Thomas McKenzie
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Mysteries of Anglican Governance, Part One

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How Did Primates Learn to Vote?, And Other Mysteries of Anglican Governance

Last week, a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion was held in Canterbury, England. Most of the time, no one except Anglican Bloggers and Geeks care about such things. However, in this case, USA Today, CNN, and a host of other media outlets reported the story. Many of these reports were confusing, vague, sensationalistic, and/or misleading.

I have received several e-mails from folks in our church who are confused about what happened. I’ve had everything from “inside baseball” level technical questions to “how can primates vote?" (which was a joke, but not far from a really good question). 

As all of this is happening, our own Diocese is going through some changes. Canon Mary Hays recently stepped down from her position, and our bishop will be retiring in the summer. Also, our neighbor to the south (St. John’s in Franklin) is beginning the process of finding a new pastor. With all this going on, I thought it might be a good time to address Anglican Church governance. 

I’ll be e-mailing and posting a series of short articles over the next few weeks on this topic. As I post, if you have follow up questions, please e-mail me. I’d love to hear from you. 


Part One: Framework.


The Parish

Most people experience the Church at the local level through their congregation, which is often called a “parish.” In most Anglican churches, there’s a pastor called a rector or vicar. This person is an ordained priest, similar to an elder in the New Testament. At Redeemer, that's me, Fr. Thomas McKenzie. 

The rector is responsible to teach the Word of God and celebrate the sacraments. The rector oversees worship, discipleship, pastoral care, and all other spiritual matters of the local congregation. He or she is the leader most responsible for setting and keeping the vision of the parish. 

Some Anglican churches have more than one priest on staff. The priests may be full-time, part-time, or even volunteers. In any case, there is only one rector, and all other staff members serve at the pleasure of the rector. The main exception would be a case in which a rector has not yet been hired, or one has left. In that case the vestry (what Redeemer calls the “Council of Elders”) would be responsible for every aspect of the congregation’s day-to-day life until a new rector is found.

Each local congregation has a team of lay leaders, usually called the vestry. This group is usually elected by the members of the congregation, though they may be appointed. The number of people on this team, how they come to serve, and how long they serve varies from place to place. A vestry will often meet once a month. 

The vestry should share with the rector in the leadership of the congregation. One of the ways they do this is to oversee the finances and physical property of the church. They should also serve in ministry, making sure that God’s work is being done. 

The Diocese

Parishes are typically linked to one another as members of a diocese. Historically, dioceses have been located in a single geographic area. With the rapid change taking place in the Anglican Church in the past couple of decades, there are several dioceses in North America that are non-geographical. Redeemer is part of the Diocese of Pittsburgh for this reason.

Sometimes, more than one diocese has a congregation in the same geographical area. In the past, there would have been one Anglican diocese in Nashville. Today, there are several Anglican dioceses or networks with congregations in our metropolitan area. I hope that this situation will someday be resolved, and we’ll have one unified diocese. 

The diocese is led by a bishop. Our bishop is the Right Reverend Robert Duncan. He is the pastor of the diocese. The diocese may have assistant bishops, along with priests, deacons, and others on staff as well. There are committees that serve the diocese, including one that acts very much like the vestry of a parish. Committees do important things like manage finances, prepare people for ordination, and oversee a variety of ministries. 

Most dioceses have a certain level of democracy. There’s often an annual meeting in which representatives of the parishes gather to help make important decisions.

The bishop is your head pastor. He’s responsible for spiritual care, correct theological teaching, appropriate leadership, and healthy worship. He casts the vision and leads the leaders.

The Province

Anglican dioceses are members of a province. A province is a collection of dioceses, organized together, and independent of other Anglican provinces. Provinces are associated with large geographic areas, usually countries. Sometimes, provinces have missionary dioceses and congregations in other parts of the world. Our Province is called The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). 

A province is led by a primate (pronounced PRI-muht, not PRI-mate). A primate is a bishop who leads a province of the Anglican Communion; his title is usually “archbishop.” Our archbishop is the Most Reverend Foley Beach. He serves as the spiritual head of the province. An archbishop is chosen from the bishops of the province. Most have a term limit. Archbishops are answerable to the remaining bishops in their province. They have substantial and ongoing collegial relationships with the other Anglican primates. 

The Anglican Communion is made up of these independent provinces, each with its own primate. The primates together, along with several committees, help to maintain relationships within the communion. The Primate of England is called the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has no direct power over other provinces, but he does have historical influence. He serves as the figurehead of the communion, and many Anglicans look to him for leadership and guidance. 

In the next article, I'll write about the recent unpleasantness in the Anglican Communion, and why there are now at least two teams of primates.

Thomas McKenzie