Religion Wiki
This article forms part of the series
Clergy (Christian)
Russian Orthodox Episcopal Ordination.jpg
Major orders
Bishop - Priest - Deacon
Minor orders
Subdeacon - Reader
Cantor - Acolyte
Other orders
Chorepiscopos - Exorcist
Doorkeeper - Deaconess
Episcopal titles
Pope - Patriarch - Cardinal - Catholicos
Archbishop - Metropolitan
Auxiliary bishop -

Chorbishop - Titular bishop
Major Archbishop

Priestly titles
Archimandrite - Protopresbyter
Archpriest - Protosyngellos
Diaconal titles
Archdeacon - Protodeacon - Hierodeacon
Minor titles
Monastic titles
Abbot - Igumen
Ordination - Vestments
Presbeia - Honorifics
Clergy awards - Exarch
Proistamenos - Vicar

Primate (from the Latin Primus, "first") is a title or rank bestowed on some bishops in certain Christian churches. Depending on the particular tradition, it can denote either jurisdictional authority (title of authority) or ceremonial precedence (title of honour).

Roman Catholic Church

Catholic Patriarchal (non cardinal) coat of arms

See also: Catholic Church hierarchy#Primates and Bishop (Catholic Church)#Primate

In the Western Church, a Primate is an archbishop—or rarely a suffragan or exempt bishop—of a specific episcopal see (called a primas) which confers precedence over the bishops of one or more neighboring ecclesiastical provinces, such as a 'national' church in historical, political, and cultural terms. Historically, primates were granted privileges including the authority to call and preside at national synods, the jurisdiction to hear appeals from metropolitan tribunals, the right to crown the sovereign of the nation, and presiding at the investiture (installation) of bishops in their sees.

The office is generally found in the older Catholic countries, and is now purely honorific, enjoying no effective powers under canon law, (exemption is Poland where the new status of episcopal conference states that the Primate of Poland is durante munere member of Perpetual Board of episcopal conference, he has honorary precedence among polish bishops (e.g. by carrying on liturgical ceremonies), Polish primates also actively wear cardinal's vestments, even if they were not nominated cardinals, a privilege granted by the Holy See. The title, where it exists, may be vested in one of the oldest archdioceses in a country. The see city may no longer have the prominence it had when the diocese was created, or its circumscription may no longer exist as a state, nation or country — for example, the Archbishop of Toledo originated as the "Primate of the Visigothic Kingdom", while the Archbishop of Lyon is the "Primate of the Gauls".

Some of the leadership functions once exercised by primates, specifically presiding at meetings of the bishops of a nation or region, are now vested in the president of the national conference of bishops. With the exception of the President of the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, these presidents are elected by the other bishops of the conference for a fixed term in office. Other former functions of primates, such as hearing appeals from metropolitan tribunals, are now reserved to the Holy See.

The closest equivalent position in the Eastern Catholic Churches is an exarch. In the order of precedence of the Catholic Church, primates and exarchs rank immediately below major archbishops, and precede metropolitan archbishops. Primates who have been made cardinals follow the precedence established for cardinals, unlike the higher ranks enjoying no precedence, not even the right to join a high order of the sacred college.

At the First Vatican Council, the only (arch)bishops figuring as primates, in virtue of then recent concessions, were these (by country):[1]

  • HungaryArchbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, styled Prince-primate of Esztergom (uniquely, a legal status under imperial Habsburg rule)
  • GermanyArchbishop of Mainz (before 1801)
  • the exempt archbishopric Antivari (Bar in Servo-Croatian, now in Montenegro) was primate of Dalmatia since the 12th century (formal papal confirmation 1902); as Archbishop of Bar he now holds the title of Primate of Serbia(-Montenegro)
  • the Archbishop of Salerno, in the historical Neapolitan kingdom as "Primate of Servia"
  • BelgiumArchbishop of Mechelen-Brussel (previously Mechelen, primate of all the Netherlands = Low Countries)
  • BrazilArchbishop of Sao Salvador da Bahia
  • IrelandArchbishop of Armagh, known as "Primate of All Ireland"; not to be confused with the Archbishop of Dublin's concurrent title "Primate of Ireland", both titles predating the political division of Ireland and therefore related to the whole island.
  • ItalyBishop of Rome (the Pope), whose titles include Primate of Italy
  • PolandArchbishop of Gniezno
  • primate of all Spain by papal bull of 1088 — the Archbishop of Toledo (originally of the Visigothic kingdom); was rivaled for the title by Tarragona (under the Aragonese crown, now in Catalonia, for its Castilian rival Toledo, see below).

