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13 September 2011

Choosing an archbishop

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

By Nelson Jones

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 These days, however, the practice of submitting two alternative names to Downing Street has been superseded, which means that bishops and archbishops are now effectively chosen by an obscure committee.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.

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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 con clave 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.

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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?