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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.