Rowan Williams’s via crucis as Archbishop of Canterbury, …and the future without him
by Tom Sutcliffe
At the end of 2012 when he retires to Magdalene College, Cambridge Rowan Williams will have been Primate of All England for a decade.
He did not need to retire until June 14, 2020. Various commentators after the announcement of his return to academe in a prestigious but largely honorary role described the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion, as an “impossible job”. But, sadly, it is Rowan whose tenure of the job has made it seem so.
His term of office has been in many ways disastrous, and it is important to consider why that should be so. In different ways both he and his predecessor George Carey have destabilised rather than stimulated the Church of England. Carey’s poorly conceived and insensitive managerial reform of the central church institutions added to the bureaucratic governance and undermined the existing representative structures, while Williams’s search for a new control mechanism to over-ride the existing autocephalous provincial authority would have created more problems than it solved.
Neither archbishop seemed to possess a well-grounded vision of where the established Church of England was or should be going. But Carey and Williams were outsiders with little or no experience as diocesan bishops in the CofE or of the political aspects of “establishment”.
Neither, for instance, made much of an impression in the House of Lords. Robert Runcie, by contrast, whatever one thinks of his stance, was taken more than seriously when he questioned aspects of the Falklands adventure – so much so that Margaret Thatcher was determined to bypass the CofE episcopal establishment when she sought Runcie’s successor – which is partly how the Church finds itself now in a position where there is no obvious Canterbury candidate with clout and no remotely clear line of succession. This is most definitely not how the filling of this vital job was undertaken previously during the 19th and 20th centuries when the leadership of the CofE was not seen as a curious footnote. The laughable political correctness of advertising the vacant Canterbury post as if it were a perfectly normal job suggests that those running the CofE have very little sense of what is meant by vocation.
Affection and respect… but
Church people have affection for Williams, respect even. He is not blamed for the disaster of his time at Canterbury, since he is only doing a job he was asked to do – not one he in any way sought. He was a bishop of the Church in Wales almost by accident, because of his academic fame, not because he had ever wanted to be a career bishop.
Nobody has accused him of ambition, though there is perhaps a little vanity there – about his poetry and his interest in the remoter depths of philosophy and theology. He cannot help being able to speak seven languages fluently, among other intellectual attainments. But he has seemed a lot more genuine than, for example, the disappointingly flaky Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, or the invariably grandstanding Archbishop of York, John Sentamu – and it is a spiritual sincerity he possesses, which draws on his unpretentious compelling concern for the disadvantaged and the unprivileged.
Being Archbishop of Canterbury has been for him a burdensome unrewarding task, and he has done the job with very little distinctive individuality or effectiveness, having – it would seem – largely failed to master the institution he was called to lead. The beard and untidy hair have made him extremely recognisable, of course. Rowan’s image promises (more than anything he has actually said) a touch of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, it has been impossible for those outside or on the edge of the Church to be clear what he believed in or wanted as Archbishop, while for insiders it has been all too depressingly obvious that he has been subject to what church bureaucrats and others advised was necessary or unavoidable.
He has probably failed to hold the Anglican Communion together. Yet its angry splits seem less significant than he feared they might be, and may not be the break-up he strove to avoid. Handing on Anglicanism in one piece was to his mind what justified his stance on homosexuality: that someone in a physically active and publicly known gay partnership should not or certainly could not be consecrated to the episcopate. It has not occurred to him that ordinary people, including church members, do not regard bishops as a special category on some hotline to the Almighty from which Deans, for example, are barred. And that therefore his readiness to have homosexuals becoming deans as consolation prizes simply looks hypocritical, irrational and absurd to most people – who do not want to have their own Archbishop apparently kowtowing to evil prejudices seemingly endorsed by senior Anglican clerics in various (though not all) parts of Africa.
