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Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury: Mother Churches?

Thursday 5th June 2008

Message from the Archbishop to a conference on primacy, sponsored by the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius at St Vladimir's Seminar, New York.

Dear Friends in Christ:

I very much regret that I shall not be able to join you for this conference; its subject matter could hardly be more timely, and I hope that your discussions will be creative in a way that can help take forward the whole Church's understanding of this many-layered issue.

At the most basic level, every local church has a 'mother church' except for Jerusalem, where the Risen Jesus first directly establishes the company of witnesses to his resurrection and pours out upon them the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit. From this point on, the church's mission moves outwards, and, as we see in St Paul's epistles, local congregations are equipped by the apostles with the essentials of belief and practice that allow them in turn to become in their own context communities of witness to the Risen Christ.

And one consequence of this is something to which St Paul more than once makes appeal: the life of the local congregation is founded on something received – not discovered or invented. The assembly of Christ's people, Christ's Body, in this place is the result of the active communication of tradition, in its widest and fullest sense (I Cor. 15). For a local church to come into being is for a community to arise that is part of a continuous stream of life being shared.

This may serve as a corrective to the idea that somehow each and every local church is complete and self-sufficient in a narrow and exclusive way. Understandably, the ecclesiology of recent decades, especially among those influenced by the brilliant work of Orthodox thinkers like Nicholas Afanasiev and John Zizioulas, has positioned itself in strong reaction against centralised models of ecclesial life and authority, against a picture of ecclesial unity that is ultimately somewhat secular – the unified organisation controlled from one focal point.

But the pendulum has swung too far if this means we lose sight of the interdependence of local churches and their bishops. The life of the local churches is constituted not only by internal communion, but by the giving and receiving of the gift of the Gospel between them and by the grateful recognition of each other as gifted by Christ to minister his reality to each other (as St Paul insists in II Corinthians). And the fundamental acknowledgement of having received the Gospel from elsewhere is a reminder to each and every local church of this dimension of its life, this gratitude for having heard and received and for being still involved in the economy of giving and receiving in catholic fellowship.

Hence the relation of local churches to a 'mother church' or a 'primatial church' is not a purely antiquarian matter. From very early in the church's history, certain local churches have been recognised as having had a distinctive generative importance. In the ancient Welsh and Irish churches, the great monastic houses from which missions went out were the mother churches for the 'family' of the saint who had founded the monastery; before the continental diocesan structures had arrived in Britain and Ireland, this was the usual form of church life. But this is only a more vivid example of something just as true across the Christian world. A local church is indeed at one level a community to which is given all the gifts necessary for being Christ's Body in this particular place; but among those gifts is the gift of having received the Gospel from others and being still called to receive it. Relation with the history of mission is part of the church's identity.

This, of course, has many implications for our understanding of the bishop's ministry. If it is true that, as Tertullian said, 'one Christian is no Christian', then by the same token we should be able to say, 'one bishop is no bishop', and so 'one local church alone is no church '. A bishop is not an individual who 'represents' the local church as if he is empowered to speak for its local identity like a politician for his constituency. The bishop is above all the person who sustains and nourishes within the local church an awareness of its dependency on the apostolic mission, on the gift from beyond its boundaries, of the Church established by the Risen Lord – and he does this, of course, primarily and irreducibly as the celebrant of the 'Catholic oblation'. Hence, again from the earliest days, the clustering of local churches and their bishops around metropolitan sees which represented the channels through which the Gospel came to be shared; and hence the insistence (an insistence that might almost be called fierce in many instances) that bishops received ordination from their neighbours in the metropolia under the leadership of the local primate – and hence too the seriousness of communicating episcopal election by letter to the region and the severity of the sanction of removing a bishop's name from the formal intercession list.

All of this gives some background for thinking about the character and exercise of primacy today. As this brief sketch suggests, the identification of primacy with a charism of a different order from that of the episcopate at large does not sit easily with this emphasis on the grateful receiving of the Gospel. And the idea that primacy in this sense conferred strictly individual powers on a metropolitan or even a patriarch, independent of his role as convener of the episcopal fellowship or independent of his relation to his own local church, is bound to be questionable. But this model gives little comfort to those who understand the theological equality of all local churches as dictating a structure of 'monadic' communities coexisting without acting upon each other.

Primacy needs to be seen as a sign of the continuing reality of active tradition—that is, the sharing of the gift—as the foundation of each local church. So it should be exercised in the service of the further sharing of the gift; this is why it is problematic if a local church so interprets the gift it has received that it cannot fully share it beyond its own cultural home territory – an issue for both 'left' and 'right' in our churches, I suspect. And a primatial initiative in challenging or seeking to limit local development on these grounds becomes intelligible as part of the service of the 'mother church' to the local – not ignoring or making light of local pressures and needs, but reminding the local assembly and its chief pastor that it must not lose its recognisability or receivability to other communities – across the globe and throughout history.

The problems that in different ways face the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican communions at present show how difficult it is to frame this issue constructively. Roman Catholics are still labouring to discover how to disentangle the missionary apostolic charism of the See of Peter from juridical anomalies and bureaucratic distortion. Orthodox have often 'frozen' the concept of primacy in an antiquarian defence of the 'pentarchy' as the structure of the church, thus allowing non-theological power struggles rooted in nationalism and ethnocentrism to flourish with damaging effect. Anglicans have failed to think through primacy with any theological seriousness and so have become habituated to a not very coherent or effective international structure that lacks canonical seriousness and produces insupportable pluralism in more than one area of the church's practice. All need to rethink the meaning of primacy in relation to mission and in relation to what episcopal fellowship really means. In this connection, the discussion in the recent Anglican-Orthodox Agreed Statement, The Church of the Triune God (2006), especially paragraphs 19 to 23 of the chapter 'Episcope, episcopos, and primacy', is a helpful orientation in tracing the complementary connections between primacy and conciliarity and reception, and merits development in the light of the 34th of the Apostolic Canons, a text increasingly significant in ecumenical dialogue.

This event, reflecting on the meaning of the 'mother church', should clarify something of the dynamic centrality of tradition and the life-giving strangeness of the good news of Jesus as it judges and transfigures our local realities. I wish those gathering at St Vladimir's every blessing in their deliberations; may all that is said and done be for the health and healing of Christ's Body.

+ Rowan Cantuar:

From Lambeth Palace, London

St Boniface, apostle of Germany, 5 June 2008

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