Project Canterbury

The Canterbury Patriarchate

chapter VI of Essays and Letters on Orders & Jurisdiction
[Longmans, 1925]

by F.W. Puller, SSJE

At the recent Synod of the diocese of Capetown [1] two constitutional questions of great interest and importance were discussed. Of these, the question of the retention of the third Proviso in the first Article of the Constitution has perhaps attracted the most attention. That question depended for its solution on the view which might be taken of the relations which ought to exist between the Church and the State. The other question that was brought into debate was of a less mixed character, and related to matters connected with the internal organization of the Church. These matters of internal ecclesiastical organization are perhaps of less interest to the general public, but it is of great importance that they should be studies by thoughtful Churchmen both at home and in the colonies, for the rapid growth of the Anglican communion will necessarily bring them more and more to the front.

The Synod at Capetown was asked to give its assent to the following proposition : That is is an accordance with the law of the Church's organization, that all branches of a National Church should be subject to the supreme ecclesiastical Head of that Church, whether called Patriarch or Primate, or by whatever other title." The Synod was also asked to declare [2] that the See of Canterbury is a see possessing Patriarchal powers, and that the diocese of Capetown forms part of the Canterbury Patriarchate. The Resolution which embodies these various propositions, and which has been given below in the note, was negatived in the lay house by a considerable majority. A discussion of the whole Resolution would take up more space than could be conveniently afforded in this Paper. I propose therefore to leave on one side all those parts of the Resolution which have to do with local South African matters, and to confine myself to those more fundamental clauses which deal with subjects affecting the whole Anglican Communion, and in a measure the whole Catholic Church.

What I have to say may be ranged under two heads. First I shall try to show that the idea of a universal Patriarchal system forming part of the authoritative custom and law of the Catholic Church is a fallacious idea, having no solid ground in history and Church legislation. And, secondly, I shall attempt to disprove the notion that the See of Canterbury has any claim to be considered Patriarchal.

I. I believe that it will be very generally admitted that not long after the death of St. John the Church found herself organized on the lines of a system of independent provinces, each province being headed by an independent (autocephalous) primus or metropolitan. Bishop Beveridge gas tried to show from the canonical books of the New Testament that this provincial system was in force during the Apostles' lifetime, and Bishop Cotterill, of Edinburgh, in his "Genesis of the Church," arrives, if I remember rightly, at a similar conclusion. But whether or no the system of provinces was established during the Apostolic age, there can, I think be no reasonable doubt, that in the second century of our era the provincial organization had been accepted in most if not all parts of the Catholic Church. The discussions on the Paschal controversy took place in Provincial Synods, and in those Synods the Bishops of the metropolitans sees as a rule presided. I suppose that no one will seriously contend that during the Ante-Nicene age any traces of a Patriarchal system can be discovered. It may indeed be granted that before the Council of Nicaea the See of Carthage had acquired quasi-Patriarchal powers over the various provinces of North Africa. In North Africa the senior Bishop of each province presided over the Synod of the province, while the Bishop of the see located in the civil metropolis of the province had no special authority or pre-eminence. If the North African provinces had been autocephalous, such an arrangement would soon have been found inconvenient in all transactions involving communications with the Churches of Europe and Asia. It would be far easier for foreign Bishops to keep up a correspondence with the Bishop of a fixed see, known to all the faithful as the presiding see, than to be sending messengers to small towns situated in the interior of Numidia of Mauritania, in which the Bishop might happen for the time being to be the senior Bishop of the Province. Accordingly the See of Carthage retained the primacy over all North Africa; and the Bishop of Carthage not only presided over his own home province; but he also summoned plenary Synods of the whole North African Church, which were attended by the provincial primates and their suffragans. Here we have the germ of a real Patriarchate. But in the Ante-Nicene age this Patriarchal arrangement was peculiar to North Africa. Special causes led to a special type of organization, Elsewhere the metropolitan Bishops had no ordinary hierarchical superior. No doubt the influence of the different Metropolitans varied very considerably. Most of them presided over the Bishops of a single civil province ; but in Egypt one ecclesiastical province included several civil provinces, and in Southern Italy the ecclesiastical Province of Rome extended over all the ten suburbicarian provinces of the Empire. Nevertheless the jurisdiction of Rome and Alexandria was distinctly Metropolitan and not Patriarchal. There were no subordinate Metropolitans or Primates subject to those powerful sees. The system was a provincial system, though the provinces might vary in size. I will sum up what I have said on this head by referring to a very unexceptionable witness, viz. Balsamon. I call Balsamon an unexceptionable witness because his surroundings would have tended, I think,. to make him ultra-Patriarchal in his theories. He was himself a Patriarch, occupying, as he did, the See of Antioch. Moreover, he was a Patriarch of the Eastern Church at a time when the whole of the Church in the Eastern Empire, with the exception of Cyprus, was organized in a system of Patriarchates. There would have been no cause for astonishment if one had found Balsamon representing the Patriarchal system as the original and primitive system of the Church. But as a matter of fact Balsamon says that up to the time of the second Oecumenical Council, held in A.D. 38I, all Metropolitans were autocephalous and subject to no other Prelate as their Head. [3] In confirmation of this view reference may be made to the fact that the Council of Nicaea recognizes the Provincial Synod as the final court of appeal for all causes.

