consultative Body proved ineffective because it did not have regular meetings, because of communication difficulties and because it lacked staff. The 1920 and 1930 Conferences declared the Consultative Body was a purely advisory body and did not possess or claim any executive or administrative power.
13. The Consultative Body may have been the precursor of the Anglican Consultative Council whose initial Constitution was accepted and endorsed by the 1968 Lambeth Conference. That Constitution did not, and the Council’s revised (2010) Constitution2 does not, confer any authority for the Council to make decisions binding on the member churches.
14. Resolution III.3 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference affirmed the principle of subsidiarity as it had been articulated in the 1997 Virginia Report of Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission3 - i.e. 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 those tasks can be adequately performed at such levels.
15. Sir Owen Chadwick in his Introduction to the published resolutions of the 12 conferences from 1867 to 1988 traces the origin, development and growth of the Conference. The Conference has no authority and was only allowed to be founded on that basis. However, he wrote:
It was impossible that the leaders of the Anglican Communion should meet every ten years and not start to gather respect; and to gather respect is slowly to gather influence, and influence is on the road to authority. [The Conference] continued to have that absence of legal authority which some of its founders wanted and which of necessity was denied to them.4
16. Canon (now Bishop) David Hamid described the Anglican Consultative Council and its functions:
The Anglican Consultative Council was set up to share information, to advise on inter-Anglican relations, agreed policies in world mission, and collaboration, dialogues and relations with other Christian Churches, and inter-Anglican communication. It is the only body in global Anglicanism that has a constitution and legal standing. It meets every three years. Every province of the Communion is assigned from one to three members, depending on its population. As the Council is made up of bishops, other clergy and laity, some say that this is the “synodical” instrument of global Anglicanism, inasmuch as the whole people of God are represented. This is an analogy that cannot be taken too far, since there are not bishops, clergy and laity from each province, only from those with a right to three members. Furthermore, not all Anglican jurisdictions are present. The extra-provincial Churches have no voice or vote, unless a member from one of those Churches happens to be made a co-opted member. So the [Council] is not entirely representative of the Communion, and some evolution is clearly still required to make it so.5
17. A common mind and the common good are elusive concepts. Is it realistic to search for a common mind unless all of the participants have open minds? The notion that what touches all should be approved by all is, as someone has said, impossible of attainment because, human nature being what it is, there will always be a dissenting minority.
18. One of the strengths of the Anglican Communion is its acceptance of diversity. As once expressed by Archbishop Tutu:
We have always boasted that the Anglican Church is a church that embraces and welcomes the most extreme diversities. We might say we disagree with you, my sister and brother, on this particular point, but we still remain sister and brother.6
19. In the Introduction to her book, Anglican Diversity7, Patricia Bays said we were asking,
“How much diversity can there be before Anglicanism falls apart? Are there limits to Anglican diversity? How do we define these limits?”
20. The word “diversity”does not appear in the proposed Covenant. Does its absence mask the probability that declaring an action to be incompatible with the Covenant would equate a declaration that the action exceeds the permissible limits of diversity? Would the Covenant thus give a central body, the Standing Committee, authority to define the limits of diversity?
21. In his foreword to the 2004 Windsor Report Archbishop Eames said:
The depth of conviction and feeling on all sides of the current issues has on occasions introduced a degree of harshness and a lack of charity which is new to Anglicanism. A process of dissent is not new to the Communion but it has never before been expressed with such force nor in ways which have been so accessible to international scrutiny. Not all the opinions voiced have been expressed in ways which are conducive to dialogue or the encouragement of communion.
22. Those charged with considering adoption of the Anglican Covenant must ask themselves whether, considering developments since 2004, there has been any universal softening of the “degree of harshness and lack of charity” or any indication of a Communion-wide desire for dialogue and encouragement of communion.
Ronald C. Stevenson
4 Resolutions of the twelve Lambeth Conferences 1867-1988 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), p. x.
5 Church, Communion of Churches and the Anglican Communion, a paper presented at the Anglican Communion Legal Advisers’ Consultation at Canterbury in March 2002. A slightly revised version of that paper was published in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal (2002) Vol. 6, 352-374.
7 Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2001.