But his biggest failing has been his poorly communicated and perhaps inarticulate vision of what he senses really matters about the Church of England as an English institution. Anglicanism in its English heartland is as much our national heritage as Shakespeare. It does not of course mean the same to the whole English nation, but it is a rock in our culture – regardless of whether one is a non-conformist or an atheist.
There was never before an Archbishop of Canterbury who seemed not to believe in that in his bones and in his heart. But Rowan is a Welshman and an intellectual, and believes in the Church of England as merely a part of a much larger historical accident.
No other Archbishop would so readily have accepted the downgrading constitutionally implied by Gordon Brown’s decision as prime minister to abdicate the choice between two candidates for CofE bishoprics – including Rowan’s successor whoever he or she may be.
If it no longer matters to the nation whom the CofE chooses on its own account to play this role (which is of course what was implied by the deal proposed by the Scottish PM to the two Archbishops with their Welsh and Ugandan origins) why maintain the charade of establishment, except in a sort of ongoing show of respect for the small genuinely religious and convinced element in the population – including, of course, immigrant minorities who are mostly inclined to be much more consciously serious about how religion supports their culture than many non-paying or non-playing “members” of the CofE? In fact, when Gordon Brown became PM and proposed this constitutional change, Rowan was on sabbatical and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, agreed to it without consulting anybody else including Rowan – to the incredulity and fury of various senior figures in the church. The Prime Minister’s appointments secretary does still have a reduced role in the search for appropriate candidates. But the damage was done, and Rowan failed to restore the situation to what it had been.
Challenges and difficulties
Some (especially the Roman Catholic writers about religion who seem to predominate in the British media these days) have claimed that the problem for the worldwide Anglican church of allowing women and homosexuals to become bishops has not been the biggest challenge with which Rowan has had to contend – that his major difficulty has been Anglicanism’s lack of papal clarity, the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role in the Anglican Communion is purely honorary.
Rowan was not in fact the first Archbishop of Canterbury to have a biography published before he retired, written in his case by an RC who was a pupil of his at Oxford. The first biography of Robert Runcie came out in 1983, even earlier in Runcie’s reign than Rowan’s Rule was in Rowan’s, and Runcie’s best biography was written by an RC, Adrian Hastings.
It would be more accurate to acknowledge that the Church of England is different from the rest of the Anglican Communion because of its intimate place in the British unwritten constitution. But the various and more Erastian Eastern Orthodox churches have also experienced huge political differences over the centuries. All the Orthodox churches have contended with alien and unsympathetic civil powers. There really is no reason why Anglicanism, which stems from the Elizabethan Settlement’s determination to hold together English Puritans and neo-Catholics and also from the post-Restoration 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with its 39 Articles defining our kind of episcopal Protestantism, should not also be capable of allowing wide sociological, political and even to some extent theological divergences in practice to be tolerated and acknowledged by the various Provinces of Anglicanism worldwide.
Of course, the Primates and the Lambeth Conference take an episcopal view of where authority lies or should lie. But the Church of England’s establishment has always been subject to Parliament and the Monarch – and as a result has reflected the power of the Laity much more in the past than it does today. The clericalism that currently more and more characterises the CofE, and that has been reinforced by the ordination of women who previously were the most distinctive voice in the General Synod’s House of Laity, has in fact coincided with a headlong decline in the active identification of much of the population with the national church.
Lack of leadership
In talking about God or Christianity, Rowan has made sense to those who shared and sympathised with his viewpoint. In generalised terms his promotion of Christian truth and preaching of the Gospel have been persuasive. But the broad principles of the Christian ideal are not controversial, any more than are popular assumptions that enable English people to disapprove of those “not being very Christian”.
The surprise has been his inability to give any compelling lead about how he thinks the CofE should handle disagreements over provision for the Conservative element in the women bishops Measure, or the blatant contradiction of the CofE depending on good work by openly homosexual clergy while implicitly condemning their presence in the ministry. He attempted to promote – with modest success in General Synod, though his support there has generally carried little weight – the un-Anglican notion of a Covenant between all the international Provinces (Nigeria, Uganda, the Southern Cone etc etc) to deal with disagreements or developments in theological understanding. But the majority of CofE dioceses have now torn up his baby which would anyway have been diplomatic first aid more than a positive vision.
