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Playing the Instruments of Communion

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

One of the challenges that has faced the Anglican Communion for more than twenty years is the balance between the autonomy of each of the 46 ‘member churches’ and their supposed interdependence.

The short answer to this conundrum is that four Instruments of Union, or Instruments of Communion, have been identified as the means of bringing the different churches together. In this, our second dummies guide to what goes on in the Anglican Communion, (you can read the first one here) we are going to find out what the Instruments are and what they supposed to do. In our third, we will look briefly at the history of the tear in the fabric of the Communion that undermines the impact of these Instruments and in our final guide we will look ahead to the Calls that are being made this year.

Let's begin with the official summary - found on the Anglican Communion website:

there is no central authority in the Anglican Communion. All of the provinces are autonomous and free to make their own decisions in their own ways – guided by recommendations from the four Instruments: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council.”[1]

So, what are these four ‘Instruments’ and how do they ‘guide’ the provinces?

It is worth noting that they are sometimes referred to as, ‘Instruments of Communion’, sometimes as, ‘Instruments of Unity’ and sometimes just the ‘Instruments’. Let’s look at each one in turn:

1. The Archbishop of Canterbury - to whom all the churches of the Anglican Communion are supposed to look for spiritual leadership. Now, since becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby has often said he is not the Pope[2], but amongst the bishops of the Communion, he is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals.

In a sense, it is an accident of history that whichever middle-aged man happens to have been appointed to this bishopric in Kent, then becomes the focus of unity for the whole Anglican Communion. In recent years it has been suggested that this throwback to colonial times be brought up to date. It has been mooted that a ‘rotating’ ‘Chair’, perhaps elected by the Primates Council for a set term, would give other churches the opportunity, or responsibility, for the wider Communion.

However, this summer, General Synod assuming that the status quo will continue, decided it was sufficient to merely increase the number of representatives of the wider Anglican Communion that will sit on the appointments committee that chooses the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Now, this raises a whole lot of other questions about the autonomy of the Church of England to choose their own Archbishop, and because the Archbishop of Canterbury has a seat in the House of Lords, it also has implications for the wider national government. But the proposals have been given the green light with the view that any wider questions “merit careful attention” and “may well evolve over the next few decades.”[3]

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no legal authority over other churches but as we will see he has a significant role in all the other Instruments of Communion. This ‘positional power’ gives him a moral authority which he uses in a variety of ways, including writing public letters and holding private conversations.

2. The Lambeth Conference - is a meeting to which all the serving bishops in the Anglican Communion are traditionally invited. It is convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the guest list is in his gift. The first one took place in 1867 and they have taken place approximately every 10 years.

Originally, their purpose was to “discuss matters of practical interest, and pronounce what we deem expedient in resolutions which may serve as safe guides to future action."

But, controversially, there have been no resolutions since 1998, because in 2008 they were deemed too controversial and this year the Archbishop of Canterbury has announced that instead of resolutions there will be ‘Calls’. More about that in a future guide.

3. The Primates Meeting - Each national, or regional church, is led by a senior bishop - known as a primate - and when they all get together, it’s known as a Primates Meeting. They were introduced in 1978, as a way of formalising the inherent authority of these individual church leaders. Successive Lambeth Conferences have sought an ‘enhanced responsibility’ for the Primates Meeting, but this has been hard to deliver. Again, it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who decides when and where these meetings take place and who is invited.

Their meetings take place at varying intervals, usually every two or three years, though during times of crisis, there have been two in the same year. A Communique is published after the Meeting setting out any guidance the Primates wish to give.

4. Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) - this is the closest the Anglican Communion has to a global Synod - it has no legislative power, but it does spend more than £2 million a year facilitating the co-operative work of the member churches of the Anglican Communion. Approximately every three years, the ACC meets in person, with provinces choosing and sending episcopal, clergy and lay representatives.

By right, the Archbishop of Canterbury chairs the ACC and is an ex-officio member of every committee. The ACC itself can only employ the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, with the consent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So, it is true - there is no ‘Pope’- but the Archbishop of Canterbury is pivotal to the process of ‘guiding’ and ‘recommending’ the way autonomous churches should behave. After all

  • He is one of the four Instruments of Communion

  • He has the authority to decide when to convene and who should be invited to two others.

  • He has a veto over who runs the fourth, which can't be delayed or brought forward without his consent.

  • Oh, and it is claimed that only churches that are in communion with him can be part of the Anglican Communion.

Perhaps the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury could be compared to that of the conductor of a grand orchestra. And sadly, as we will see in our next guide, decisions that were in the gift of successive Archbishops of Canterbury have had a significant impact on the crisis facing the Anglican Communion today.

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