Talk by The Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright, June 5, 2008

Notes on the Talk by The Rev. Canon J. Robert Wright

At St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, June 5, 2008


The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


Fr. Wright has been the professor of Patristics and Liturgy at General Seminary and a major figure in ecumenical dialogues. His paper centered on the history of the primacy of Canterbury.


Fr. Wright started with a quote from the Psalms, “I shall not give my glory to another.” This psalm was invoked by an early holder of the See of Canterbury when it was suggested that the primacy be moved. Today, Fr. Wright said, charity and humility are needed, not pride of place.

In 596-597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Canterbury with the Papal pallium, a form of the stole which signified archepiscopal authority. In 601, Bede refers to Augustine as the Archbishop of Britain. The term Metropolitan was first used at Nicea as outlined in Canon 28. The Metropolitan was to be a bishop chosen by all the bishops of his province and who then had the power to confirm subsequent episcopal elections and to perform the consecrations.

By a Papal decision of 1326 the Archbishop of Canterbury was styled the Primate of all England and the Archbishop of York the primate of England. Diocesan bishops were understood as suffragans or helpers to the primate “forming a college or chapter under his primacy.” Both Archbishops Ramsey and Runcie thought that York and Canterbury had been given providentially to England to keep Canterbury from becoming a papacy.

The Lambeth Conference of 1908 rejects jurisdiction for the Archbishop of Canterbury outside of England. In the language of the conference, “a primacy of honor but not jurisidiction.”

The presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is not styled primate until 1982. The presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is unique in not having a diocesan cure.

Fr. Wright summarized that the Archbishop of Canterbury has had by wide acceptance a primatial role in the Anglican Communion that is similar to the moral and spiritual primacy of the Roman See but dissimilar in that Canterbury claims no universal jurisdiction like Rome.

The paper ended with a summary of ecumenical documents on the Primacy of Rome and noted both Orthodox statements and ARCIC agreed statements that were willing to entertain the possibility of a non-juridical primacy for Rome even before full organic reunion takes place as a sign of unity among Christians. Fr. Wright ended with a provocative proposal that if one of the historic primatial sees of Canterbury, Rome and Constantinople needed to make a sacrificial move in order to allow the emergence of a primate who could speak for a uniting Church, let Canterbury make the first offer as a service to the Church universal.

There were a number of questions that discussed the difference between a diaconal primacy and one that was primarily juridical. Kallistos Ware rose to object to the fundamental distinction saying that he thought the distinction overdrawn and that in Biblical terms that jurisdiction was the authority to exercise one’s diakonia.

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