If the Windsor Covenant were the ultimate authority structure of world Anglicanism, it would surely reinforce theological conservatism. Is that the legacy Rowan would be proud to be remembered for, as someone whose motivation before he went to Canterbury was primarily to help the Church understand its calling in contemporary terms? The CofE side of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role has evidently been less to his taste than the “international” side – with its irregular frustrating encounters with opinionated vociferous ultra-protestant Anglican Primates proclaiming how the Bible has tied their hands.
‘…above the fray’
Seven years ago he explained to me in a frank letter why he felt he had to remove himself personally from advocacy of any particular line. He talked about “trying to secure a fair debate” rather than being achiever of a manifesto, and he saw this “above the fray” role as being appropriate for all bishops – though as No 1 Archbishop he also said, conscious of the ‘megaphone effect’ of the office, “I can’t speak as though my views were the views of the Church. When I try and say something in the public arena about issues of public concern, I have to try and identify matters that can be pretty firmly anchored in common Christian conviction.”
The trouble is that this was not how most archbishops in fact very often behaved in the past. Even the saintly Michael Ramsay allowed himself to be strongly identified with Anglican-Methodist reunion and exposed his sadness when that suffered defeat at the hands of the late Monsignor Graham Leonard, who also was Mrs Thatcher’s choice as Bishop of London (despite the first name on the list she received being John Habgood – subsequently a memorably authoritative Archbishop of York with no equivalent on the current bench).
The two decades since Rowan’s own Anglo-Catholic “party” in the church split apart in 1992 – when Liberal catholics broke rank to give the Women Priests Measure its narrow two-thirds majority – have been specially ill-suited to a hands-off approach from an Archbishop who in effect has knuckled under as the new “Evangelical” majority has secured the power it then obtained in the CofE. Rowan’s attempt to “Speak for the Church” in a way that as he puts it “can claim to be more than just an individual’s ideas” has not really fitted the bill. For the last decade it has felt as if a carnivorous institution were being led by a vegetarian.
Hitherto Archbishops of Canterbury said what they believed in, and tried to draw the people of the church as followers along with them. Rowan, however, has tried to maintain what the Church – as he saw it – believed in. The trouble is that what the Church says it believes in about all sorts of things is to some degree fluid, because language and priorities change all the time, and anyway it is not the source of Anglican church unity. Even the clergy often don’t buy the whole deal, as researchers have been able to show. When the church tries to define, it often creates greater and louder disunity. Anglicanism is a reformation tradition very reflective of adversarial English politics where over the centuries people have agreed to disagree.
Rowan has been a bishop who doesn’t play that game. Instead he has given the impression of not speaking from his own heart, but more like a doctor who tells you what’s good for you or (even less persuasive) what he feels the good book may imply. In truth it does not matter much exactly what laity in the CofE pews think or believe. Like the clergy they believe a very wide range of different theological propositions. But, very specifically, CofE people do not want to be told what they ought to think. Believers have an instinct about how and what they believe. The primary object of religions is not to create a larger more extreme bunch of converts.
Religions are effective because their believers and supporters already know where they stand, and act from that. True, CofE Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals have spent the last almost 200 years fighting about their title deeds and caring a great deal about what that truth really is. And Rowan is probably too much of a genuine though liberal Anglo-Catholic – a type that has been rare at Cantuar. But for most people the sort of scruples he has manifested about using his post to advance his party – while counting on finding a kind of unity somewhere – have made no sense. His justification for his approach to the wielding of his authority has not related to the reality of the Anglican church in England, which is a country where betraying your friends has been seen as more heinous than betraying your nation.