It was the second and fourth of the Oecumenical Councils which established in the East the Patriarchal system. It is important to notice that the canons of those Councils, which near on the subject, had reference to the Eastern Empire only. There is no trace of any attempt to divide the whole Church into Patriarchates, and this top put an end to the original independence of the separate provinces. The Bishops who met at Constantinople and Chalcedon were almost all Eastern Bishops, and their legislative action, so far as it had to do with discipline, has reference to the East, and to the East only. The Council of Constantinople decreed that the Bishops of the Patriarchate (dioikesis) of Pontus shall settle the affairs of Pontus, and those of Thrace the affairs of Thrace, and those of Asia the affairs of Asia. And the Council of Chalcedon, while granting an appeal from the Metropolitan to the Exarch or Patriarch, gives as an alternative the right to appeal to the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople. The alternative shows how purely Eastern the whole arrangement was. No one, of course, dreamed of granting an appeal from Spain or Britain to Constantinople. It would be easy, I think, to show that the East originally adopted the Patriarchal system as a balance to the Imperial power, although the Emperors were not slow to discover methods by which they used the system as an instrument for enslaving the Church. But it must be borne in mind that even in the East all Patriarchal power rested on positive legislation only. Certain particular groups of provinces were by legislation subordinated to some particular presiding see; but outside of those specially named groups, the original independence of provinces remained. Cyprus, for example, and Iberia (i.e. Georgia) were autocephalous, not by the grant of any privilege, but by the common law of the Church confirmed by the Great Council of Nicaea, and afterward in the case of Cyprus reconfirmed by the Council of Ephesus. Hence it follows that, even if we limit ourselves to Eastern precedents, the provinces of the Anglican Communion must be presumed to be autocephalous, unless definite legislation can be produced subordinating them to some Patriarchal See. The onus probandi lies on the deniers of provincial independence.

But it is when we turn to the West that the fallaciousness of the theory of a universal Patriarchate system stands out in the clearest light. In two parts of the West only was there anything like a Patriarch. As I have already pointed out, North Africa was organized as a quasi-Patriarchate even in Ante-Nicene times; and the Apostolic See of Rome was undoubtedly more powerful than any Patriarchal see, wherever situated. But, nevertheless, Rome had no true Patriarchal status. Rome held a primacy of honour and of influence, though not of jurisdiction, throughout the whole Church, but Patriarchate she had none, at any rate by Church law. The ten suburbicarian provinces were subordinated to the Pope, as their Metropolitan, not as their Patriarch. The other Western Provinces were autocephalous. There was no Patriarch in Western [4] Illyricum, nor in North Italy, nor in Spain, nor in Gaul, nor in Britain. It is no doubt true that some modern writers have drawn up lists of Patriarchal Sees in the West, assigning one such see to each of these divisions in the Empire, but these lists are the mere inventions of systematizers, and rest ion no historical basis whatever. We are told, for example, the Patriarchal See of Gaul was established at Lyons, or at Arles, or at Trier, or at Vienne. We may be quite sure that if there had been a real Gallican Patriarch, history would very soon make clear to us the situation of his throne.

