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A Still More Excellent Way: Authority and polity in the Anglican Communion, by Alexander Ross

04 June 2021

Christopher Hill looks at an ecclesiology, or possibly even two

ALEXANDER ROSS researched under the former Archbishop of Canterbury and is now a parish priest in Melbourne. Rowan Williams in the Preface describes the book as “an indispensable point of reference” for future Anglican work on the Church.

The book first gives an historical overview of the development of provinces, ancient and within the Anglican Communion. Second, Ross poses the important question whether provincial structures would not be a better way forward than either enhanced Primatial or national church structures.

Ross highlights Anglican confusion in terms of the word province and its current elision with the notion of a “national” Church. He traces the emergence of the supervisory part played by the metropolitan sees of the great cities of late Antiquity, as illustrated by Canon 4 of the Council of Nicaea.

English history is shown to embody the provincial principle with the emergence of its two provinces. The Reformation in effect “nationalised” the Church and displaced papal supremacy as the supra-provincial power in England. Royal supremacy, however, was never going to work in the post-colonial Anglican Communion.

Ross traces the fascinating story of the establishment (by 1835) of the metropolitical see of Calcutta. Created by Crown letters patent, powers of correctional visitation over the dioceses of Madras and Bombay were explicitly included.

He then tells the little-known story of William Broughton, first bishop of Australia, who in 1847 was given wider provincial jurisdiction. In 1850, Broughton called together the bishops of his province in a conference at which the royal supremacy in the colonies was questioned.

The better-known story of the clash between Gray of Cape Town and Colenso of Natal is retold with praise (unusually) going to Gray by reason of his articulation of ecclesial autonomy as against Colenso’s purely Erastian arguments. The Privy Council somewhat naturally agreed with Colenso, but from this decision there eventually emerged an autonomous, synodical, Province.

Ross debunks the term “national Church” as significant ecclesiologically. He notes its general use in Lambeth Conferences up to the 1930s, but after the Second World War nationalism of any kind was less favoured. Even so, there is continued confusion between provincial, regional, and national descriptions of the Church. Ross examines the tension between “independence” (an inheritance of the nation-state) and “interdependence” (an aspect of communion). He also looks at how Anglican Churches define their relationship (if at all) to the see of Canterbury.

Next comes consideration of the significance of Primates, quoting J. M. Neale on the extreme vagueness of Primatial authority in the medieval Church. And so to the “new” Primates’ Meetings of the Anglican Communion. Ross discerns the “rise of the Primates” as a related phenomenon to that of the “national Church”. He does not go into the pros and cons of the proposed Covenant, though his work is relevant to it.

Ross examines, as a case study, the structure of the Australian Church, in which diocesan authority is stronger than either provincial or national jurisdiction. It was the response to the safeguarding crisis in Australia, specifically the work of the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which forced action by the regional Australian church provinces, especially Victoria, instead of responses by separate dioceses.

Finally, Ross hints (but no more) that an enhanced provincial model might be a better way forward for the Anglican Communion than either Primates or complete national independence. Could provincial structures better articulate regional Anglican experience? But this is no quick fix to the current challenges of the Anglican Communion.

The questions that Ross asks are also relevant to the Church of England, where recent years have seen an increasing emphasis on the “national institutions”. Yet, when intervention has been necessary in dioceses, it has been effected by the ancient provincial power of metropolitical visitation.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a Consultant to ARCIC III and a former Bishop of Guildford.


A Still More Excellent Way: Authority and polity in the Anglican Communion
Alexander Ross
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £52

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