Straight down the middle – the via media up close and personal

Electing the Archbishop of Canterbury


A society’s rituals – so history teaches- reflects profound truths about what we are or what we believe ourselves to be. This year the queen’s Diamond Jubilee offered us the reassurance of a link between monarch and people that has lasted a millennium. Like many superficial truths this hides a multitude of sins.

The rituals of modern monarchy – which we so esteem – the pageantry which surrounds the queen and the ancient ceremonials celebrated on TV –  the State Opening of Parliament; the succession of processions for royal jubilees,  royal weddings and royal funerals – are largely modern constructs. The pomp and circumstance – even of the coronation service itself – are in fact inventions owing more to George IV’s inventive theatricality and the effects of the arriviste grandeur of Napoleon Bonaparte –  than to anything recognisably older.

The pageant that’s modern monarchy is as about as authentic as a Disney Castle and has more in common with fairytale than reality. Indeed it often has little to do with history – even that version of it generations of children might once have called Our Island Story – a version of history I’ve always thought that oddly implies that of all the many, many isles that make up the British archipelago only one really matters.

Still it’s proved an effective means of neutering democracy. Ceremonial monarchy wreathes our constitutional rights in an obfuscating mist of myth; it sets our institutions of government at a safe distance across a silver sea of polite deference. A single lifetime hardly serves to cross these vast expanses. The magic ensures that no one ever lives long enough to ask the awkward questions that our governing elite really need to answer.

And while the Media simpers over royal dresses and modes of royal address; processions and orders of precedence; successions male and female – filling our lives with royal trivia and our eyes with ceaseless parades of carriages carrying princes and princesses –  the men dolled up in all manner of Ruritanian uniform and the women dolls of fashion – the conspiracy of silence holds good as the gold they wear.

Our childish hearts swell with pride and our childish heads are filled by happy images of  kings and queens – happy and glorious. This in part explains why, as childishly, we still half-expect our princes and princesses to marry and live happily-ever-after – when the hard evidence abounds – particularly from the House of Windsor – that royal marriages of all marriages are the most likely to end in tears. And this for no worse reason than we impose upon them such a fantasy of unrealistic hopes that it’s almost impossible for two real people to meet our expectations.

Yet even so, in the midst this year, so full popular adulation and of rich ceremonial, even in this moment of cultural singularity – there is something to catch the eye – so close to parody that W.S Gilbert would probably have dismissed it from his consideration as too ridiculous to be worthy of satire.

Just after the last New Year Archbishop Rowan Williams made a surprise announcement that he would retire at the end of this year.

Amongst the other excitements of the summer it may have escaped your notice that currently the Church of England too is fixed too upon one of its own periodic and particular rituals – the selection of a new archbishop of Canterbury. And it is managing to make a sows ear from the silken purse of process.

The Ugandan born Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, was initially the hot favourite. It was thought the appointing commission would put the archbishop of York through on the nod. But others shook their heads in disbelief.

The archbishop of Canterbury as well as being mitred Primate of All England (as opposed to the archbishop of York who is more modestly merely Primate of England) is also the spiritual father to the nation. A leading light in the House of Lords he is also maker of marriages, christenings, funerals – & coronations – by royal appointment. In addition he acts also as a sort of de facto head –  chairperson if you will –  of the wider Anglican Communion – namely those Episcopal churches founded in the process of English empire-building after the sixteenth century and which somehow managed to survive the setting of the sun over two British Empires –  and which therefore also coincidentally includes all the Episcopalian churches of the fifty odd states of the USA, as well as the Episcopal churches in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Scotland,  Ireland and Wales.

And it was from the Welsh Province that Dr Rowan Williams came –  rather than from within the English church itself where all appointments are made by patronage of the crown. Initially it seemed a truly imaginative appointment – in the style say of the great Michael Ramsey or even an Anglican Pope John XXIII. Williams was a good bishop with plenty of pastoral experience. He was an intellectual, an historian of the church, a known liberal theologian and a reformer but also more of a liturgical traditionalist. He looked like a man well suited to ride the tiger of an Anglican communion riven with cultural and religious divisions. He had in particular an open position when it came to gay clergy. But like Pope Paul VI (Montini) over contraception in 1968 push came to shove over the selection of the celibate but openly gay Jeffrey Johns as bishop-elect of Reading. Under fire Rowan’s initial support for Johns’ appointment melted away.

Afterwards Rowan Williams always seemed to be playing catch-up – and anxious to please everyone he ended by pleasing no one. His failure to lead made gay rights and the wrongs done to gay men and women by the church become the big issue within the Anglican communion. As the American Episcopal Church pushed forward with its own liberal social agenda – electing gay clergy into Episcopal office horrified African churches in particular moved in an opposite direction. The Ugandan church for example actually supports secular legislation which makes homosexual acts a capital offence.

