Religion Wiki

Primus inter pares (Latin), the first among equals, or first among peers is a phrase which indicates that a person is the most senior of a group of people sharing the same rank or office.[1]

When not used in reference to a specific title, it may indicate that the person so described is technically equal, but looked upon as an authority of special importance by their peers. In some cases it may also be used to indicate that while the person described appears to be an equal, they actually are the group's unofficial or hidden leader.

Examples of use

The term is used with reference to the Roman Emperors' way of reducing the appearance of dictatorship (which was particularly important during the early Roman Empire to appease those who may have longed for a return to the old Roman Republic; see Princeps). Other examples include the Prime Minister of many parliamentary nations, the President of the European Commission, the Chief Justice of the United States, and some religious figures, such as the Dean of the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, or the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

National use

Commonwealth usage

In Commonwealth realms, such as Australia and Canada where they share a common head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, a Governor-General is appointed to represent the Queen during her absence.

In Australia there are governors to represent the Queen in each of the individual states that make up the Commonwealth of Australia, making them head of state in each of their own territories. Governors are not subordinate to the Governor-General and therefore, the Governor-General is viewed as first among equals as the Governor-General represents Australia as a whole while governors are the representatives in their particular states.[2]

In Canada, lieutenant-governors represent the Queen in each of the provinces, thus acting as the heads of state in their own provinces and are not subordinate to the Governor General. As the Governor General represents Canada as a nation, and the lieutenant-governors represent the components within the nation, it is regarded that the Governor General is first among equals.

Unlike the governors of the Australian states, the lieutenant governors in Canada are not appointed by the Queen, but by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada.


Mayors of German city states have traditionally acted as primus inter pares. In Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen, which had been Free Imperial Cities from the times of the Holy Roman Empire, the government was called Senate and the mayor was one senator amongst many, often referred to as President of the Senate rather than Mayor. This ended in Lübeck with the incorporation into Prussia in 1937, while in a constitutional reform in 1996 the mayor of Hamburg was given broad powers to shape the politics of the senate, thus ending his status as primus inter pares. However, in the city state of Bremen, which was created after the Second World War, the mayor has had a similar role.


The Prime Minister of the Netherlands (officially, the "Minister President") is the chairman of the Council of Ministers and active executive authority of the Dutch government. Although formally no special powers are assigned, the Prime Minister functions as the "face" of the cabinet of the Netherlands. Usually, the prime minister is also Minister of General Affairs. Until 1945, the position of head of the Council of Ministers officially switched between the ministers, although practices differed throughout history. In 1945, the position was formally instituted. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament.


In Switzerland the seven-member Federal Council constitutes the government. Each year, the Federal Assembly elects a President of the Confederation. By convention, the positions of President and Vice President rotate annually, each Councillor thus becoming Vice President and then President every seven years while in office.

The President is not the Swiss head of state, but he or she is the highest-ranking Swiss official. He or she presides over Council meetings and carries out certain representative functions that, in other countries, are the business of the Head of State. In urgent situations where a Council decision cannot be made in time, the President is empowered to act on behalf of the whole Council. Apart from that, though, the President is a primus inter pares, having no power above and beyond the other six Councillors.

United Kingdom

The term "Prime Minister" can be compared to "primary minister" or "first minister". Because of this, the Prime Ministers of many countries are traditionally considered to be "first among equals" – they are the chairman or "head" of a Cabinet rather than holding an office that is de jure superior to that of ministers. It is highly debatable whether this description of the Prime Minister's role is accurate, however.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has frequently been referred to as "first among equals." In the UK, the executive is the Cabinet, and during Hanoverian times a minister had the role of informing the monarch about proposed legislation in the House of Commons and other matters. In modern times, however, although the phrase is still used, it understates the powers of the Prime Minister, which now includes many broad, exclusive, executive powers over which cabinet members now have little influence.

In 1984, author Jeffrey Archer wrote "First Among Equals," a popular novel about the careers and private lives of several men vying to become British Prime Minister. It was later adapted into a ten-part miniseries, produced by Granada Television.

Countries and jurisdictions that have adapted the British parliamentary system (such as Canada and Australia) would have the same use for the phrase.

United States

The phrase "first among equals" has also been used to describe the Chief Justice of the United States. The Chief Justice has considerable administrative powers, and can assign the writing of decisions in cases in which he is in the majority, but has no direct control over the decisions of his colleagues on the Supreme Court of the United States. This situation is often found in supreme courts around the world.


In many private parliamentary bodies, such as clubs, boards, educational faculty, and committees, the officer or member who holds the position of chair or chairman is often regarded as a "first among equals." That is, while most rules of order will grant the chair special powers within the context of a meeting, the position of chair is usually temporary, rotating, and powerless in other contexts, making the occupant merely a temporary leader required to instil order. This is the case for mayors under a council-manager government, as the "mayor" has the same vote as all other council members and cannot override them, although their opinion may have more sway among other members.


Eastern Orthodox Church

The phrase "first among equals" is also used to describe the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who, as the Ecumenical Patriarch, is the first among all the bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. He has no direct jurisdiction over the other patriarchs or the other autocephalous Orthodox churches and cannot interfere in the election of bishops in autocephalous churches but he alone enjoys the right of convening extraordinary synods consisting of them and/or their delegates to deal with ad hoc situations and has also convened well-attended Pan-Orthodox Synods in the last forty years. His title is an acknowledgement of his historic significance and of his privillege to serve as primary spokesman for the Eastern Orthodox Communion and his moral authority is highly respected.

Pre-Schism the Eastern Orthodox/Catholic Church also used the term "first among equals" in regards to the Pope of Rome. Whereas the Patriarch of Constantinople is now considered first among the Orthodox patriarchs, the Orthodox Church considered the Pope of Rome the "first among equals" in the Pentarchy of the Patriarchal Sees according to the ancient order (or "taxis" in Greek) of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem prior to Constantinople becoming the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.[3]

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church considers the Pope to be Vicar of Christ, successor of Saint Peter, and leader of the bishops, successors of the Apostles. Due to this belief, the Roman Catholic Church sees the Pope as holding an office senior to that of other bishops, rather than merely being the most senior bishop. This claim was one of the main causes of the East-West Schism in the Christian church, which became formal in 1054. The Dean of the College of Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church is generally considered to be the first among equals in the College.

Anglican Communion

In the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury is considered to be "first among equals", presiding over the Communion.[4]. The senior bishop of the seven diocesean bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church bears the truncated title Primus from primus inter pares.

In Anglo-Catholicism, there is a widespread tendency to view the Pope as Primus inter pares, this being even more pronounced within Anglo-Papalism.

In 2007, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission issued Growing Together in Unity and Mission which stated that “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the ministry of the Bishop of Rome [the Pope] as universal primate is in accordance with Christ’s will for the Church and an essential element of maintaining it in unity and truth”. Not only that but the document goes on to say that “We urge Anglicans and Roman Catholics to explore together how the ministry of the Bishop of Rome might be offered and received in order to assist our Communions to grow towards full, ecclesial communion.”


The Moderator of the General Assembly in a Presbyterian church is similarly designated as a primus inter pares.

Church of Sweden

In the Church of Sweden, the Archbishop of Uppsala is considered primus inter pares.[5]


  1. Primus inter pares (from the Hutchinson Encyclopedia, 2007, via
  2. Government House
  3. Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority (The Ravenna Document), Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church, 13 October 2007, n. 35.
  4. Anglican Covenant Draft, 2007, Section 5 (from the official Anglican Communion website)
  5. Church Structures and Regulations (from the official Church of Sweden website)