The Anglican Church is not hierarchical in the way that the Roman Catholic Church is. In many respects the churches look alike. We both have Bishop’s, Priests, and Deacons. We have Prelates. Anglicans have an Archbishop of Canterbury and Roman Catholics have a Pope. Anglicans have Primates and Roman Catholics have Cardinals. In form both look quite similar, but in function there are significant differences. The main difference between the churches has to do with the understanding and exercise of authority. The Pope has positional authority. Our Archbishop of Canterbury has very little positional authority.
What the Archbishop of Canterbury has is Moral Authority. People are often amazed that the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot tell the Bishop of London to censure a renegade priest. That is the job of the Bishop of London, who himself is constrained if the Priest in question is a Rector of a Parish. Anglicanism has the form of a hierarchical church but not the function. This is part of the genius of Anglicanism. It can seem a weakness when things go awry, but when things are going well it is a wonderful feature.
Bishops and Archbishops are not without authority. They enjoy a great deal of “Moral Authority”. If a Bishop asks a priest to do something or to stop doing something, the priest takes such a request seriously. We call this respect various things including the “bonds of affection”. We are not bound into a common life by rules, regulations, and positional authority. We enter a common life with a spirit of support and submission. Anglicanism is a relationship. It is an ecclesial expression of Jesus’ new commandment that we “love one another”. Of course all churches seek to do this, but the very health and well being of Anglicanism is dependent on our willingness and ability to do this.
The exercise of Moral Authority is gentle because it cannot be otherwise. Moral Authority is about persuasion and an appeal to love. It cannot be otherwise. For 500 years the Anglican Church grew and thrived without a way to censure a branch of the church. That is really quite amazing when you think about it. There is a way that Moral Authority is exercised. It is done in love and as gracefully as possible. Usually it is done privately to avoid scandal or embarrassment. My ordaining bishop needed to be removed from office. The Archbishop of Canada visited him and requested his resignation and retirement. It was a private visit. It was not a secret visit. It was done quietly. The bishop retired. There was no scandal. This is how moral authority is traditionally exercised in the Anglican Communion. Only when the Moral Authority is rebuffed do things escalate.
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
Recently we learned that the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a private letter to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church asking her “to to consider absenting herself from meetings of the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee and the Primates Meeting in light of the Episcopal Church’s violation of the moratoria on gay bishops and blessings,” (From George Conger) That is how Moral Authority is exercised in the Anglican Communion. Regrettably, The Archbishop of Canterbury has been rebuffed. This means he must now find a slightly more public way to exercise authority while preserving as far as is possible the bonds of affection.
This very Anglican way of living together is a source of frustration in times of discord and a wonderful and entrepreneurial gift in times of peace. Innovation comes from the fringes of organizations. Within Anglicanism local initiative is encouraged. Parishes are free to find innovative solutions to ministry challenges. Diocese are free to shape themselves to best serve their environment. Entire Provinces are free to find their way to follow Jesus Christ. There are limits of course to this freedom. When a church, a diocese, or a province goes too far we rely on the bonds of affection and the exercise of Moral Authority to bring us back into a harmonious communion.