The Archbishop of York’s views on homosexuality in general and gay marriage therefore became an issue. Whilst his conservative theology on sexuality plays well in the African heartlands it didn’t move many hearts in the establishment of the church in England. And the harder they looked at the archbishop’s positions the more impossible the favourite became to appoint to Canterbury. For it is homosexuality that has become the lightning-rod conducting a the wider debate that rages in the cloistered quiet of English cathedrals.

The Crown Nominations Commission therefore has turned its attention to the evangelical but urbane Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby and to a self styled  Anglo-Catholic, the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. The former hasn’t long been a bishop and though he is on the evangelical wing he is not long on form. An Anglo-catholic might also seem out of step with the spirit of the times but he might also make the bitter pill of women bishops easier for other traditionalists to swallow. But neither commands a majority of the commission. So last week they adjourned no further forward than when all this started informally last January

So it is that the fifteen men and women communicant and true are still unable to make an appointment – and this after a long ten months of waiting for God’s do….or don’t…as the case may be. And now with less than twelve weeks before Archbishop Rowan Williams retires to the Mastership of Magdalene College in Cambridge – matters are becoming urgent. The matter it seems has become too hot for the system to handle.

Anglicanism – rather like the English monarchy – was invented to keep idle hands from the devil. It was designed to be less a faith and more an instrument of social-politics. Indeed when it was imagined in the later sixteenth century it was deliberately made in the image of a king – so as to own no other meaning – save as a spiritual embodiment of the English monarchy.

When in Time’s fullness a Scots king became England’s king his Scots church remained separate in identity and ritual practice to its English confrere. Indeed it might be argued that  the Civil War between Charles I and Parliament might never have come about had it not been for a forlorn attempt to make the Presbyterian Kirk dress itself in the clerical copes of the quasi-Episcopal English Church of Archbishop Laud.

And as a consequence the Faith which the English crown resolutely defends is as resolutely a different faith in Scotland – and even more so in Northern Ireland – though neither the Crown nor those Countries would thank you for pointing this out. But acts of Union have always meant that the lesser parts of the UK play by English rules. So, the appointment of an archbishop to England’s southern metropolitan See, is a national matter, if not exactly one of national interest.

It has to be said that having settled a king or queen in place of Pope that you might well imagine that plucking a man from decent obscurity and making him up to be archbishop of Canterbury might be a task well fitted to expeditious execution by the crown. After all,  twice yearly, in long lists, the crown matches all manner of persons to all manner of improbable titles. The monarch of England and her successor kingdoms has had a long and distinguished history of making all sorts of unsuitable men and women – dukes and duchesses – marquises and marchionesses – even occasionally making knights of gentlemen and ladies of gentlewomen – though never sadly the other way around.

Given long experience, therefore,  it might seem a simple thing to make a simple clerk a simple archbishop. And that all might be simply done without too much fuss and with as little ceremony as possible – in keeping with the Protestant Spirit of the English church – if no longer quite conforming to the actual letter of its Calvinist beliefs – as set out in the famous Thirty Nine Articles of Religion that alone provide the legal, jurisdictional (& presumably spiritual) basis of this, our national church.

But Religion by its Nature is rarely simple; its revealed truths are often too inconvenient to be susceptible to simple faith. These days few who attend church any longer adhere to the Articles; fewer yet might tell you what said Articles say; and fewest of all will choose to profess them any longer as articles of faith. And as Wilde says of truth – that it’s rarely pure and never simple –  we can hardly expect less of our National church. So, with the church of England there is a long tradition of things never being simply out of the question. Usually the fashion has been to ask an alternative question which will allow you to arrive at the desired answer.

In will therefore come as little surprise that the English governing caste, with its taste for the theatre of the absurd and its genius for convolution, have engineered a process of selection-cum-election of archbishops of Canterbury that makes a closed, secret papal conclave look like a model of openness. Whether that might be seen as some comment by the Holy Spirit upon the nature of the Eccelsia Anglicana – in all of His Three Persons – God alone may judge or as another greater wit once penned: “The King sends the Dean and Canons a congé d’élire, or leave to elect, but also sends them the name of the person whom they are to elect. They go into the Cathedral, chant and pray; and after these invocations invariably find that the dictates of the Holy Ghost agree with the recommendation of the King” Ralph Waldo Emerson

So whilst – like the pope as bishop of Rome – the appointment of an Anglican archbishop is a local matter in a practical sense for the English church and most practically and locally one for the archdiocese of Canterbury – it is in effect also a matter of national politics and has international religious implications for the wider Anglican Communion.

