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Instruments of Communion: The Primates’ Meeting, the ACC, and their predecessors

By Colin Podmore

One reason why the issues that have divided Anglicans over the last 50 years have proved so difficult is that they stir up ecclesiological questions. Which body or bodies (if any) have moral authority to speak on behalf of the Communion to its individual churches? What deference (if any) should be accorded to their pronouncements?

The 1997 Virginia Report commented positively on the ACC as including laypeople, but noted that its existence “raises questions,” whereas the Primates’ Meetings “have an inherent authority by virtue of the office which they hold as chief pastors.” It emphasized the bishop’s role as “one who represents the part to the whole and the whole to the part, the particularity of each diocese to the whole Communion and the Communion to each diocese.” In 2008 the Windsor Continuation Group observed, “Not all believe that a representative body is the best way to express the contribution of the whole people of God at a worldwide level.”

Misperceptions of the history of the Anglican “instruments of Communion” compound such disagreement. One widely believed account runs something like this. Until 1968, the Lambeth Conference was the only inter-Anglican structure. The Anglican Consultative Council added a smaller body, meeting more frequently, its inclusion of laypeople and clergy reflecting fundamental Anglican principles. The Primates’ Meeting — the newest body — is novel in comprising only the senior bishop of each church. Its pronouncing on divisive issues conflicts both with Anglican principles and with the original intention that it should merely be a fellowship group for church leaders. None of this is true, as this article will show.

From 1867 onwards there were increasing calls for a body to which the developing colonial churches could refer disputed questions. Each of the first four Lambeth Conferences failed to reach agreement on this. The relevant committee of the 1897 Conference proposed a “tribunal of reference,” with a remit limited to questions submitted by Church of England bishops or by “Colonial and Missionary Churches” (and hence no role in respect of Ireland, Scotland, or the United States). Even this could not command consensus, so the relevant motions were not put. As the 1908 Lambeth Conference noted, the position of the American Episcopal Church, which “precludes any approach to a foreign court,” was the main obstacle.

The 1897 conference did, however, ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to create a Consultative Committee from which churches, provinces, and extra-provincial dioceses could seek advice. From 1901 to 1966, under various names (Central Consultative Committee, Central Consultative Body, Lambeth Consultative Body), this small body of bishops met between two and five times between each Lambeth Conference and the next.

Initially, distance limited membership. Most of the colonial churches chose bishops resident in England (often former colonial diocesans) as representatives, though the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Primate of Canada, and bishops from India attended on occasion. The American church alone declined to participate. The Consultative Body offered some advice in response to questions referred to it, but only its 1914 consideration of issues arising from the missionary conference at Kikuyu (Kenya) was of much moment. Increasingly important, however, was its function as a preparatory and continuation committee for the Lambeth Conferences, advising on their timing and agenda, and monitoring follow-up.

The 1920 Conference declared the Consultative Body “one of the links which bind together our fellowship” — in modern parlance, an instrument of communion. In 1930 “councils of bishops” were identified as “the appropriate organ, by which the unity of distant Churches can find expression,” their autonomy bounded by “a common faith and order” and “mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops.”

The Consultative Body had not threatened the churches’ autonomy; absence from it reduced influence: both factors encouraged American involvement. The 1930 Conference facilitated this by changing the Consultative Body’s constitution. It would represent not the churches but the Lambeth Conference; the Archbishop of Canterbury would appoint its members (albeit after consulting the primates and metropolitans and having regard to regional representation), so no American action would be required to enable American bishops to serve. At least one American attended each of the four meetings in the 1930s; the presiding bishop came twice. Three meetings were attended by the Archbishop of the West Indies, one by one Canadian archbishop, another by two. As transatlantic travel became easier, the Consultative Body began to be more representative of the churches’ current episcopates, to meet more frequently, and to be increasingly dominated by primates and metropolitans.

