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The Archbishop in the Anglican Communion: An Historical Note

The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in relation to the world-wide Anglican Communion has evolved from the ancient and settled role that the archbishop and the diocese of Canterbury had among the dioceses of England. Like other principal sees in the Church's history, Canterbury was looked to as a spokesman for the faith of the Church, a promoter of its mission, and a guardian of its unity. After the Reformation divisions in the Church the scope of the Archbishop's role was slowly and sometimes reluctantly extended alongside the missionary movement that developed into the Anglican Communion.

In 1908 a committee of the Lambeth Conference spoke of 'the universal recognition in the Anglican Communion of the ancient precedence of the see of Canterbury'. It 'owes its far-reaching influence to the spirit in which its experience and wisdom have been placed at the service of the Church in every province and diocese throughout the whole Anglican Communion' said Archbishop Clarke of Melbourne as early as 1924. In the 1968 Lambeth Conference it was argued that 'within the college of bishops it is evident that there must be a president. In the Anglican Communion this position is presently held by the occupant of the historic see of Canterbury, ... this primacy is found to involve, in a particular way, that care for all the churches which is shared by all the bishops.' In the years since the Archbishop has been described as 'the focal point of our communion', and as the bishop who is 'freely recognised as the focus of unity'.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the only individual common to all the instruments of unity as currently configured in the Anglican Communion, namely:

  1. The Lambeth Conferences of Anglican Bishops (first convened in 1867)
  2. The Anglican Consultative Council (constituted in 1969)
  3. The Primates Meeting (first convened in 1979 but evolving from the 'metropolitans' meetings of earlier decades).

He has the right to convene and oversee the Lambeth Conference and the Primates Meeting, and he is the President of the formally constituted Anglican Consultative Council.


See also the Anglican Communion website