A selection of primatial pretences in other countries (here grouped by modern states, but sometimes the claimed 'primas' had a smaller or overlapping territory) and their Roman Catholic primates (some historical claims are dormant or have been void for centuries; new titles can only be awarded by the Holy See):

  • Argentina — Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1936, earlier the Archbishop of Córdoba (the oldest see in the country, though much smaller)
  • Australia — primatial authority is vested in the most senior Cardinal / Archbishop in Australia, typically the Archbishop of Sydney
  • CanadaArchbishop of Quebec
  • ColombiaArchbishop of Bogotá
  • CubaArchbishop of Santiago de Cuba
  • EcuadorArchbishop of Quito (over three more provinces)
  • FranceArchbishop of Lyon ("Primate of the Gauls"); also Archbishop of Reims, Archbishop of Bourges, Archbishop of Vienne (once titled Primate of Primates), Archbishop of Narbonne, Archbishop of Bordeaux and Archbishop of Rouen
  • German-speaking countries — the Elector-Archbishop of Mainz (Mayence; before 1801); Magdeburg within the Prince Council, i. e. the bishops who were not electors (for the eastern colonisation); the title of Magdeburg was in 1648 transferred to the Archbishop of Salzburg (Austria) who has hold this title ("primate of Germany") ever since
  • KenyaArchbishop of Nairobi (over three more provinces)
  • KoreaArchbishop of Seoul, the oldest diocese of the country from which all other dioceses of the country sprang
  • MexicoArchbishop of Mexico, the main and oldest diocese of the country.
  • NetherlandsArchbishop of Utrecht (sole Metropolitan; formerly Prince-bishop while still suffragan)
  • NicaraguaArchbishop of Managua (sole Metropolitan)
  • PeruArchbishop of Lima
  • PhilippinesArchbishop of Manila
  • across the Pyrenees, the French archbishoprics of Auch (western) and Narbonne (eastern) claimed, in 714-1019, primacy over the northern parts of Spain, ultimately relinquished to Tarragona (in Catalonia)
  • in England, Canterbury and the old imperial Tetrarch's capital, York; both remained primatial within Anglicanism, there solidly institutionalized as the country's only provinces, though not considered "valid" primates "in ministry" by the Holy See[2] The archdiocese of Westminster sees itself as the valid continuation of Canterbury, hence the similarity of the coats of arms of the two Sees.
  • Portugal — the Archbishop of Braga, claiming primacy over the Spanish Roman province of Galicia to its north, where the pilgrimage mecca of Santiago de Compostela itself later claimed to be a primas - his Portuguese precedence was lost when the national capital was raised to the higher rank of Patriarch of Lisbon
  • ScandinaviaLund, now in southern Sweden (lost even its Metropolitan dignity, but still exists as a simple diocese) was primas of a larger Denmark, above the other, slightly younger Swedish Archbishopric, Uppsala (famous for its university), also extending into Finland and even Reval (Teutonic Order, but not under Riga; now in Estonia)- all these countries turned predominantly Protestant
  • Tunisia's Carthage was 'restored' a primacy (though originally it held the position without the title in Roman times) in 1893, under French colonial protectorate
  • ZimbabweArchbishop of Harare (over one other province: Bulawayo)

When England and Wales was split into three ecclesiastical provinces in 1911, the pre-existent Archbishop of Westminster was given certain privileges of pre-eminence constituting him 'chief metropolitan', but without the title of primate. Similarly the Archbishop of Seoul is often considered to be the primate of Korea, but such title has never been granted by the Vatican. Such 'analogous' use of the title is confusing and technically incorrect.

Informal titles

The following are often called by the title "Primate" of the area indicated, for historical, or other reasons. However, the titles do not have official ecclesiastical standing:

  • In the United States, where an official primacy was never awarded, the Archbishop of Baltimore is sometimes called "honorary primate". Because Baltimore was the first diocese in the nation, its diocesan bishop is granted ceremonial precedence before all the bishops (except those nominally created cardinals) of all other sees in the United States. In addition, the Archdiocese of Baltimore included the federal capital of the United States, Washington, D.C., until 1947.
  • Archbishop of Prague - Czech Primate.[3]
  • Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Pisa - In 1092, Pope Urban II entitled the archbishop of Pisa Primate of Corsica and Sardinia. This title nowadays is only honorary.

Orthodox Christianity

Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch

In the Orthodox churches, Primate is often used in the general sense of the head of an autocephalous or autonomous church, but not as a specific title. Thus, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Greek Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, the Archbishop of Athens, the Archbishop of Washington and New York, Metropolitan of All America and Canada, and the Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland are all primates of their respective churches, regardless of their individual titles.

