Establishment and the new Archbishop
St Peter's Rectory, February 2002
The announcement of the forthcoming retirement of the Archbishop of Canterbury has given free reign to the media to ‘go for’ the Church of England. The interesting thing, in my reading of the coverage, is that there seems to be no clear target for their criticism. George Carey, quite surprisingly given the level of media lampooning he has been subject to over the past eleven years, has had a surprisingly warm affirmation in most places. Despite the stupid things said about Bishop Nazir-Ali, journalists have found little to criticize in the supposed first rank of contenders; and generally, the news over the past few years in the Church of England has been reasonably good. So the butt of the criticism? The method of appointment of the new archbishop.
Well it is certainly not perfect, and my hope would certainly be that it will be more transparent than in the past, with comments and recommendations welcomed from anyone with an interest or concern for the Church: and that has been recognised, with an invitation in the Church press to write to William Chapman, the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary, at 10 Downing St. I’m sure you will have noticed too that Professor Anthony Thistleton, formerly of Nottingham University, and still very much part of the life of this diocese is one of General Synod’s representatives on the Crown Appointments’ Commission, and I am sure he would be glad to receive views and comments. (So why not let them know what you think!) I also wish that the CAC would recognize the central place of the Anglican Communion in the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and invite proper representation, but it appears not to be this time.
In due course, I am sure that the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment will change, and for the integrity of the Church that will be a good thing - even though his actual influence in the appointment is quite minimal.
But the much more important question which lies behind this relatively insignificant issue over which the press, and others are getting heated at this moment, is that of the future of the establishment of the Church of England. This is far more complex than just how bishops are appointed, or even whether bishops sit in the House of Lords. For centuries, the fabric of the nation - legal, constitutional, social and pastoral - has been built around the notion of this being a Christian country and, since the sixteenth century at least, but effectively from much earlier than that, the notion of a ‘national church’ has been at the heart of that vision. So much of the structure of the nation and of the Church of England reflects that vision - from the parish system, and the commitment to a church in every community (now much compromised) to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in crowning the monarch.
But in fifty years the world has changed, and this country has changed. The big question for us is how we should change to reflect that. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in which I am writing, and shortly after Cardinal Murphy O’Connor has, uniquely, preached at Sandringham with the Queen present, the presence on equal footing of churches of other traditions is welcome and permanent. The increase in communities of other faiths is bringing new and fresh religious life to many parts of the country. Meanwhile, in the face of many challenges, not least financial, the Church of England seems still to be very much on the defensive - and this diocese is far from immune from that. Withdrawal of clergy from places where we have traditionally been deeply committed - not just to congregations, but to the whole community (which after all is one of our claims as a national church) puts us in a spot - dare I say a hole - if we wish to continue to claim a special place in the life of the nation.
I hope that some of you as you read this might like to write something in response. A good debate on disestablishment over the next few months would be thoroughly worthwhile, and knowing some of the places where this magazine is read, it might spark interesting further discussions.
Meanwhile, all of this and much more will undoubtedly be the stuff of life for the new archbishop, whoever he is. I hope the system, imperfect as it may be, will throw up someone who has the courage to face it, the charisma to lead the church forward together, and the confidence and the clarity of vision to see that God is with us on this journey of exploration. Lent offers a good opportunity to focus our prayer on the needs of our church and of the Anglican Communion, and especially on those who may be considered as candidates to become Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not a ministry to envy - that I can tell you with absolute confidence. It is one which needs much prayer and love.