Rowan’s abandonment of Jeffrey John was by and large simply incomprehensible to most people – and indicative of weakness, misjudgment, abuse of power, and muddle-headedness. The explanation could only have been that Rowan was incapable of serious political calculation – since John was victimised for having engaged in an argument about teaching with honesty as well as subtlety. Rowan therefore appeared to be so much the clever academic that he was simply unable to be his own person or to think straight in political terms. He never recovered from conceding victory in that matter to Dr Philip Giddings, now chair of the House of Laity. This was an archbishop who could be pushed around, and so he was. Rowan could be counted on always to be too understanding of both sides of any argument, and too naive about the partisanship appropriate to the development of effective convictions.
The consequence of Rowan’s playing by rules that no Archbishop of Canterbury had ever used before and that most church people even never understood has been totally bewildering. On his watch, and quite bizarrely, the country has contentedly embraced both civil partnerships and women priests – the latter an uncontroversial and popular reform, though one that cannot be accepted by an important if numerically small part of the coalition of traditions which forms the established church. Rowan’s decade has seen large numbers of Anglican clergy enter contracts with civil partners. Yet the leader of the whole CofE charade has been seen desperately trying to shut the stable doors long after the horse has bolted. There’s something depressingly wrong-headed about that. Surely a man who had persuasively concluded that active homosexual relationships might be capable of being free from sin in the Christian sense owed it to the Church, and to the society that Church existed to serve, to contribute his further insights to the development and refinement of the Christian understanding of sexuality. I would not suggest it will be easy to reconcile the “Biblical” view on such matters with the long suppressed sensible insights of Epicurus as relayed by Lucretius in De rerum natura. The purity to which Christian and Islamic fundamentalists hark back fits ill with a liberated understanding of the modern partnership between men and women.
The reason why what some regard as “Biblical” teaching on sexuality has to be refined now is that the Church (above all the Roman Catholic church) has been revealed to have such a long and still unresolved history of practising abuse, that traditional teaching about sexuality, whether drawn from the Bible or from Tradition, is widely held to be contemptible. The sexual misdemeanours and hypocrisy of Catholic clergy have rendered any vestige of authority attaching to that teaching tradition completely insupportable. The current Evangelical focus on persecuting or curing homosexuals looks like merely another chapter in the same sad saga of human folly. And none of this obsession with sexuality closely relates to the central Christian message. Nor are there words uttered by Jesus to put into the balance.
Since the role of Archbishop is undoubtedly a political role, however much Rowan has disliked the establishment of the Church, his disengagement from all these vital arguments has undermined his authority and effectiveness. It is a convention of the British constitution that the Queen does not let on ever what she thinks about issues or individuals. But that active discretion has never applied to her Archbishops – especially since what Rowan published on sexuality “remains on the table” – as he put it. He did not need to pose in this way, which meant that he abdicated from providing a clearly focused sense of direction – and hoped people would regard his approach as justified scrupulousness. It reduced his influence that nobody could be clear what his objectives were in his personal exploration and theological re-examination of the inherited Anglican Christian tradition – for which he certainly has a powerful affection. We now can appreciate much more clearly what he cares about in secular political terms than what ultimately matters to him in Church terms. Rowan even managed to mislead most people about why he thought the Sharia tradition should be considered as a basis for handling marriage discipline within the UK’s Muslim community. The thoughtless felt he was in favour of Sharia law generally – not just being sensitive to neighbours of another faith.
English cultural mix
There are good reasons why Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England have tended for the last 200 years to follow a headmasterly model, even if not – like Geoffrey Fisher – an actual former public school headmaster (of Repton). One could describe the CofE as follows: Canterbury is HM, York deputy HM – and the rest of the House of Bishops are like public school housemasters, with the parish clergy as sort of prefects and the laity as the boys being educated and paying the fees. The arrival of women in the house of bishops will not change things, any more than women parish clergy have undermined the fundamentally masculine model of Anglican church order. But of course Rowan came at all of this as an outsider – in fact neither current Archbishop is Church of England, or specially sympathetic to what the CofE has represented or how it does its job in the English cultural mix.
