‘Servant leadership’: an interview with Archbishop Fred Hiltz on the primate’s role

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"The primate’s ministry is to always be attentive to how we create a holy spaciousness, so that everybody feels that they have a place in our church," says Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. Photo: Tali Folkins

According to the canons of the Anglican Church of Canada, the primate’s role is to “lead [the church] in discerning and pursuing the mission of God.” To find out the primate’s own view on the nature of his leadership, the Anglican Journal sat down with Archbishop Fred Hiltz, who has served as primate since 2007, to hear his own thoughts on the role. This interview has been edited for brevity.

How would you describe the authority of the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada?

It’s not based on jurisdiction. I think the authority of the primate is relational, and that you are given some authority at installation to be—to the best of your ability, and by the grace of God—a kind of locus of unity for our church. That’s very daunting. In my experience, it’s tied to the ministry of encouragement and of always reminding the church of the big picture, of the New Testament vision of the church— that it is essentially the body of Christ, and insofar as we have structures, that those structures have to serve the gospel.

Some would say there’s an authority of suasion, or persuasion, and a kind of moral authority to hold the church accountable for values, habits, disciplines, and practices that are in keeping with the gospel. The other authority, I think, that’s vested in the office of the primate is around enabling the church to know its vocation to be in and for the world. And so the canon on the primacy talks about the primate writing prophetically to the church and the world. The social justice issues, the moral issues of our time—the church expects the primate will write with some degree of authority to address those issues.

When you say the primate’s authority isn’t based on jurisdiction, do you mean the primate doesn’t have the power to discipline?

Yes—that’s all the work of the diocesan bishops and metropolitans. The primate’s ministry is to always be attentive to how we create a holy spaciousness, so that everybody feels that they have a place in our church.

How does the primate actually do that?

In my experience, through your preaching and teaching; through your visits to parishes and dioceses. People feel like they see in the face and heart of the primate— one hopes—a visible expression of their belonging to the wider church. If people are feeling a bit on the edges, there is, I think, an obligation on the part of the primate to go to those people and hear what their needs are, and then bring those to the wider church. When people are clearly in a conflict, where they’ve gone past the point of being able to talk with one another, then I think there is a role for the primate to say, “Let’s have a conversation, let’s see if we can discern how God might be calling us to move through this time of tension and conflict into a healthier way of being together as the church.”

What has worked when you’ve undertaken this?

Rather than saying, “So here’s what the agenda for the day is,” you kind of open it up and say, “Thank you for coming together. I appreciate that. Now this is your meeting. Let’s figure out together what it is that we think we need to talk about today, what it is that we hope to accomplish today.” And so you create a space in which people feel responding to this invitation was actually worth it. And then at the end of the day you take some time to ask some questions— “Was this day a good day? Was it a holy day? Did you have a holy conversation? Do you feel like you were able to participate in it fully? What do you think we accomplished today, by God’s grace? What more do we need to talk about? Would you like to talk again?” And certainly that’s been my experience with some folks that I’ve met with—we’ve always asked at the end whether we’d like to meet again, and in my experience very many people have said, “Absolutely.”

Is this understanding of authority an attempt to replicate the authority that Archbishop of Canterbury has, as first among equals?

Correct. The ministry of primacy is grounded in that sense of being the first among equals within a particular church. There are varying degrees of authority among the provinces of the Anglican Communion that are given to primates. But historically, in our communion, a primate doesn’t have any capacity for binding authority on any matter of jurisdiction. As the Archbishop of Canterbury is often described as the locus of unity in the Anglican Communion as a whole, so the primate of each province is the locus of unity for that church.

Are there advantages to having a church be led by someone with this kind of authority?

I fully believe that if you look over the history of the Anglican Church of Canada, the “detached” model of primacy has actually served our church very well. The other thing, of course, is that there’s an image of servant leadership in the model we have of the primacy that is really quite unique. The primate cannot just waltz into a diocese; you have to have the permission of the bishop. You are called to serve everybody and you have to be content with the fact that you don’t have the same kind of authority that diocesan bishops have. The primate will do what the primate’s invited to do. When it comes, for instance, to Sacred Circle, you’re a guest—you’re there to listen and learn, and to speak when you’re invited to speak.

Do you think this “servant leadership” reflects in some way the role of Jesus in the gospels? I’m reminded of the image of him washing the feet of his disciples.

You’re exactly in the same headspace I am. Given the nature of primacy in our church—and I can only speak for myself—I have to live out of what’s called the Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel, where Jesus is in the upper room and he washes [the disciples’] feet. And he models servant leadership. And then he teaches them, but he teaches by modelling it. And then once he’s done that, he goes on to talk with them about other things: loving one another, going into the world bearing fruit, fruit that will last. He prays for his own consecration, for their consecration, and for all others who will come to believe through their word.

The beauty of that conversation is that we’re drawn into it. It’s an abiding conversation Christ has with his disciples of every age. I’ve often found myself personally needing to place myself again inside that upper room and hear again what Jesus is saying to the disciples, listening for some fresh insight about the kind of community he wants us to be—not just for our own sake but for the sake of the world for which he is about to stretch out his arms on the cross. The kind of authority that the church invests in the office of the primate—that’s its source, that’s its origin.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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