Christianity Knowledge Base
Archbishop of Canterbury
Official portrait of The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury
Coat of arms of the
Arms of the Diocese of Canterbury: Azure, an episcopal staff in pale or surmounted by a pall proper edged and fringed of the second charged with four crosses pattée fitchée sable
Justin Welby
since 4 February 2013
StyleThe Most Reverend and Right Honourable (otherwise His Grace)
Ecclesiastical provinceCanterbury
  • Lambeth Palace
  • Old Palace
First holderAugustine of Canterbury
Established597 (597)
CathedralCanterbury Cathedral

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior clergyman of the established Church of England and symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The present incumbent is Justin Welby.

Today the archbishop fills four main roles:

  • he is the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, which covers the east of the County of Kent and extreme north-east Surrey. Founded in 597, it is the oldest bishopric in the English church.
  • he is the metropolitan archbishop of the Province of Canterbury, which covers the southern two-thirds of England.
  • as Primate of All England, he is the chief religious figure in the Church of England (the British sovereign is the "Supreme governor" of the church). Power in the church is not highly centralised, so the archbishop (along with his "junior" colleague the Archbishop of York) must usually lead through persuasion. He plays an important part in national ceremonies such as coronations; thanks to his high public profile his opinions are often in demand by the news media.
  • as symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop is recognized as primus inter pares ("first among equals") of all Anglican primates. Since 1867 he has convened more or less decennial meetings of worldwide Anglican bishops, the Lambeth Conferences.

The Archbishop's main residence is Lambeth Palace in the London Borough of Lambeth. He also has lodgings in the Old Palace, Canterbury, located beside Canterbury Cathedral, where his cathedra sits.

As holder of one of the "five great sees" (along with those of York, London, Durham and Winchester), the Archbishop of Canterbury is ex officio one of the Lords Spiritual of the House of Lords. He is one of the highest-ranking men in England, ranking directly below the Royal Family.

Since Henry VIII broke with Rome the Archbishops of Canterbury have been selected by the English (latterly British) monarch. Today the choice is made in the name of the Sovereign by the prime minister, from a shortlist of two selected by an ad-hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission.


Records suggest that the Roman Britons had three Archbishops, seated in London, York, and Caerleon, an ancient city of South Wales. However, in the fifth and sixth centuries the country was overrun by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Of the kingdoms they set up the, Kingdom of Kent had the closest ties to European trade and culture.

The first Archbishop of Canterbury was Saint Augustine who arrived in Kent in 597, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to mission to the English. He was accepted by King Ethelbert, on his conversion to Christianity, about the year 598. Since then the Archbishops of Canterbury have been referred to as occupying the Chair of St Augustine.

Before the break with Papal authority in the 16th Century, the Church of England was an integral part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. The present Church of England, an established national church, still considers itself part of the broader Western Catholic tradition as well as being the "mother church" of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Province and Diocese[]

The Archbishop of Canterbury exercises metropolitical (or supervisory) jurisdiction over the Province of Canterbury, which encompasses thirty of the forty-four dioceses of the Church of England. (The remaining fourteen dioceses, in northern England, fall within the Province of York.) Formerly, the four dioceses of Wales were also under the Province of Canterbury; in 1920, however, the Welsh dioceses transferred from the established Church of England to the disestablished Church in Wales.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a ceremonial provincial curia, or court, consisting of some of the senior bishops of his province. The Bishop of London—the most senior cleric of the Church with the exception of the two Archbishops—serves as Canterbury's Provincial Dean, the Bishop of Winchester as Chancellor, the Bishop of Lincoln as Vice-Chancellor, the Bishop of Salisbury as Precentor, the Bishop of Worcestor as Chaplain and the Bishop of Rochester as Cross-Bearer.

