King Charles III Becomes Supreme Governor of Church of England
By Kirk Petersen
Queen Elizabeth II, who as Supreme Governor of the Church of England nominally appointed six Archbishops of Canterbury, died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8 at the age of 96. Titular leadership of the Church now vests in her eldest son, King Charles III, who like all British monarchs will be styled “Defender of the Faith,” and who will probably appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, said “we have lost the person whose steadfast loyalty, service and humility has helped us make sense of who we are through decades of extraordinary change in our world, nation and society.”
“Her resilience, her dignity, and her model of quiet faith and piety have been — and will continue to be — an example for so many. May she rest in peace and rise in glory,” said Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry of the Episcopal Church.
It’s been widely noted that Elizabeth worked with 15 prime ministers. She also worked with seven Archbishops of Canterbury. When she ascended to the throne at the age of 25 in February 1952, the Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher, who crowned her in Westminster Abbey, had been Archbishop of Canterbury for more than six years. The first vacancy in her 70-year reign occurred in Year 9, when Fisher retired in May 1961.
As a legal matter, the British monarch “appoints” the ABC, but does not choose him. It would be more fitting to say she gives her blessing. The initial choice is made by Crown Nominations Commission, which was expanded this year from 16 to 17 members, and reorganized to give more voice to the worldwide Anglican Communion The CNC gives two names to the British prime minister, who then submits one name to the monarch, according to the ABC’s website. (It is not clear what would happen if the monarch refuses to make the appointment; Elizabeth never did so.)
After processes similar to this, Queen Elizabeth appointed the current ABC and his five predecessors, including:
- Michael Ramsey, enthroned 1961
- Donald Coggan, 1974
- Robert Runcie, 1980
- George Carey, 1991
- Rowan Williams, 2003
- Justin Welby, 2013
Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that if he remains healthy, he plans to stay in office until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 in January 2026. King Charles, who is currently 73, would then appoint the 106th ABC.
Despite the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the monarch’s role has little formal authority in the Church. He or she blesses the appointment of other bishops and officers of the Church, and generally addresses meetings of General Synod. The royal title initially was Supreme Head of the Church of England, instituted in 1531 by King Henry VIII — who created the Church of England and wielded considerable authority. He had a bishop beheaded, for example.
In one of her last acts as Supreme Governor, Elizabeth issued a message to the Lambeth Conference when it gathered in August. She noted that at the 1920 Lambeth Conference, “the bishops of the Anglican Communion set out a path for an ongoing commitment towards Christian unity in a changing world; a task that is, perhaps, even more important today, as together you look to the future and explore the role of the church in responding to the needs of the present age.”