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The secret search for the next Archbishop of Canterbury

All Anglicans can now do is pray...

Who comes after Rowan?
Who comes after Rowan? Photograph: Getty Images

Christians on Twitter are today being urged to pray for the Crown Nominations Commission, as its sixteen members meet at a secret location to deliberate on the identity of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of England's media operation, now in the capable hands of the Rev Arun Arora, has launched a hashtag (#prayforthecnc) which it promises to use in messages sent out throughout the day to promote a specially written prayer, which you can find here. The prayer asks for the Holy Spirit to keep members of the committee "steadfast in faith and united in love", but is rather vague about how they will actually reach their decision. What Anglicans on Twitter are emphatically not being invited to do is to help the committee in more obviously practical ways, for example by suggesting names. Indeed, the release of the prayer, like the secrecy of the committee's meeting-place, only underlines the exclusion of rank-and-file Anglicans from any real choice in the identity of their next spiritual leader. 

Despite innovations which included advertising the vacancy rather pointlessly in the Church Times early this year, the process remains rather opaque. There isn't even an official shortlist. The secrecy encourages feverish speculation, with the leading candidates being debated like authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Unlike last time, there's no obvious front runner. Will the committee go for a safe pair of hands who won't be around long enough to cause too much trouble - the Bishop of London, for example, one of several candidates who were in the running ten years ago when Rowan Williams was chosen? Or will they choose someone younger and less well-established, but with potential? Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, is about the right age at 56 but has been a bishop for less than a year. His background in the City gives him a rare insight into the business world, and he's well ahead in the current betting, but some would say that there are already quite enough Old Etonians running things.

John Sentamu of York is, by far, the biggest personality and was once seen as the front runner; yet he is also rather divisive, and his appointment would be a surprise. Graham James of Norwich (liberal, catholic) and Coventry's Christopher Cocksworth (evangelical) both have their supporters but have a low public profile. Liverpool's James Jones was generally written off as too old until the other week, when his chairmanship of the Hillsborough Commission won him plaudits from around the country. It could be anyone. One bookmaker was even offering odds of 200/1 on Richard Dawkins, though I don't think so, somehow.

The CNC offers some nods towards ecclessiastical democracy, in that some of its members were elected by the General Synod, but is ultimately beholden to no-one but itself. Especially as no-one is allowed to watch their deliberations. On Friday, if all goes to plan, the committee will send two names to the Prime Minister, as is traditional, but the since Gordon Brown changed the rules David Cameron will no longer be invited to choose between them. The second name is merely there as a reserve in case the preferred candidate is for any reason unable to take up the post.

The system of selection by a committee is anomalous both in the Anglican Communion and in the wider Christian world. Most comparable church leaders are elected, as Rowan Williams himself was once elected Archbishop of Wales by a 42-member electoral college of lay and ordained Welsh Anglicans. There are currently 116 cardinals with the right to meet in Conclave to elect the next pope. Now fewer than 2,405 members of the Coptic Church of Egypt - one of the oldest and most traditionally-minded on earth - will have a vote in the choice of their new pope in December. In that case, though, there is an interesting twist: the top three names will go into a hat, and a small boy will make the final choice at random. 

Giles Fraser suggested yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury too should be elected, and of course he is right. An electoral process - perhaps via a special session of the General Synod - would be more legitimate and, more importantly, give the new Archbishop a real mandate to speak out on behalf of the Church of England and a stronger connection with the grassroots.  It would look like a modernising move, bringing the mother church into line with other Anglican provinces, but it would also be a return to the tradition of the early church which upheld the principle of Vox Populi, Vox Dei ("the voice of the people is the voice of God"). It might even help to solve the problem of his divergent and contradictory roles: as leader of a notriously unleadable church (which has been described as "an organised anarchy"), as national spokesman for faith and as the largely powerless head of the worldwide Anglican communion. At least, a more open decision-making process might lead to a more conclusive discussion about what an Archbishop of Canterbury is for.