Choosing an archbishop

Why should the appointment of Rowan Williams' successor be left to a faceless committee?

If Rowan Williams resigns as Archbishop of Canterbury next year, possibly to take up a professorship in Cambridge, there will be intense speculation as to the identity of his successor. Two facts are unlikely to change, however. Firstly, even if the General Synod passes the necessary rule-change to allow the appointment of female bishops, the next Archbishop will be a man. Second, ordinary members of the Church of England will have very little say in the matter.

The process of choosing bishops and archbishops of the Established church is convoluted and arcane, but its underlying philosophy (like much in Britain) seems to be that some matters are too important to be left to the vagaries of a democratic process. Technically, senior posts in the Church of England are appointed by the Queen, in her capacity as Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (who isn't required to have any religious affiliations at all). Some recent prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, are rumoured to have intervened in the selection process. These days, however, the practice of submitting two alternative names to Downing Street has been superseded, which means that bishops and archbishops are now effectively chosen by an obscure committee.

The Crown Nominations Commission, as it is called, has some members elected by the General Synod, but that gives it only an indirect legitimacy. It deliberates in secret and never divulges details of its discussions. Some observers suspect that an informal "Buggins' turn" system operates, with unofficial quotas for liberal, Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical bishops and Canterbury itself rotating. (Thus Rowan Williams was a throwback to the ceremonious fence-sitting of Robert Runcie after the somewhat more acerbic tenure of George Carey.) But this is speculation. All we can really say is that, as with the Conservative party in the days of the Magic Circle, soundings are taken and a consensus emerges.

Nowhere else in the field of archiepiscopal appointments is so much power surrendered by so many to so few. Elsewhere in the Anglican communion, bishops are chosen by diocesan synods or, in the case of primates, by national electoral colleges. When he became Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams was openly elected by a 42-member electoral college including both lay and ordained members.

The Vatican has little reputation as a haven of democracy, yet the Pope is elected by his fellow cardinals, of whom there are well over a hundred. The process is private, the cardinals being confined for the duration <i>con clave</i> to the Sistine Chapel and its adjacent corridors. But it is, at least, an election. One of the most transparent and progressive systems, surprisingly enough, is that employed by the Russian Orthodox Church in choosing its patriarch. The patriarch is elected in a two-stage process by a special session of the church's synod, with laity and clergy taking their full part. Votes are cast by secret ballot. The current patriarch, Kirill, received 508 votes in his election in January 2009.

The adoption of a similar system by the Church of England - at least for the election of the two archbishops - would have several benefits. It would increase the likelihood of choosing primates with popular appeal. It would make the church look less like an anachronistic prop of the establishment and give its leader greater authority to speak on behalf of its members. It would increase public interest in the church as an institution to have candidates for the top job campaigning openly for votes. Above all, it would be better in principle. Nor would a democratic system threaten the C of E's historic links to the state. The formal appointment could still be made by the Queen, acting on behalf of God, just as she formally appoints the prime minister by rubber-stamping the choice of the voters in a general election.

These days, with the recession and its own mismanagement decimating the Church of England's investment portfolio, rank and file Anglicans are being asked to contribute ever more money to keep the show on the road. Is it reasonable to continue to exclude them from any say in the appointment of their spiritual leader?

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.