The reason Rowan’s innocence of English synodical government was so bad for him and for the Church (he was a distinguished and liked academic, from the disestablished Church of Wales who never ran a parish or an English diocese) is that he never had the chance before coming to Canterbury to develop any familiarity or concern with how the CofE goes about its work or what its role really is.
Most previous archbishops (Geoffrey Fisher, Randall Davidson, even the outsider Cosmo Lang) at least went through the hard grind of doing a “housemaster’s” job as diocesan bishop, engaging with the discourse in the House of Bishops or the Lords.
I have known and, like most people, been impressed by Rowan ever since first hearing him speak at the second Loughborough Catholic Renewal conference in April 1983. Since then I have heard him numerous times. He is a fundamentally nice and good man, with a very fine brain, and has done the job of Archbishop of Canterbury honestly and sincerely. It is true that when he talks he tends to preach, but even at General Synod I have heard him be truly inspiring in what he says. Along with others, I campaigned for him to get the top job. I had some practical experience of him having served on the executive committee of Affirming Catholicism from 1996 to 2002 – because Rowan helped build that by now unimpressive “liberal catholic” Anglican movement in the CofE by being one of the speakers at its launch conference in 1990 at St Alban’s, Holborn. And in 1999 I got him (as then Archbishop of Wales) to chair its “millennial” appeal for funds.
Rowan is a strange mixture of lefty and liberal, the former instinct leads him to believe in prescriptive egalitarian social solutions, the latter relates to how he interprets language and faith – where he can seem progressive or unprescriptive or elusive about what is actually meant by a doctrine or a teaching. For him spirituality would seem to be the poetry of faith: he appeals to Christians with liberal instincts because he is not, in his interpretative vein, very doctrinal in a literal sense. Language is the stuff of philosophy and theology, and when Rowan distinguishes between the God he believes in and sundry other interpretations of what God is thought to be and to want from us, one can easily conclude Rowan is “on the side of the angels” – that he shares one’s view (whoever one may be). Perhaps that is a useful pastoral gift, seeming onside.
The General Synod has often given Rowan standing ovations and warm endorsements perhaps mainly because the theological language he uses is nebulous or ambivalent enough to make a wide variety of religious-minded people feel comfortable (being “inclusive” is an Anglican mantra, though more of a myth than reality). However, it is much much rarer for the Synod to actually do what Rowan says he wants, or vote the way he wants - because he usually draws back from that sort of leadership exercise. Often it is unclear how passionately he is committed to getting something through. When both Archbishops suggested the women bishops Measure needed to be revised and made more user friendly for conservatives who can never accept women bishops, the House of Clergy took not a blind bit of notice. At the General Synod meeting in February, a Manchester motion called for the House of Bishops to do what the Archbishops had indicated they wanted and got much the same dusty answer. The issue for the Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals is whether they will have to recognise women bishops in requesting them to delegate responsibility for pastoral care, or whether the Measure will provide for women bishops to be bypassed by those who cannot recognise their consecration. The success of the Southwark amendment demanding there be no wording change whatever was a Pyrrhic victory. The voting figures in February suggest that, unless the Archbishops get the changes they wish from the House of Bishops, the Measure will not achieve the two-thirds majority it needs in the House of Laity when it comes to the Synod in July.
Rowan has rarely put his personal authority on the line. He has stated what he thought ought to happen – but has at the same time implied that others must make up their own minds. That is not how generals win battles or headmasters maintain a school’s orderly sense of direction.
