Dom Gregory Dix replies to Archbishop Rowan on Papal Primacy


We received much refrigerium, in these upper levels of Purgatory, by being allowed news of your Roman lecture in which - among other things - you consider the Papal Primacy. I found myself in full agreement with your acknowledgement that, just as local ministry serves coherence and mutual openness within a congregation, so there is a powerful theological case for a ministry of universal focusing and gathering, cast in the same terms, for the sake of filial and communal holiness held in a universal pattern of mutual service. I am less willing to follow you in your doubts about the alliance of existing forms of primacy to juridical privilege' and your shyness about primacy seen as a centralised juridical office.'


Let me take the matter historically. The Papacy has exercised a subtle though no less powerful influence upon the internal life of the Church, comparable to that of a gland in the life of a body. But that influence has been exercised in very different ways at various periods; in the eleventh century, almost entirely in feudal conceptions; in the fourteenth and fifteenth, through channels of high diplomacy; from the seventeenth century, more and more in the form of prescriptions of canon law. And that conception has decisively marked the Vatican I definition. But underneath all these changes of mode it is unmistakably the same institution fulfilling the same function in the organic life of the Church.

There is a sense in which it must obviously be useless to seek to justify the Vatican I definition of Papal Primacy from the pre-Nicene Church. If you seek the conceptions of developed Western Canon Law in the second century, obviously you will not find them, any more than you will find the Swiss Guards. And yet I think to leave the matter thus is to make the same sort of mistake that the semi-Arians made about homoousios. They could plead that of the same substance was not found in Scripture. Yet Athanasius was still right in claiming that homoousios was truer to the substance of Scripture and Tradition than the superficially more archaic alternatives of the Semi-Arians.

Legitimate development

It was doubtless as inevitable that Vatican I should define the Papal Primacy in terms of developed Western Canon Law, as that the Council of Nicaea should define the Godhead in terms of Greek metaphysics.

They were in both cases the only terms practically available. The early Church did not act by properly juridical concepts, and the New Testament was not written by metaphysicians. But in both cases the Council succeeded in preserving the whole of the original truth, while putting it into different dress. No one would deny that there has been development in both cases. But it is a true development, as I see it, bringing out only what was implicit and in germ in the original conception, and guarding it from misunderstanding and error.

The nature of the Roman Primacy as defined by Vatican I is of 'a truly episcopal power in all Churches! Whatever is recognised as contained in the episcopal office in relation to the local Church, that Vatican I recognises as contained in the papal office in relation to the Universal Church - that and, so far as I can see, no more, as concerns the Primacy.

Now it is a recognisable fact of history that the mode under which episcopal authority was regarded in the second and third centuries did change very considerably in the fourth and fifth, from a consensual authority of leadership' to a juridical authority of jurisdiction! And pari passu there is a real change in the notion of papal authority, which is brought about by precisely the same historical causes and factors. We Anglicans, as Episcopalians, have no more right to go behind that change in the one case than in the other.

An Anglican example

Caro Monsignore, may I most lovingly tweak your own primatial tail? In 1847, Henry Phillpotts Bishop of Exeter refused to institute the Revd G.C. Gorham to Brampford Speke. Gorham was ultimately instituted byt he Archbishop as Primate. That was an act of jurisdiction in another man's diocese. It was an act of 'ordinary' jurisdiction, since the Archbishop had an indisputable right, in the circumstances, to do it. It was an act of 'immediate' jurisdiction, since he did not act as the bishop's delegate but against his protests.

It was an act of 'Episcopal' jurisdiction, since it conveyed cure of souls. The whole Vatican I definition of a primacy is latent here. It is, by definition, a 'reserve power' which presupposes an emergency in the local church. It is the minimum definition, in juridical terms, of a power of effectually representing the mind of the whole towards apart.

With the greatest affection and respect, I inform you that the Lowerarchy have reserved an only slightly-hot seat for you here, against the day when the Lord is willing to translate you to a less uncomfortable sedes than that of Canterbury.

In Domino



Fr john Hunwicke 
declines to reveal how he came by this letter.  
However, its genuineness is guaranteed

by the fact that much of it, given above in
bold type,
is verbally identical with words of Dix

either unpublished or long out of print.

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