Anglican Communion

An Anglican primate is the chief bishop or archbishop of one of the thirty-eight churches (also known as provinces) of the Anglican Communion.[4] Some of these provinces are stand-alone ecclesiastical provinces (such as the Church of the Province of West Africa), while others are national churches comprising several ecclesiastical provinces (such as the Church of England). Since 1978, the Anglican primates have met annually for an Anglican Communion Primates' Meeting at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is regarded as the chief (though primus-inter-pares) of the Anglican primates. While the gathering has no legal jurisdiction, it acts as one of the informal instruments of unity among the autonomous provinces of the Communion.

In stand-alone ecclesiastical provinces, the Primate is the metropolitan archbishop of the province. In national churches composed of several ecclesiastical provinces, the Primate will be senior to the metropolitan archbishops of the various provinces, and may also be a metropolitan archbishop. In those churches which do not have a tradition of archiepiscopacy, the Primate is a bishop styled "Primus" (in the case of the Scottish Episcopal Church, "Presiding Bishop", "President-Bishop", "Prime Bishop" or simply "Primate". In the case of the Episcopal Church in the United States, which is composed of several ecclesiastical provinces, there is a Presiding Bishop who is its Primate, but the individual provinces are not led by metropolitans.

The Moderators of the United Churches of North and South India, which are united with other originally non-Anglican churches, and which are part of the Anglican Communion, while not primates, participate in the Primates' Meetings.

Anglican primates may be attached to a fixed See (e.g., the Archbishop of Canterbury is invariably the Primate of All England), he or she may be chosen from among sitting metropolitans or diocesan bishops and retain their See (as with, for example, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia), or he or she may have no See (as in the Anglican Church of Canada). Primates are generally chosen by election (either by a Synod consisting of laity, clergy and bishops, or by a House of Bishops). In some instances, the primacy is awarded on the basis of seniority among the episcopal college. In the Church of England, the Primate, like all bishops, is appointed by the British Sovereign, in his or her capacity as Supreme Governor of the established church, on the advice of the Crown Appointments Commission.

It should be noted that in the Church of England and in the Church of Ireland, the metropolitan of the second province has since medieval times also been accorded the title of Primate (see section "Roman Catholic" above). In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury is known as the "Primate of All England" while the Archbishop of York is "Primate of England" (see also Primacy of Canterbury). In Ireland both the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Armagh are titled "Primate of All Ireland"; while both the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Dublin are titled "Primate of Ireland". As both of these positions pre-date the 1921 partition, they relate to the whole island of Ireland. The junior primates of these churches do not normally participate in the Primates' Meeting.

Regular clergy equivalent

In the modern confederation of the Benedictine Order, all the Black Monks of St. Benedict were united under the presidency of an Abbot Primate (Leo XIII, Summum semper, 12 July 1893); but the unification, fraternal in its nature, brought no modification to the abbatial dignity, and the various congregations preserved their autonomy intact. The loose structure of the Benedictine Confederation is claimed to have made Pope Leo XIII exclaim that the Benedictines were ordo sine ordine ("an order without order"). The powers of the Abbot Primate are specified, and his position defined, in a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars dated 16 September 1893. The primacy is attached to the global Benedictine Confederation whose Primate resides at Sant'Anselmo in Rome. He takes precedence of all other abbots, is empowered to pronounce on all doubtful matters of discipline, to settle difficulties arising between monasteries, to hold a canonical visitation, if necessary, in any congregation of the order, and to exercise a general supervision for the regular observance of monastic discipline. The Primatial powers are only vested in the Abbot Primate to act by virtue of the proper law of its autonomous Benedictine congregation, which at the present is minimal to none. However, certain branches of the Benedictine Order seem to have lost their original autonomy to some extent.

In a similar way the Confederation of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, elects an Abbot Primate as figurehead of the Confederation and indeed the whole Canonical Order. The Abbots and Superiors General of the nine congregations of confederated congregations of Canons Regular elect a new Abbot Primate for a term of office lasting six years. The Current Abbot General is Rt. Rev. Fr Maurice Bitz, Abbot of St. Pierre, and Abbot General of the Canons Regular of St. Victor.


  1. (Coll. Lacens., VII, pp. 34, 488, 726)
  2. Paul Handley "Churches Goal is Unity not Uniformity, Church Times (May, 2003), 1. (Dr. Kasper spoke of a "re-evaluation" of Apostolicae Curae, the bull of Leo XIII which declared that Anglican orders were null and void.")
  3. "Prague Archdiocese". The Archbishop of Prague. Retrieved 2006-12-06. 

Sources and references