After a post-war gap the Consultative Body met informally during the 1954 Anglican Congress and formally in 1956 to discuss the forthcoming Lambeth Conference. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher had determined that it should comprise the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, each other church’s senior bishop, four bishops appointed by the American presiding bishop, two each by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Canadian and Australian primates, and one each by the other nine (until 1951 there were only 13 Anglican churches). The “primates” were now formally at the Consultative Body’s heart.

At the 1958 Conference, Fisher convened either the “primates” or all the metropolitans as a conference steering committee. The Conference determined that the Consultative Body should in future consist only of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the primates or presiding bishops, and representatives of the extra-provincial dioceses appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Those unable to attend could send alternates, but in effect a Primates’ Meeting had been born. In addition to its role as a Lambeth Conference preparatory and follow-up committee, the Consultative Body would “advise on questions of faith, order, polity, or administration” referred to it by bishops.

Another resolution required the archbishop to appoint a (salaried) secretary for the Consultative Body. This Anglican Executive Officer served not only the Consultative Body but also the Advisory Council on Missionary Strategy (ACMS). Established by the 1948 Conference, the ACMS had met immediately before the Anglican Congress. The 1958 Conference revised its membership to include all the metropolitans. Members could send alternates, who need not be bishops: after 90 years, a Lambeth Conference had for the first time specifically envisaged non-episcopal participation in an inter-Anglican body.

The ACMS and the Consultative Body met just before the 1963 Anglican Congress. The ACMS, attended by 31 bishops plus 23 “staff advisers,” discussed a range of strategic, policy, and practical matters. The much smaller Consultative Body principally discussed ecumenical, constitutional and ecclesiological questions. It requested a meeting every 18 to 24 months of primates and metropolitans (the Consultative Body plus one Canadian and one Australian metropolitan, and one American bishop), with staff attending “general consultation” but not decision-making sessions. Such meetings were held in 1964 and 1966.

In 1963, then, the Consultative Body finally embraced and fulfilled the long-held vision of a gathering in which the churches took counsel together between Lambeth Conferences, each represented by its senior bishop. Five years later, that vision would be supplanted by a very different one, embodied in the Anglican Consultative Council.

The year 1968 saw the Prague Spring and violent student protests around the world. It was in that revolutionary context that the Lambeth Conference set the Anglican Communion on a new course, profoundly changing its international structures and the ecclesiology they embodied. For the first time it met in public — in the Assembly Hall of Church House (a parliamentary chamber in the office of a bureaucracy) — and in the presence of the press. John Macquarrie (one of 26 consultants) was “astonished to find how many bishops were being swept along uncritically by the changing fashions and slogans of popular theology.” The Conference’s report subtly downplayed its authority: the “Encyclical Letter” became a mere “Message”; a novel Note described the resolutions’ (lack of) authority in entirely negative terms.

The Conference replaced the Consultative Body and the ACMS with a single Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), comprising the Archbishop of Canterbury (as president), three members (bishop, clergy, lay) each from the largest five churches and two each (bishop plus clergy or lay) from the others, plus six co-opted members (at least two laypeople under 28 and two women). The Council would elect a chairman, a vice chairman and seven other standing committee members (the president would not be on the standing committee). At the outset, only 21 of at least 46 members would be bishops (not necessarily their church’s senior bishop). There was no provision for voting by “houses” or “orders.” Membership changes would need the assent of two-thirds of the metropolitans, but otherwise constitutional changes required ratification by the “constitutional bodies” of two-thirds of the churches. Therefore, unlike all previous inter-Anglican bodies, the ACC would derive its authority not from the Lambeth Conference but directly from the churches. The relevant section report referred to “the new prominence of the laypeople” and the need for “a more integrated pattern” of meetings, but why the new body should take this particular form was not explained.

