Rowan Williams Addresses Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius on Primacy

Report from the Conference, “Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury, Mother Churches?” Sponsored by The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius

Held at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, June 4 through June 7, 2008.


I have been attending a really fascinating conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York the last few days. The topic of the conference has been the meaning of mother churches for the identity of local churches and how primacy is to be properly understood. There have been Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican speakers including such luminaries as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Bishop Keith Ackerman and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I hope to put up a summary of the conference at a later time. This morning we were addressed by Fr. Jonathan Goodall, the chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who read us a paper by Rowan Williams which the Archbishop had hoped to give in person. Rowan Williams has belonged to the society of St. Alban and St. Sergius since he was nineteen and is a patron of the society which exists to promote ecumenical fellowship between the Eastern and Western churches. Below I am putting up some quick impressions of this talk. It bears importantly on the crisis of authority in Anglicanism. As of yet I do not see the text of the talk on the internet. MP3s of all the talks are available at

Rowan Williams’ paper read by Fr. Goodall was extremely clear and lucid. It began with greetings to the society and a commendation of the theme of the conference, the meaning of primacy. “The subject matter could hardly be more timely.” The ABC repeatedly made the point that every church is a daughter church except the church in Jerusalem. Each church receives the Gospel from elsewhere and this dependence on that which is received is vital because it reminds each local church that it is not self-sufficient.

There followed a recommendation of the communion ecclesiology of John Zizioulas and others which emphasizes the church as local Eucharistic fellowship gathered around a bishop and which critiques institutional and bureaucratic understandings of church authority. “The church is not an organization controlled from a single point.” However, the ABC went on to say in his paper that “the pendulum has swung too far.” Communio ecclesiology is sometimes taken in a way that encourages an understanding of the church which misses the necessary interdependence of local churches and their existence in an economy of giving and receiving the Gospel. “One bishop is no bishop.” I didn’t get the exact words in my notes but the ABC said in effect that one local church is not the church, again stressing the interdependence of churches.

The paper continued with a reflection on the role of the bishop and of primacy. “The bishop sustains and nourishes his churches’ dependence on the larger church especially as the celebrant of the catholic oblation.” “Identification of primacy apart from the fellowship of all the bishops is questionable.” Primacy should be exercised in terms of sharing the gift of the Gospel and the Spirit. The exercise of the primatial office in the promulgation of a Gospel that cannot be shared outside of the context of one local church and culture is a contradiction of the office of episcopacy and primacy and this is a problem on both the left and the right in Anglicanism.

The paper then went on to criticize Roman Catholic conflation of primacy with legalism and juridicalism and the rigidity of the Orthodox limitation of primacy to the ancient sees. He critiqued Anglican understandings of primacy for not having thought through the necessary structures that would be required to allow an appropriate primacy to work and for the consequent inadequacy of the current structures of church discipline. He urged all three traditions to rethink episcopacy and primacy in terms of mission.

This is my best reconstruction on the basis of my notes. I will be happily corrected by others who were in attendance or by the subsequent publication of the text. It was a very lucid and well reasoned paper that gave an encouraging display of Rowan Williams talents as a theologian. It was also very clear and not couched in excessive theological jargon. In my view though no explicit mention was made of the American House of Bishops, the vision of the church and the episcopacy and primatial ministry that was outlined in this paper describe recent actions of the House of Bishops of TEC, beginning with the consent to the ordination of Gene Robinson and subsequently, as culpably communion breaking and a contradiction of the proper role of bishops in the church. In Rowan Williams’ ecclesiology as articulated in this paper there is no room for such unilateralism as has been exercised by the American church. How the ecclesiology of Rowan Williams the theologian is expressed in the actions of Rowan Williams the primate remains to be seen. I pray that this paper represents a vision for which he is willing to give the most robust leadership in the coming weeks.

5 thoughts on “Rowan Williams Addresses Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius on Primacy

  1. Dr Harding,

    The Orthodox internet radio station Ancient Faith Radio has an MP3 audio file of Abp Williams’s paper (as read by Canon Goodall) available for download here (along with all of the other excellent lectures given at the Fellowship conference).

    So far as I know there are no transcripts of the talks available, but all of them are available as MP3s.

  2. The good archbishop is very wrong if he holds the view that “the consent to the ordination of Gene Robinson and subsequently, as culpably communion breaking and a contradiction of the proper role of bishops in the church”. For sure it was the invention of women priests ( started by the Americans and embraced by archbishop Rowan) that was the first “crack in the communion”. The two heresies go together and are both children of a post-modern theology/anthropology.

  3. Anthony I disagree with you. The agreement to allow women priests and also to allow them access to the Episcopacy was done through proper ecclesiological channels via the “Instruments of Unity.” It was there decided that it should be allowed, but not forced.

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