by the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith

On March 16, when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams announced his forthcoming resignation, the responses from Episcopalians ranged from disinterest to curiosity to anxiety. I encourage you to look somewhere in the middle of that spectrum for an understanding of this office, which serves as a symbol of our communion in Christ Jesus.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) in the Anglican Communion is not analogous to the Pope in Roman Catholicism. The ABC holds authority as primus inter pares, “first among equals,” whose teaching is never set forth as infallible. The ABC has jurisdiction in the Diocese of Canterbury, just as any Anglican bishop has jurisdiction in his or her diocese. For the sake of governance, the Church of England is divided into two provinces, the Province of Canterbury and the Province of York. The ABC holds specified authority over the Province of Canterbury, whereas the Archbishop of York holds that same authority in the other Province. The two archbishops in England exert their provincial authority nowhere else. The Pope, on the other hand has what Roman Catholic canon law calls “universal jurisdiction.” That is, his authority and jurisdiction reach into every nation and every Roman Catholic diocese in the world. The Pope is essentially a bishop without borders. Anglican bishops, including archbishops, always have borders. All this information is mundane, but important nonetheless.

The Anglican Communion consists of thirty-eight national or regional churches, each in varying degrees of communion with the other but autonomous in the life of its own governance. So the governance of the Episcopal Church of Sudan looks different from that in Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, as does the manner of worship in our own Episcopal Church also diverge from both Sudan and New Zealand. The contexts of Anglican life vary widely, and the Anglican way allows for taking context into consideration. The Archbishop of Canterbury may very well observe as such aspects of church life develop, and even comment on them, but he lacks the authority to intervene in the decisions about them.

Even so, the ABC does have significant authority, but it is the authority of respect, as bishop of the first diocese organized in what became the Anglican world, Archbishop Rowan being the 104th in that lineage. The Archbishop also presides over the important badies in this world — the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, every ten years, and the Anglican Primates’ Meetings, who meet about every two years. The Archbishop is also ex officio President of the Anglican Consultative Council.

The Archbishop has all the authority necessary for a crucial ministry in the Anglican world, but it is always the authority of respect, affection, persuasion, and faithfulness — qualities typical of any leadership exercised among Anglicans at any level. So I ask that you pray for Archbishop Rowan during this season of transition, for those in England charged with nominating his successor, and for the seventy million Anglicans in the world. I invite you to look forward in anticipation to ministry in communion with the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Read more about the resignation of Archbishop Williams from the Episcopal News Service.


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