As time went on the Pope began to claim powers which would have given him a right to the title of Patriarch of the whole West; and in furtherance of his plans he was accustomed to delegate from tie to time quasi-Patriarchal powers to the individual occupiers of certain special sees. Thus for some centuries the Bishops of Thessalionica were individually made the Pope's Vicars in Eastern Illyricum, and for a shorter period the Bishops of Arles were the Pope's Vicars in Gaul; and similarly St. Augustine of Canterbury was made Vicar during his lifetime in Britain, though it was expressly provided that the Vicarial authority should cease at his death. But these Vicariates differed altogether from real Patriarchates. They rested on no basis of synodical authority, still less on immemorial usage. It was not the see which enjoyed an ordinary Patriarchal jurisdiction, but it was the individual occupier of the see, who at the Pope's pleasure receive d very limited measure of delegated jurisdiction, a jurisdiction which the Roman Pontiff claimed the right to withdraw, and which he really had no right to give.

The ecclesiastical history of the West bears witness to the old Catholic system of independent provinces, which gradually and after many centuries of struggle succumbed to the Papal claims. This result was brought about by various causes, among which the interference of the civil power and the forgeries of the Pseudo-Isidore hold a prominent place.

One the whole, whether we look to the East or to the West, it seems utterly untrue to say that it is "in accordance with the law of the Church's organization, that all branches of a National Church should be subject to the supreme ecclesiastical Head of that Church, whether called Patriarch or Primate, or by whatever title." It would be nearer the truth to say that it is in accordance with the law and custom of the Church that all provinces of the Catholic Church should be independent, except in those cases in which by special conciliar legislation they have been subjected to some Patriarchal See.

2. I proceed now to consider the allegation that Canterbury is a Patriarchal See. And first I would point out that, when the See of Canterbury was first founded by St. Augustine, acting under the authority of St. Gregory the Great, it was not designed to be a see enjoying Patriarchal or Primatial powers. St. Gregory intended that there should be two metropolitan sees in England, co-ordinate one with the other. One of these sees was to be established at York, the other at London. As a matter of fact the circumstances attending the beginnings of Christianity among the English led to the establishment of a Southern metropolis at Canterbury, instead of at London. But the accidental change of the place in no way resulted in any change in the plan. St. Gregory's words are express, that the Bishop of York is to preside over the Bishops of his province, whom he is to ordain, and is in no way to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London (ita . . . ut Lundoniensis Episcopi nullo modo ditioni subjaceat").

So far as I have been able to discover, there is no trace in any genuine document of any subordination of the Archbishop of York to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the whole of what may be called the Saxon period. All the available evidence points to a relation of equality as existing between the two metropolitan sees. For example, in the year 634 Pope Honorius sent two palls, one for Honorius of Canterbury, and the other for Paulinus of York; and in the letter accompanying the palls, addressed to Edwin, King of Northumbria, the Pope speaks of "utrorumque metropolitanorum," and declares that whichever of the two survives the other is to consecrate a successor to fill the vacant throne. St. Bede, describing this arrangement, puts the two prelates on an equality, and says : "Is qui superest, consors ejusdem gradus habeat potestam alterum ordinandi." Another fact, bearing on this matter, may be noticed. A series of documents has been preserved, in which are recorded the professions of faith and obedience made by various Bishops to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Saxon times; but among them all there is no genuine instance of a profession of obedience made by an Archbishop of York to the Archbishop of Canterbury, as his Primate or Patriarch. It is true that Collier refers to a profession of obedience made by Eadulf of York to Ethelheard of Canterbury, in A.D. 796, and the document is printed in Haddan and Stubbs, but Bishop Stubbs, [5] in a note, says :