The question of whether the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Archbishop of York should take precedence was once a cause of a long struggle. The dispute was temporarily resolved in 1071 after Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas of Bayeux, Archbishop of York, submitted the matter to the Pope. Pope Alexander II decided that Canterbury was to have precedence, and that future Archbishops of York would have to be consecrated by, and swear allegiance to, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1119, however, the Archbishop-Elect of York, Thurstan, refused to acknowledge the pre-eminence of Canterbury. As a consequence, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ralph d'Escures, refused to consecrate him. When Thurstan appealed to Rome, Pope Callixtus II not only personally consecrated him, but also issued a papal bull repudiating the supremacy of Canterbury. The matter was finally settled by Pope Innocent VI during the fourteenth century. Under Pope Innocent's arrangement, which lasts to this day, the Archbishop of Canterbury would be recognised as superior to the Archbishop of York. The former would be acknowledged as "Primate of All England", and the latter as "Primate of England". The pre-eminence of the Archbishop of Canterbury is acknowledged by an Act of Parliament passed during the reign of Henry VIII.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also has a precedence of honour over the other archbishops of the Anglican Communion. He is recognised as primus inter pares, or first amongst equals. The Archbishop of Canterbury, however, does not exercise any direct authority in the provinces outside England.

The Archbishop at the present time has four suffragan bishops. One of these, the Suffragan Bishop of Dover, is given the additional title of "Bishop in Canterbury" and empowered to act almost as if he were the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, since the Archbishop is so frequently away fulfillfilling national and international duties. The Suffragan Bishop of Maidstone is a second assistant working in the diocese. The suffragan bishops of Ebbsfleet and Richborough, on the other hand, are provincial episcopal visitors for the whole Province of Canterbury, licensed by the Archbishop as "flying bishops" to visit parishes throughout the province who are uncomfortable with the ministrations of their local bishop who has participated in the ordination of women.

Style and privileges[]

Both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are styled "The Most Reverend"; retired Archbishops as "The Right Reverend". Archbishops are, by convention, appointed to the Privy Council, and may therefore also use "The Right Honourable" for life (unless they are later removed from the Council). In formal documents, the Archbishop of Canterbury is referred to as "The Most Reverend Father in God, Forenames, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and Metropolitan". In debates in the House of Lords, the Archbishop is referred to as "The Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury". "The Right Honourable" is not used in either instance. He may also be formally addressed as "Your Grace" - or, more often these days, simply as "Archbishop", "Father" or (in the current instance) "Dr Williams".

The surname of the Archbishop of Canterbury is not used in formal documents; only the forenames and see are mentioned. The Archbishop is legally permitted to sign his name as "Cantuar" (from the Latin for Canterbury). He shares the right to use only a title in the signature with the Archbishop of York, other bishops, and Peers of the Realm.

In the order of precedence, the Archbishop of Canterbury is ranked above all individuals in the realm, with the exception of the Sovereign and members of the Royal Family. Immediately below him is the Lord Chancellor, and then the Archbishop of York.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's official residence in London is Lambeth Palace. Until the 19th century, the Archbishops also had major residences at Croydon Palace and Addington Palace. There are also the ruins of a Palace at Otford.

The following Archbishops have died at Lambeth: Wittlesey, in 1375; Kemp, 1453; Dean, 1504; all buried in Canterbury Cathedral: Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic archbishop, 1558, after lying in state here 40 days was buried at Canterbury; Parker, 1575, buried in Lambeth Chapel; Whitgift, 1604, buried at Croydon; Bancroft, 1610, buried at Lambeth; Juxon, 1663, buried in the chapel of St. John's College, Oxford; Sheldon, 1667, buried at Croydon; Tillotson, 1694, buried in the church of St. Laurence Jewry, London; Tennison, 1715; and Potter, 1747, both buried at Croydon; Seeker, 1768; Cornwallis, 1783, and Moore, 1805, all buried at Lambeth. Of the mediæval archbishops, in 1381 Simon of Sudbury fell a victim to Wat Tyler and his followers when they attacked Lambeth Palace.

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