Communion Could Have More Say in Choosing ABC

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby | Photo: World Council of Churches

By Mark Michael

Representatives from across the Anglican Communion may have a stronger role in choosing its next spiritual leader, if a proposal currently being floated by the Church of England Archbishops’ Council is ultimately approved.

Advocates propose to alter the allotment of seats on the 16-member Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) which selects the Archbishop of Canterbury, in light of his “myriad of different roles” as focus of unity and an Instrument of Communion for worldwide Anglicanism, primate of the Communion’s historic mother church, and chief pastor of a relatively small diocese in Southeastern England.

“The background purpose of the change is to enable the representation of the Anglican Communion to be increased. In a Communion that is at least 75 per cent from the Global South, at the last Canterbury CNC the entire Communion was represented by the Archbishop of Wales,”  wrote William Nye, the Council’s secretary-general, in a formal consultation document released on January 15.

The Times reports that opposition to the changes have been raised by some within the Church of England, especially by progressives, who fear that a stronger global representation will make it more difficult to elect a female archbishop or one who will challenge the Church of England’s current traditional teaching on human sexuality.

The Rev. Andrew Foreshew-Cain, chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, described the changes as “an attempt to create an Anglican pope” and said of the current archbishop. “How on earth can he justify having a bunch of bishops from all around the world interfering in the life of an English diocesan bishop?” The changes would, Foreshew-Cain added, “make life for the LGBT community in this country more difficult and progress towards change more tortuous.”

The document proposes increasing the overall size of the commission’s voting membership from 16 to 17, and the number of seats reserved for delegates of the 80-million-member Communion from one to five. The number of seats allotted to Canterbury Diocese’s 231 parishes would be halved, from six to three.

The Communion’s five representatives would be chosen from regions outside the British Isles, and they would include primates, other clergy, and laity. The proposal suggests a delegate from each of the Anglican Communion’s five regions, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Europe. However, with the four provinces in the British Isles excluded, the “European” seat could only be filled by representatives of the five tiny extra-provincial churches (Spain, Portugal, Bermuda, Ceylon, and the Falklands Islands), only two of which are in Europe.

As in the past, representatives of the wider Church of England will make up the remainder of the selection committee. These include a chair appointed by the prime minister, two bishops (including the Archbishop of York if he or she is not a candidate), and six persons elected by the church’s General Synod (three clergy and three lay). The appointment secretaries of the prime minister and the archbishop also serve as non-voting members, as does the Anglican Communion’s secretary-general.

Bishops of the Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, are formally elected by the college of canons of their cathedral church on the nomination of the Crown. In practice, the commission chooses the candidate, and may choose a reserve candidate in case the chosen candidate becomes unavailable, in both cases by a two-thirds majority. The prime minister advises the queen to nominate the candidate identified by the commission.

Welby, 66, has served as Archbishop of Canterbury since 2013. He has not made any announcement about retiring. The Anglican Communion’s Secretary-General, the Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, plans to step down after this summer’s Lambeth Conference.

The proposal for changing representation on the Crown Nominations Commission emerged from the Diocese of Canterbury in 2015, when its diocesan synod suggested the rebalancing “to give more weight to a very significant part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s job which concerns his leadership of the Anglican Communion.”

The consultation document notes that Archbishop Welby estimates that he only spends about 5 percent of his time on diocesan work, most of which is delegated to the Bishop of Dover, a post currently held by the Rt. Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin. By contrast, Welby notes that he spends about 25 percent of his time on Anglican Communion work, and that there is significant overlap between this and his role leading the Church of England, especially when addressing public issues of global concern.

The document also attempts to take account of the Anglican Communion’s morally complex roots in British colonialism, saying: “As nations and peoples across the world seek to find better ways of relating internationally than the inherited and often unbalanced patterns still shaping our lives, the Church of England and the Communion cannot escape asking why a British cleric should always be primus inter pares.”

It continues, “What the Church of England can offer however is self-awareness of its own biases, and an attempt to make its own processes more inclusive and fairer. It may only be a small step, and a first step, but changing the composition of the CNC recognizes the immense importance of the Communion, and seeks to work with them as partners by listening more carefully and inviting them into the discernment process. Doing so is part of a process of continuous conversion and reform in our common life, to come closer to express the reality of equality and dignity before God.”

“The inequality of our present arrangements speaks neither of oneness, nor of holiness. The call of the Church to do justly asks that we consider how we start to disentangle the complex threads of our historic inheritance and find new ways of being.”

The document sidesteps the question of whether the Archbishop of Canterbury could be a non-UK citizen, stating “It is not within the gift of the Church of England to change this unilaterally, nor should it be. This is a question for the Communion as a whole to consider, consultatively and collaboratively.”

The selection of modern Archbishops of Canterbury from provinces outside the Church of England is not unprecedented, as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Welby’s immediate predecessor, Rowan Williams, was Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales before his 2002 election. Given the archbishop’s historic role as a Privy Counsellor and a member of the House of Lords, significant restructuring of the office would be necessary to accomodate an incumbent who was not also a British citizen.

The Canterbury synod’s proposal was initially discussed by the Archbishops’ Council in 2018. They postponed acting on it until after the Lambeth Conference then scheduled for 2020. With the conference now delayed until the summer of 2022, the council took up the matter again in September 2021, a step Welby had also encouraged.

The council distributed the consultation document to a diverse group of leaders within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, though anyone may respond to it. It poses a series of questions:

  • Do you agree that the Diocese of Canterbury representation should be reduced from six to three members?
  • Do you agree that the Anglican Communion representation should increase by four members to total five representatives on the CNC?
  • [If so] “Do you agree that they should be based on the Anglican Communion regions other than the four provinces of the British Isles?
  • If you do not agree that there should be five Anglican Communion representatives but that there should be more than one Anglican Communion representative, do you agree that they should come from different regions of the Anglican Communion?
  • Do you agree that the Anglican Communion representatives should be a combination of primates, clergy and laity?

Responses to the consultation are requested by March 31. General Synod is expected to debate the proposal at its February meeting, followed by a vote on the final version of the proposal in July.

Thanks to Dr. Colin Podmore MBE for invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

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