"Bishop Eadulf is called in this document 'Eboracensis' but the word is clearly an interpolation inserted to uphold the claims of Canterbury to the obedience of York in the eleventh century. The only Archbishops of York who were contemporaneous with Ethelheard were the two Eanbalds, who were never subject to Canterbury. . . . There can be no doubt that Eadulf was the Bishop of Lindsey of that name."

It was not until after the conquest that Canterbury put forth a claim to exercise primatial jurisdiction over York. This claim was discussed in the year 1072, at the two Councils of Winchester and Windsor, and finally judgement was given in favour of Canterbury. Let us consider the events which prepared the way for this result. More than two centuries had elapsed since the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals had been forged and published. One main object of those decretals was to depress the status and power of Metropolitans. Among other devices for the accomplishment of this end, the forger invented an order of Primates, which he interposed between the Metropolitans and the Pope. He probably took the idea from the Chalcedonian canons about Exarchs, which, as we have seen, were intended to apply to the Eastern Empire only. Anyhow, from whatever source the idea was taken, it was introduced to the west by the Pseudo-Isidore. It was a long time, however, before the system of the Forged Decretals was reduced to practice. But at the time of the Norman Conquest Hildebrand was the leading spirit at Rome, and Hildebrand's conception of Church government was based on the system of the Decretals. It was undoubtedly the Hildebrandine movement which caused primacies to spring up like mushrooms. Thus Canterbury was declared to have primatial jurisdiction in 1072 ; Lyons obtained the primacy over Gaul in 1079 ; Toledo over Spain in 1088 ; Lunden over Scandinavia in 1150. Anyone who will take the trouble to study Hildebrand's letter to Gebuinus, Archbishop of Lyons, in which he defines that Lyons has primatial jurisdiction over the four provinces of Lyons, Rouen, Tours, and Sens, will see that the Pope's decision was based entirely upon the Forged Decretals. These Decretals supplied the ideal of ecclesiastical organization to the great Churchmen of that age, and we can therefore quite understand that Lanfranc, when he left his monastery at Caen, and came over to England, was prepared to find that Canterbury exercised or ought to exercise primatial jurisdiction over the whole island. Very probably the claim made by Lanfranc would have been rejected, if the old English traditions had been securely guarded. But the Conqueror had filled most of the English sees with Norman ecclesiastics, who had no traditional knowledge of the relations which had previously existed between the two English metropolitan thrones, and consequently the centralizing policy of Lanfranc was pushed on to a successful issue, unchecked by any solid conservative opposition.