The Conference did not formally entrust the Consultative Body’s role of offering advice on faith and order questions to the ACC or any other body, but it did commission the ACC to advise on any proposals to ordain women to the priesthood. At its first meeting in 1971 the ACC duly gave a green light on this to the extra-provincial Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao — by 24 votes to 22 with five abstentions, the Archbishop of Canterbury (the diocese’s metropolitan) voting against. This 11-day meeting, attended by 51 members, 18 consultants, observers and preparatory committee members, and six staff, passed 44 resolutions, published with four section reports in an 80-page report titled (significantly) The Time is Now. That the preface was signed not by the president or chairman but by the Secretary General, Bishop John Howe, perhaps suggested where real power now lay. Michael Ramsey later commented, “I think that Lambeth 1968 erred in giving power to the Anglican Consultative Council” and “I quickly came to think that it was not the right way to run the Anglican Communion and that it was a poor substitute for a meeting of archbishops.”

The ACC could not be dis-invented, but a “Primates’ Meeting” could be restored. The initiative came not from Lambeth but from the United States and Canada. At Presiding Bishop John Allin’s suggestion, the senior bishop of each church (now called “the primates”) met in 1975. John Howe was careful to stress the gathering’s informality, but in 1977, after a conversation with Allin, the Canadian primate Edward Scott wrote to Howe suggesting regular Primates’ Meetings for “contact between provinces.” “A.C.C. alone is not enough,” he argued: primates had “direct access to the decision making structures of their own churches,” unlike some ACC representatives.

At the 1978 Lambeth Conference “the Primates Committee,” which met four times to take major decisions, authorized Archbishop Donald Coggan to “initiate consideration” of a “Committee of Primates” meeting regularly. The relevant section of the Conference report expressed the hope that “such meetings will be held more often.” Resolutions assumed their existence: the decision had already been taken. Archbishop Coggan’s address explaining it was printed in the report. Quoted out of context, as it almost invariably is, his statement that the primates should meet “for leisurely thought, prayer, and deep consultation” might imply merely a fellowship group. In fact, his theme was where “authority in the Anglican Communion” should lie. Rejecting in turn the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the ACC, or a doctrinal commission as its sole repository, he proposed that the primates should meet every two years as “channels through which the voice of the member Churches would be heard, and real interchange of heart could take place” — albeit “in the very closest and intimate contact” with the ACC. For Coggan, the Primates’ Meeting was central to solving the problem of authority in the Anglican Communion, and the primates were their churches’ most natural international representatives.

The Conference’s Resolution 11 gave the Primates’ Meeting a crucial role with regard to local developments with wider consequences, advising 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.” It also asked the primates “to initiate a study of the nature of authority within the Anglican Communion.” Resolution 12 asked the Archbishop of Canterbury “with all the primates of the Anglican Communion” to initiate consideration of how to relate the various inter-Anglican meetings together. In both instances the primates were to act — not the ACC.

The Primates’ Meeting convened for six days in 1979. Any lingering idea that a meeting of the leaders of the Communion’s churches could be merely social and spiritual will have been dispelled when the agenda (16 items, one covering 13 sub-items) was circulated. The minutes filled 19 pages — plus 16 pages of appendices. In advance, Howe commented that “from discussion with Primates themselves the wish for meetings does not appear to derive from a desire to revive the Lambeth Consultative Body,” but this is in fact what had happened: a formally constituted body consisting of the senior bishop of each Anglican church had been restored. Yet the 1968 revolution had been so profound that the previous existence over seven decades of formally constituted meetings of bishops for consultation, advice, and decision-making between Lambeth Conferences was soon completely forgotten. A meeting of primates came to be regarded by many as an un-Anglican novelty rather than a reversion to the pre-1968 norm.

Colin Podmore is a member of the Living Church Foundation. In June he received the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship. This article is based on his chapter in volume IV of the Oxford History of Anglicanism (OUP, 2017), where full references are cited. Principal sources include the minutes of the Consultative Body in Lambeth Palace Library and papers in the Anglican Communion Office archives.


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