April 11, 2012

On Giving Advice about the Next Archbishop of Canterbury

Arms of the See of Canterbury

Arms of the See of Canterbury
As an American and Episcopalian, I do not usually take much interest in the selection of bishops in the Church of England. Moreover, I do not completely understand the process, though I do recognize that, in comparison to the analogous process in The Episcopal Church, English procedures are notably lacking in transparency. (We elect our bishops in more or less public elections.)

It was surprising, therefore, when Anglican Communion News Service announced that “[m]embers of the Anglican Communion around the world are, for the first time in history, being invited to share their views on the ministry of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

At first, I was reluctant to consider offering my views on Rowan Williams’ successor. After all, he will be a bishop of the Church of England, which is not my church.

Of course, I do have an opinion I can offer. Basically, it is to find someone who will make a good archbishop for the Church of England—I really don’t have an informed opinion as to what that means—who will forget about the Anglican Covenant, who will preside over Anglican bodies such as the Anglican Consultative Council with neutral detachment, and who will keep his nose out of the business of sister churches and encourage other bishops and archbishops to do the same. As long as Anglicans across the Communion are being asked for their opinions, I may as well give it.

There is something to be applauded in the request for suggestions regarding the next archbishop. There is also something worrisome about it, namely that the request assumes that Rowan Williams’ successor will exercise the same powers that he arrogated over the course of his tenure in office.

The Web site of the Archbishop of Canterbury not only outlines the process that will end in the enthronement of the next archbishop, but it also lists six areas for which the archbishop is said to be responsible, only three of which involve the Church of England. (See “Outline of procedures for the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury.”) For example, area number 4 includes this paragraph:
The Archbishop of Canterbury is, along with the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch, widely regarded as an international spiritual leader, representing the Christian Church. On overseas visits, a meeting with the Head of State is almost always a part of the programme, as are meetings with other significant political persons.
As an Episcopalian, I do not feel that Rowan Williams has represented me on the world stage, and I am not looking forward to having a successor who believes that he is empowered to do so. In fact, I find it creepy that the request for comment is not on the Church of England Web site but on an Anglican Communion Office Web page.

Whatever queasiness I had about Anglicans’ being asked to “share their views on the next Archbishop of Canterbury” was exacerbated by my reading Robert Booth’s article in The Guardian titled “Archbishop panel member believes gay people can ‘change’ sexual desire.” The story is about Glynn Harrison, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Bristol University, who is on the Crown Nominations Commission. Harrison’s views on homosexuality are at odds with the current consensus in the psychiatric community, but Church of England leaders seem eager to put him forward to represent his—and probably their—reactionary views.

It was this paragraph in the Booth piece that raised red flags for me:
Harrison’s supporters insist his views reflect a substantial section of Anglican opinion about homosexuality and it would be impossible to elect a leader of an estimated 50 million churchgoers worldwide without such views being represented.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this viewpoint leads to the argument advanced against the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003. Apparently, if a majority of the world’s Anglicans believe the world is flat, no member church of the Communion should be allowed to elect a bishop who believes otherwise. (Actually, I would be unwilling to bet that a majority of the world’s Anglicans do not believe the world is flat.)

That all Anglicans are being asked to offer advice about the next Archbishop of Canterbury exposes an underlying view that the Anglican Communion is a worldwide church (or something very much like it). It isn’t; it shouldn’t be; and it cannot successfully be that. The reality is that, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is a failure in his own church and a failure as the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion. As the recent debate on women bishops has shown, Rowan is out of touch with the people of his church. As a focus of unity—whatever that means—his tenure has been catastrophic. We need an Archbishop of Canterbury who will not follow in Rowan’s footsteps.

Let the next Archbishop of Canterbury tend to the local flock and do only his required duties with respect to the Communion. If primates want to fight, if they want to dismantle the Anglican Communion, let the consequences of their actions be on their heads. May the next Archbishop of Canterbury seek the goal of unity in diversity, not unity in uniformity.


  1. Maybe this is what Rowan Williams was hinting at when he made those remarks about "finding other ways" when the English Dioceses rejected a formal Anglican Covenant.

    The Communion is to be controlled as it always has been, by behind the scene manipulation of situations so that the powerful and fearful always get their own way.

  2. It might be helpful to contextualize with Fred Schmidt's very thoughtful article --


  3. Fred Schmidt’s essay is interesting, sympathetic, even. Personally, I don’t question Rowan’s good intentions. His accomplishments are another matter. At best, he has delayed an inevitable split in the Communion; at worst, he has assured that it will be more traumatic.

    Rowan’s failure, I think, is not that he acted badly, but that he thought he had the job of acting at all. In most cases, he would have done better by declaring that he did not have the power to act. That was actually the most powerful tool he had, but he failed to use it.

    There is no need to throw stones at Rowan, though, since the historians will do it for us soon enough.

  4. In the beginning of Schmidt's article, he seems to say that because Rowan received criticism from both conservatives and progressives, then he must have been doing the right thing, which is a BS argument. Then towards the end, he regrets the loss of unity, but he does not say what kind of unity he would wish to see in the Anglican Communion. There is no hope that Anglican churches across the globe will walk in lockstep, but we can be united in Christ, in relationships, and in common worship. We have no pope, and considering the state of the Roman church today, is that to be our model for unity?

  5. In a private message, Lauren Gough—see her own blog here—suggested another way of looking at Rowan’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. She suggested that he tried to be the Archbishop of the Anglican Communion. He is not that, and I think that few wanted him to be that. Perhaps the Anglican Communion Office is an exception.


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