But although there can be no doubt that it was the Isidorian forgeries which suggested the Primatial idea to Lanfranc, yet as a matter of fact it was not to them that he appealed in the two Councils which authoritatively established the validity of his claim. At Winchester and Windsor the case for Canterbury was based on purely English precedents. It was proved from the Ecclesiastical History of St. Bede that Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury had presided at a Council at York, and had exercised jurisdiction north of the Humber. But it was forgotten that there was no Archbishop of York until two years after the death of St. Bede. Before that time all England was organized into one ecclesiastical province. It is true that the Pope sent a pall to St. Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, but before he received it, he had been driven by the heathen Mercians from his see, and he spent the remainder of his life as Bishop of Rochester. After that, the country north of the Humber was re-evangelized by the Celtic missionaries from Iona, who had a peculiar monastic organization of their own in which provinces and Metropolitans and Archbishops found no place. Then, when the Celtic peculiarities were finally given up, the Northumbrian diocese were subject to the metropolitan jurisdiction of Canterbury for about seventy years, and it was not until the year 735 or 736 that York at length became an archiepiscopal see. As St. Bede died just before that event too place, it was from the nature of the case impossible that any trace should be found in his History of the subjection of Metropolitan at York to a Primate at Canterbury. Thus the evidence from Bede fails to establish the point, in support of which it was alleged by Lanfranc; and if the case were re-argued now that evidence would certainly be set aside as irrelevant. However, the eleventh century was not a critical age, and there is nothing astonishing in the fact that Lanfranc's claim was admitted by the Councils of Winchester and Windsor. Moreover, Lanfranc relied on other proofs, which seemed to corroborate the deductions which he drew from Bede. He produced before the two Councils a series of ten documents, which purported to be letters written from the Romish See to various English kings and prelates. One the hypothesis of the genuineness of these letters, the earliest of them was addressed by Boniface IV to Ethelbert, King of Kent, in 610, and the latest by John XIII to St. Dunstan, in the middle of the tenth century. These ten letters agree in representing the see of Canterbury as having all along been intended to exercise a primatial supremacy over York. The letters are given in William of Malmesbury's " Gesta Pontificum." However, there seems to be little doubt that the whole series was forged with the view of establishing Lanfranc's claim. Bishop Stubbs' [6] has shown that they differ " irreconcileably" from the genuine Papal letters given by Bede, and he concludes that their own genuineness is " exceedingly questionable." It would seem, therefore, that the whole of Lanfranc's case breaks down, and the synodical decision in his favour appears to have been based on a series of mistakes. For the time, however, Canterbury was triumphant and St. Anselm, who succeeded Lanfranc, was addressed by Urban II as "Papa alterius orbis." But after a while York recovered its original independence, and it retains that independence to the present day.

It is, of course, perfectly within the right of anyone to argue that it would be a desirable thing to invest the see of Canterbury with the Patriarchal status and jurisdiction, and that it would be well to subordinate to Canterbury, as Patriarch, all the provinces of the Anglican Communion, or at any rate all the Anglican provinces within the political boundaries of the British Empire. For myself, if I may venture to express an opinion, I very much doubt the wisdom of such an arrangement. But that question was not brought before the Capetown Synod, and, therefore, I refrain from pursuing it any further.

The claim on behalf of the see of Canterbury, which was pressed on the Synod's acceptance, was, not that it would be well to invest it hereafter with Patriarchal authority, but that it was already in legitimate possession of that authority, and that it was the duty of the South African province to affirm its allegiance to the Archbishop as its "supreme ecclesiastical Head." Various results of a revolutionary nature were to follow from such recognition.

I venture to hope that most English Churchmen will feel thankful that the Synod so emphatically negatived these very radical proposals, and further that it distinctly repudiated the unhistorical theory which was set forth as their theoretical justification.


[I] Reference is made to the diocesan Synod of Capetown held in 1884.

[2] The full text of the Resolution submitted to the Synod ran as follows: "That this Synod, believing it to be in accordance with the law of the Church's organization, that all branches of a National Church should be subject to the supreme ecclesiastical Head of that Church, whether called Patriarch or Primate, or by whatever other title, and recognizing in the origin of the Church of this Province, in the Nationality of at least four of its Dioceses and in the submission of its Metropolitan to the Archbishop of Canterbury by the oath taken at his consecration, sufficient proofs that the supreme ecclesiastical Head of the Church of England is according to the Church's custom and law the supreme ecclesiastical Head of the Church in this Diocese, hereby affirms its allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and its determination to claim from him, as by canonical right, all such offices as can be exercised by a Patriarch towards his subject Churches."

[3] See Bingham's Antiquities, ii. xvii. 7 : Works, vol i. p. 201, n. 41.

[4] In later times, during the schism of the Three Chapters, the Illyrian schismatics established a Patriarchate at Aquileia. The memory of this arrangement still survives in the titular Patriarchate of Venice.

[5] Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, iii. 506, 507.

[6] Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, vol. iii. p. 66.

Project Canterbury