Not what was expected
I thought I knew the kind of Archbishop he would be when he was appointed – less of a witty diplomat than Runcie, but as convincing in his well articulated spirituality and vision as Michael Ramsay. However, when I sent him a card in summer 2002 congratulating him on taking the job, I wrote that I well knew he would have to displease a number of his supporters in this new role. I expected he would proceed differently from how his predecessor George Carey had gone about business – politically blinkered, and working exclusively for his own ecclesiastical party (in Carey’s case a fairly conservative Evangelicalism). I did not expect Rowan to abandon the causes in which he had seemed to believe – as he has done – in order to play the chairman above the arguments. I also did not appreciate how very little he understood or related to the Church of England, how little he valued our carefully fostered lay involvement by means of the General Synod (an institution he has admitted not warming to) into which Randall Davidson’s creation of the Church Assembly in the 1920s has grown.
In practice Rowan’s approach to leadership has been exactly what was not needed after the radical but ill-thought out reforms imposed on the CofE by his predecessor. Archbishop Carey wanted to establish a managerial approach because he was so alarmed at press reactions to “losses” (mostly not real) in the value of investments held by the Church Commissioners in 1992. It is always a mistake to react too quickly to a bad press – unless you are in the democratic process, which the Church is not.
Carey by creating the Archbishops’ Council has castrated the General Synod as a creative or useful element in the complicated equation of the “National Church Institutions”. The House of Bishops has also been largely dragooned into submission to Carey’s construction of this new power nexus at the helm of the church. What Carey’s successor needed to do was to reconsider his legacy.
After Rowan, that reconsideration will be even more important. But there have been so many changes over the last 20 years that there is little appetite for further tinkering. Carey’s obsession with managerialism centralised various aspects of the governance of the Church at precisely a time when delegation and enhancing the regional and representative character of the institution would have been more useful to the country.
The Church remains the most decentralised aspect of English life. Rowan as an outsider from Wales should have responded to that important aspect, though it perhaps conflicts with his socialism. In his remaining months in office he could try and restore a sense of pride in that crucial CofE quality of localism wherever he can.
Understanding and shaping the structures
The last Archbishop of Canterbury really interested in the structures of the Church of England and with the skill to shape them creatively was the under-rated Geoffrey Fisher, widely dismissed because of his (mistaken) obsession with revision of Canon Law. In fact Fisher did magnificent work with the Church Commissioners (as Andrew Chandler’s 2006 book on this topic shows), and those reforms of the 1950s sustained the Church until relatively recently.
The changes brought about by Carey in the 1990s are proving nothing like as effective or appropriate. The problem of course is the nature of the Church of England today, and wherein lies its power and effectiveness.
Carey’s changes to the General Synod and creation of the Archbishops’ Council have in fact produced an unwieldy and demanding structure at the top which is far less potent than the combination of talented individuals it seeks to mobilise.
Graham James, now Bishop of Norwich and in the late 1980s chaplain to Robert Runcie, addressed the issue of the elusiveness of effective power in the Church of England in an essay he contributed to a Wesley Carr collection, Say One for Me. He commented on how power in the church always seems to be somewhere other than where it is needed. Parish priests think it is in the diocesan administration. Those working at Church House, Westminster think real power lies with the Church Commissioners or at Lambeth Palace, while those working for the Archbishop at Lambeth may well come to conclude that most constructive power is actually to be found at the grassroots in the parishes, where CofE clergy exercise power most directly. These checks and balances largely result from the Church of England being much more lay dominated than people realise – not only because of the long-established system of patronage and the post-Reformation role of Parliament, but because ultimately it is the laity who pay the pipers and thus call the tune. This fact is deeply frustrating for those who would like the Archbishop of Canterbury to have more juridical authority.
Actually an Archbishop of Canterbury has plenty of implicit authority if he knows how to apply it. But it is an authority which emerges through affection and assent rather than from jurisdiction. An Archbishop of Canterbury also possesses a teaching authority when he successfully and consensually articulates what the Church believes. However, the lack of jurisdiction may seem to free Archbishops to express personal convictions if they wish. A lack of power to compel implies a capacity to lead – even if the Church does not wish to follow (as in the case of Michael Ramsey and Anglican-Methodist reunion). Rowan has tested the limits of this kind of moral leadership in connection with his ill-fated Anglican Covenant.
