The Windsor Report 2004: ‘Autonomy’ in the Anglican Communion

by Philip Jones

The report characterises the political-constitutional status of the Anglican Churches as one of ‘autonomy’ (para 75).  It states that autonomy is not the same thing as sovereign independence.  The word ‘autonomous’ literally means ‘having one’s own laws’, but only under a subordinate, restricted legislative power.

In other words, the self-governance enjoyed by Anglican Churches is a limited power conferred on them by a higher authority – the Anglican Communion as a whole.  On this view, ‘autonomy’ is closely linked to subsidiarity.

Of course, Anglican Churches are not sovereign authorities.  However, the autonomy that they enjoy does not come from the Anglican Communion.  It comes from the jurisdictions where they exist.

Thus the autonomy of the Church in Wales, its ability to govern itself, comes from English law, principally the Welsh Church Act 1914.  The Archbishop of Canterbury constituted the Church in Wales as a ‘province’ after that Act was passed but, if he had power to do this, it must have come from English common law.  Likewise, the power of the English Archbishops to consecrate bishops for the American Episcopal Church and other overseas Churches was conferred by Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament.

The autonomy of Churches generally also derives from the ‘human rights’ to associate and practice religion that belong to all individuals and religions, Anglican and non-Anglican alike.

In short, there is no such thing as Anglican autonomy.  In modern secular democracies, Anglicans merely enjoy the same autonomy that other ‘faith groups’ enjoy.