In the days after the establishment of the Lambeth Conference – and indeed probably until the flags of independence rose over the new nations of Africa in the 1960s – none of these layers of distinction within the archbishop’s office mattered very much – as one of these roles wasn’t obviously inconsistent with another. But theological developments and political divergences that followed the end of the Second World War have impacted on the church and upon that wider dimension of the role of Canterbury that so long was successfully contained within the narrows of the practice of the church in England.

The High Church had – post Newman and the Oxford movement –  long come to encompass a largely Roman Catholic ritual on the one hand whilst the Low Church followed a more Methodist mean and evangelical Protestant tradition on the other. Sandwiched between these two sides of the one coin was an accommodating middling ritual beloved by middle England. Their religion was, at least in their own minds, a middling Protestantism –  a middle-way  – a way which called itself the Elizabethan via-media – but was factually and actually another  child of the Victorian monarchy.

The solid English church had its hymnody and its anthems.  Its liturgy was encompassed in Thomas Cranmer’s Second Book of Common Prayer – a bare tradition; of simple ceremony; performed within whitewashed walls of England’s ancient cathedrals; a church with no statues; with few cloths and fewer candles – and most certainly no votive lights. A church of no candles; no popery; no nonsense and governed by a mild-mannered episcopate with few pretences to exercise Episcopal office.  At its worst it was the church of Trollope’s Barchester and its Bishop Proudy. At its best it gave us the gift of William Temple and Michael Ramsey. And they and their like are no mean ornaments to any Christian faith.

But liberal theology on the one hand and Biblical fundamentalism on the other have undermined what had seemed to be a willing and working compromise between these rather disparate parties of belief but which was in fact never truly anything more than a reflection of an accidental religious status quo that existed at the end of Empire and flourished in the aftermath of the Great War.

In this same period responsibility for the appointment of an archbishop has all but ceased to be a quasi-political appointment – crown patronage exercised by a Prime Minister – to once more being a ecclesiastical appointment mediated by a political interest and the monarch’s participation as the church’s Supreme Governor. Of course that to some extent is the nub of the problem –  for the sovereign – although Head of the Commonwealth – is not Supreme Head nor Defender of the Anglican Communion.

Meanwhile the Episcopal churches of the old (white) Dominions have drifted to a socially more and more liberal Christian theology. There have long been women priests in the American Episcopalian church and since the 1980s there have been women bishops. Since then the English church has ordained women first as deacons, then priests and now finally, it wishes to emulate its sister churches in the New World and ordain and consecrate women bishops. To the wider public this seems an arcane debate for fusty old clerics.

The secular societies of the West now see no problem in placing women in positions of authority. It is not quite that straightforward. Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II have ruled out, for doctrinal reasons, the ordination of women as priests and bishops. This is a position endorsed by the Orthodox churches. Oddly it is now also a position which is being endorsed in practice by the fundamentalist churches that flourish in the South and south-west of the United States and whose influence has spread far and wide in South America and Africa. This reformed evangelical Christianity champions a subordinate role for women – whom they believe were placed under the government of men as a consequence of the Fall and as is clearly set out in the books of Genesis.

In the consumerist West this resistance to change is seen purely as the Catholic Church being old fashioned and dare I say irrelevant to the modern world. And that perception chimes into the other social positions taken by the Catholic Church – whether on contraception; abortion or gay rights.

And it is those other social teachings which have themselves opened up a huge doctrinal chasm between the liberal and conservative theologies inside the wider Anglican Communion…a chasm that also happens to run down the racial divide between the doctrinally fundamentalist and socially conservative African and South American churches and those of more liberal culture in the USA and old dominions. Inside the US Episcopal conference those divisions have led to individual parishes seceding from the  liberal mainstream. That process itself being accelerated by the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

Yet, it is in fact probably the most significant theological debate within the wider Christian Church since the Reformation and Counter Reformation. And it is a debate as capable of changing the Christian Church as fundamentally as those great movements – and in its way  it also mirrors the struggle that also convulses Islam.

And my conclusion is that there’s no easy conclusion to be drawn.

But as we gaze into the starry night or look as Curiosity seeks out signs of life’s building blocks on the surface of Mars, it is an even greater wonder to me that man wastes his life in an arid narrow literalism about meanings in books thousands of years old and words written in a language he cannot read for himself. We serve a short life here on earth. Is there anything as wonderful as knowing that the knowledge we gain from this experience of the worlds in which we are blessed to briefly abide may be shared from generation to generation. For if we seek the truth one thing is most certain we will not find it in the narrow compass of our small minds nor in the narrowness of our blinkered vision. It is only when we look out beyond ourselves that we might make sense of things – and perhaps be worthy of trying to make sense of anything as big as the omnipotence of God.



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