The secret search for the next Archbishop of Canterbury

All Anglicans can now do is pray...

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. 

Who comes after Rowan? Photograph: Getty Images
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism