Prior to 1979, Anglican primates only met regularly at 10-year intervals at the Lambeth Conference, at which they were bishops among other bishops. The 1978 Lambeth Conference had passed Resolution 12:
Anglican Conferences, Councils and MeetingsIt is not clear just what the bishops at Lambeth had in mind, but the Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan hosted the first meeting of the primates November 26 to December 1, 1979. It was designed to offer an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” Since then, the primates have met about every two years.
The Conference asks the Archbishop of Canterbury, as President of the Lambeth Conference and President of the Anglican Consultative Council, with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion, within one year to initiate consideration of the way to relate together the international conferences, councils, and meetings within the Anglican Communion so that the Anglican Communion may best serve God within the context of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
The 1988 Lambeth Conference passed Resolution 18, “The Anglican Communion: Identity and Authority” The resolution offered a number of recommendations, two of which involved the primates. Resolution 18.2(b) asked that the primates be consulted in the selection of future Archbishops of Canterbury. Resolution 18.2(a) read
[This Conference] Urges that encouragement be given to a developing collegial role for the Primates Meeting under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so that the Primates Meeting is able to exercise an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters.It is perhaps not surprising that a conference of bishops was interested in giving some of their number more authority. In any case, what was being suggested seems far removed from “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.”
The 1998 Lambeth Conference doubled down on this idea. Resolution III.6 reiterated support for Resolution 18.2(2) from 1988 and otherwise recommended a stronger role for primates, including this item b:
[This Conference] asks that the Primates’ Meeting, under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, include among its responsibilities positive encouragement to mission, intervention in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces, and giving of guidelines on the limits of Anglican diversity in submission to the sovereign authority of Holy Scripture and in loyalty to our Anglican tradition and formularies;It was particularly obvious at Lambeth 1998 that there were two camps vying for supremacy. The liberals were concerned about provincial autonomy and were content to coöperate when possible and to tolerate differences where the gulf was unbridgeable. The conservatives sought a more coherent Communion that put clear limits on diversity and provided some enforcement mechanism. Hence, Resolution III.6. The primates seemed to be the best place for the conservatives to place their hopes, since each province essentially had one vote. In the Lambeth Conference, churches like The Episcopal Church were able to send many more bishops than, say, African church with more actual members, thereby giving such churches more clout. Resolution III.6 made it natural for Bishop Robert Duncan and his allies to appeal to the primates when, in 2003, the General Convention granted its consent to consecrate Gene Robinson.
Even before the 2003 “crisis,” however, the conservatives were drawing up their battle plans. This is most easily seen in the collection of essays called To Mend the Net, edited by Archbishop Drexel W. Gomez of the West Indies and retired Bishop Maurice W. Sinclair of what was then called the Southern Cone. The Preface to these 2001 essays lays out the thrust of the volume:
Central to the purpose of this book is the presentation of a proposal for the exercise of the enhanced responsibility [emphasis in original] that successive Lambeth Conferences have asked the Primates Meeting to fulfill.The issues supposedly requiring such enhanced responsibility all have to do with sex. In particular, the Preface cites the the move by the General Convention to make the ordination of women uniformly available throughout the church (presumably a reference to the 2000 Resolution A045); the failure, particularly of The Episcopal Church, “to respond positively” to the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10; and the “placing of non-marital sexual relationships alongside marriage for support by the [presumably Episcopal] Church.” The editors continue,
Such revision of the Christian ethic is unacceptable to a majority of Anglican Provinces and to an important sector within the member church most affected by it. Should it go unchallenged by the Primates’ Meeting, the immediate prospect is of a division within ECUSA leading in its turn to a split in the Communion with the various Provinces lining up on the different sides.This statement seems prescient or prophetic or, as I suggested earlier, simply the militant traditionalist battle plan.
The primates did mount a challenge, at least to the consecration of a partnered gay bishop. In the emergency meeting of the primates in 2003, they recommended a study that would result in The Windsor Report in 2004. Windsor contained this in section 104:
Like the other Instruments of Unity, however, the Primates’ Meeting has refused to acknowledge anything more than a consultative and advisory authority. In part, it is the task of the present Commission to consider proposals made at the Lambeth Conferences in 1988 and 1998, and reiterated in To Mend the Net, for the primates to have an “enhanced responsibility [emphasis in original] in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters”.Under the circumstances, it should not have been surprising when, in 2006, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams appointed Archbishop Gomez to head the Covenant Design Group, which was to draw up an Anglican Covenant as called for in the Windsor Report. This was yet another indication that Rowan Williams, though supposedly a liberal, held Communion unity, at however great a price, as a higher goal than being able to act on his personal beliefs.
Gomez certainly did not achieve everything he might have wanted in the final version of the Anglican Covenant. The Primates’ Meeting was given a good deal of power by the Covenant, but the Standing Committee was tapped to be the ultimate body responsible for recommending “relational consequences” for provincial misbehavior.
The enhanced responsibility given to the primates in the Anglican Covenant, though not as enhanced as the most militant of the traditionalists would like, is set out in Section Four. To date, two resolutions about the Covenant have been proposed to the General Convention that convenes in Salt Lake City next week. (See my post mentioned at the beginning of this essay.) Neither suggests that we want anything to do with Section Four. Because other Communion churches have adopted the Covenant, the Primates’ Meeting will have some enhanced responsibility with respect to them, but, over The Episcopal Church, not so much.