Horse Race for Lambeth Palace
  • Monday, September 24, 2012

By John Martin

The Crown Nominations Commission, the body tasked with choosing the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, meets this week at an undisclosed location. With a fair wind a successor to Rowan Williams could be known within a month.

The agreed name will go, along with a “reserve,” to Prime Minister David Cameron. Thanks to changes set in place by his predecessor, Gordon Brown, Cameron will not have a direct say in the matter, but will simply present the preferred name to the Queen and, if she gives her consent, will send a letter from 10 Downing Street offering the office.

In times long gone, when choosing an Archbishop of Canterbury was the sole prerogative of the British Monarch, he or she was said to have carried out this task as the representative of the laity. In 2012 the commission consists of four bishops, five clergy and seven laypersons. Their chairman is Lord [Richard] Luce, a former Conservative Cabinet Minister. The Anglican Communion is represented by Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales as a voting member and the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General, present as an adviser.

For the first time there will be interviews from a shortlist agreed during earlier meetings of the commission. This creates an irony: appearing to be ambitious tends to disqualify clerics eager to attain high office, but these candidates will need to compile a CV and inevitably answer questions like Why do you want the job? and What qualities do you think you can bring to it?

There seem to be two leading candidates and one who may spring a surprise. Archbishop John Sentamu, 63, of York would be the popular choice. A former high court judge in Uganda who fled the wrath of the feared dictator Idi Amin, he has grown in stature with each senior promotion. As someone who came to Britain as a refugee and has known police harassment, he has a bond with ordinary folk and writes a popular column in the Sunday edition of The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

He is happy to urge patriotism in a culture all-too-ready to mock and was highly rated by parishes when he was Area Bishop of Stepney in London’s East End. His gift for theatre has made him an effective foil to the more academic Rowan Williams. Insider whispers say he has an authoritarian streak. This may count against him among members of the commission who have sat alongside him in that body.

Richard Chartres, 65, Bishop of London, like Sentamu has a certain grandeur. Bearded and imposing, he would not look out of place as an Eastern Orthodox patriarch. As a former chaplain to Archbishop Robert Runcie he brings vast experience and would be expected to be sure-handed in his decision-making and public pronouncements.

In contrast to Sentamu he appears patrician and is close to the Prince of Wales, favouring functional hierarchy and not big government. To square the circle the commission would have to reckon with the fact that he does not ordain women in a Church of England whose General Synod seems at last to have found a way forward in the protracted debate about women bishops.

The possible surprise packet is Justin Welby, 56, the former Dean of Liverpool who became Bishop of Durham in November 2011. Durham is the church’s fourth-most senior bishopric and confers automatic membership of the House of Lords. A graduate of the elite Eton College, where Princes William and Harry studied, he is a former oil executive who had a career change following the death of his seven-month-old baby daughter, Johanna, in a motor accident in France. Before ordination he attended Holy Trinity Brompton, the London parish that devised the Alpha Course, so his formation includes charismatic and evangelical components. He is credited with stabilising the finances of Liverpool Cathedral, the largest church building in England.

He believes the Occupy Movement which camped in the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral was “absolutely” right in its criticisms of the banking system. He is serving on a public inquiry into the Libor scandal, in which banks are accused of collusion over interest rates when they were supposed to offer individual bids. He has proved adroit and interesting when handling the media and so far has deflected questions on sexuality. Bookmakers have shortened his odds to 11/4.

Other names still likely to figure are Graham James (Bishop of Norwich), a former chaplain to Archbishop George Carey, who would be sure-handed though hardly inspirational. James Jones (Bishop of Liverpool), well known as a broadcaster, is mentioned, though he lacks the mojo of a Sentamu or Chartres and recently had major heart surgery. Christopher Cocksworth (Bishop of Coventry) is a former Cambridge theological college principal who has a reputation for reluctance to make decisions in his diocese. Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Chelmsford) from the liberal-catholic wing is considered an outside chance.

While there has been speculation following a Rowan Williams Daily Telegraph interview that the archbishop’s role in the Anglican Communion might be scaled down and become mostly ceremonial, as yet there are no concrete plans to make that change. Canon Kearon was quick to issue a rebuttal when the story appeared. The new archbishop will be asked to assume a nigh-impossible role; it could easily be subdivided into five.

Neither the Church of England nor the Anglican Communion needs a managerial type at a time like this. It will take a strong personality and ability to frame a plausible Anglican-style fudge to keep standing a house divided by cultural differences that go much deeper than the presenting issue of sexuality.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones, who as religion reporter for the London Sunday Telegraph broke the story (never officially denied) that Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, had been blocked after having been chosen as Bishop of Southwark, reportedly has said he already knows who the commission will choose.

Odds are strong that the commission will name Richard Chartres as a short-term “caretaker” to give Justin Welby time to gain more experience as a bishop before taking the reins at Lambeth Palace.

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