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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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times