Since You Asked... October 2001

September 30, 2001

Q: "I'm caught off guard when the rather ancient, archaic English title "primate" is used relating to bishops. It is a word definitely in the old Anglican style, but what meaning does it have today?" 

Canon James Rosenthal, editor of Anglican World magazine and an appointed missionary of the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion Office responds:

A: Primate is, possibly, an unfortunate term. No, it's not a zoological identity, but one designated as primo, first, within a group, in this case the groups being bishops of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of God.

Like all bishops, the primate, pronounced PRI-m't, is rightly charged with being a: witness to the resurrection, teacher, pastor and spiritual leader. Hopefully not just an administrator.

In the Anglican Communion, comprising 38 provinces in more than 150 countries, there are bishops chosen or, in the case of England, appointed, to serve as chief pastor.

Every year, the 38 primates gather at the Primates Meeting, next year in the Diocese of Canterbury, to discuss their respective ministries, in their province and their collective insights for the Anglican Communion.

In some places they are called archbishop, while in others presiding bishop or a variant thereof: prime bishop, primus or obispo primado. Now indeed there are many historical and maybe theological notions that demand such a differing of names, but as a communicator I fear something should be done. Can't we agree on a name? I remember being a deputy to one General Convention that said no to changing the presiding bishop title to archbishop.

Among the primates, there is a chief of the chiefs, or better put the first among equals, primus inter pares. This, of course, is the archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and metropolitan and president of the Anglican Communion. The archbishop calls the Lambeth Conference of all bishops every 10 years and chairs the Primates Meetings.

The functions differ as to the main tasks of the primate. Some always have him as the chief consecrator (of the three needed) of new bishops, others not. All preside over their House of Bishop meetings. Some have a jurisdiction or diocese; others, especially in the United States, do not.

In England, Ireland, Uganda and Southern Africa, the primate is addressed as "Your Grace." Primates are named "The Most Reverend"; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been given the unique honor of "Archbishop Emeritus." Primates carry or have carried before them a primatial cross.

The newest primate is from Australia, Archbishop Peter Carnley, and the longest serving, Lord Robert Eames of Ireland.

Primates need our prayers and deserve our support. The collegiality of the College of Primates is key to the process of our becoming a communion of churches.