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President, what President?
Simon Sarmiento, Anglicans Online staff
9 September 2001

The Hurd report, published this week, comprehensively analyses the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury and makes excellent recommendations for reducing the workload of the archbishop by applying normal management principles: delegation of as much as possible to others, and having a much stronger team of supporting staff. Most of the report deals with internal Church of England issues, but in this article I will concentrate only on the sections dealing with the Anglican Communion.

The recommendation to appoint a senior bishop from outside England, to be based in Lambeth Palace, and to act as the archbishop's chief assistant on Anglican Communion matters is unexceptionable, although the report is surely right to highlight the potential conflict between this role and that of the Secretary-General at the Anglican Communion Office down the road. More work will need to be done to resolve that issue.

However, it is surprising that the distinguished authors of this report have accepted, seemingly without question, the notion that a 'presidency' of the Anglican Communion already exists and that its fulfilment therefore needs to be resolved. Only very recently has this term 'president of the communion' crept into occasional use: I first found it on the Anglican Communion Office web site shortly after the last Lambeth Conference. It would be interesting to identify from the Lambeth Palace archives when this term was first used in any document. Last year I wrote to the Lambeth press office about this terminology and received the following reply from the official press spokesperson on 10 August 2000:

Regarding the term 'President of the Anglican Communion,' it is an informal,shorthand description, reflecting the Archbishop's presidency of the ACC, the chairmanship of the Primates Meeting, the chairmanship of Lambeth Conference and role as Primus inter Pares.

So far as I have been able to discover, none of the above-mentioned bodies has given any official sanction to the use of this shorthand. Nobody doubts the need for leadership of the communion, but that is not necessarily best served by adopting such a title, even informally.

The Hurd report, however, says:

The Anglican Communion has four 'Instruments of Unity'. They are:

  • The Archbishop of Canterbury - Provinces belong because they are said to be in communion with the See of Canterbury;

  • The Anglican Consultative Council - a representative body of lay and clerical members established in 1968. It is the only one of the instruments that is incorporated. It appoints the Secretary General (at present an ordained member of the Episcopal Church of the USA) and the staff of the Anglican Communion Office located in Waterloo Road, London;

  • The Primates' Meeting - the assembly of the 38 Primates, now meeting annually and first called together in 1979. Recently, it has acquired a growing importance;

  • The Lambeth Conference - a decennial assembly open to all Anglican bishops and first called in 1867. The last one was in 1998 at Canterbury. (The Conference has not met at Lambeth since 1968.)

    Of the four instruments, the Archbishop himself constitutes one, and he is president of the others. He is the central figure, but holds no centralized power. That is the paradox of the Anglican Communion.

That's two less chairmanships and two more presidencies than the year before. The Hurd report even uses the exact term 'president of the communion' twice, and discusses at length the concept of 'presidency' of the communion, despite the comment in its own Appendix B that:

So slender is the underpinning of explicit legal provision that it has even been doubted how far, juridically, an Anglican Communion can be said to exist.

In law, the Archbishop has, except in the very few cases where local constitutions allow for it, no power to intervene in the affairs of an Anglican Province outside England other than by the express invitation of the Province concerned. Discussions continue about whether and, if so, how this situation may be changed. Meanwhile, the Archbishop's leadership is exercised as being primus inter pares so far as the other Primates are concerned.

Surely if such a title is to be used, it needs both to have some substantive meaning, and not to be merely adopted by Lambeth unilaterally, without discussion.

As the report also says:

In all areas of life the present tendency is to focus attention and expectations on the leader. It may easily lead to demands that are unrealistic. In some parts of the Communion, for example, there is a tendency to think of the Archbishop as a kind of Anglican Pope, able to exercise jurisdiction throughout the Communion. Such a position has neither been claimed nor desired by any Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, one of the marks of Anglicanism as it has evolved has been the positive affirmation that the Church in each of the 38 Provinces should have the power to order its life according to the culture and needs of the Province within the constraints of the biblical faith as the Church has received it. There is indeed a lively debate in the Anglican Communion on the nature and exercise of authority in the Church and in particular on the possible role of organs of the Communion in setting limits to undue diversity. We also note the strong resistance to any weakening of the principle that ultimate legislative authority lies with the Provinces rather than with any Communion-wide body. This does not mean that the so-called Instruments of Unity - the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting - have no authority. But it is an authority of moral suasion, not of juridical control. The authority of an Archbishop of Canterbury is real, but it is an authority of influence, not of decree.

It's not surprising then that some newspapers continue to report that these recommendations will make the archbishop more like an Anglican Pope. The use of presidential terminology should be subject to more rigorous scrutiny than has occurred to date.

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