But there really is not now an appetite for further structural reform, and especially not for anything like another National Institutions Measure. Unfortunately, in spite of all the ambitious talk about slimming down and streamlining Church of England structures at the top, they have in fact become more burdensome to the Archbishop of Canterbury since the retirement of Robert Runcie. The time the Archbishop must now give to meetings of the Archbishops’ Council, the General Synod, the House and College of Bishops, let alone the Primates’ Meetings, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates’ Standing Committee is quite bad enough. But in addition the Crown Nominations Commission now meets twice (at least) for each appointment. So the archiepiscopal diary is clogged with meetings, some of which are seeking a purpose rather than fulfilling one. Quite how Rowan has had the time to read, and write so many brilliant lectures, when his diary is so full is mysterious. The truth is the Archbishop of Canterbury has been sucked into the ecclesiastical machine by the Carey reforms in an unhelpfully bureaucratic way. It might be more bearable were the Archbishop of York to carry some of the burden more directly and release the Archbishop of Canterbury. But for many, indeed almost all of these dates both Archbishops have to be present. No doubt it would not be necessary to reform the whole structure in order to change the way in which it operates in future in terms of the personnel involved. The one area where successive Archbishops have managed to delegate is their role of Chair of the Church Commissioners. Yet this is actually where some of the most significant decisions are made about the use of central resources.
Growth of staff numbers
Another intriguing development is the substantial growth in the numbers of staff at Lambeth Palace and Bishopthorpe in York. The additions have accrued gradually without any overall plan or strategy. A consequence of the National Institutions Measure was that Lambeth staff were put on permanent contracts. None of them is expected to offer resignation when a new Archbishop comes into office. Rowan, arriving at Lambeth, wanted to bring Gregory Cameron (his chaplain as Archbishop of Wales) to fill the same role there, but found he had to take over George Carey’s existing chaplain. So Gregory Cameron went to the ACC office where of course the staff are distant from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan’s successor will in exactly the same inconvenient way inherit a staff moulded by and committed to Rowan. But the nature of ministry is intensely personal, and the tradition in the Church has always been that a Bishop or Archbishop choose his own chaplains – not receive them as if they were generalised civil servants with no particular vocation.
In this respect the Church has thoughtlessly been obliged to follow the model set by the Cabinet Office and Westminster. Yet the nature of inspirational governance and stimulus from the Archbishop on which church members count ought to mean every Archbishop can create a personal team for what needs to be an intensely personal ministry. Over a few years they will work to achieve just that. The personal loyalty of the staff at Lambeth to Rowan in recent years is impressive. But perhaps they are rather more like disciples than staff.
When a team gets so large, all with distinct responsibilities, they compete for the Archbishop’s time and make him even busier. They do this because they have to justify their employment, especially since the current Lambeth staff are not employed to draft speeches, sermons and lectures – all of which Rowan has done for himself. This of course reflects his particular skills. But it means that any sense of the Archbishop’s voice being a corporate one, as it seemed to be in the Runcie era, has evaporated. Even George Carey had staff writing for him. So Rowan’s personal accomplishment and brilliance leave a problem. There is no existing culture for the new Archbishop to come into and inhabit, in a sense no hive for the Queen bee. Partly that is because the Church of England (and consequently the Anglican Communion) has been looking for a saviour in the past two appointments. There is much talk again about it being an impossible job, requiring peculiarly special diplomatic as well as intellectual skills in order to square the circle of the differences between the more traditional and more progressive provinces in the Anglican Communion. But the Church of England has of course still got the Saviour it has always had. All it needs now is an Archbishop of Canterbury!
Structures and cultures
Thus, to focus so dramatically and controversially on personalities in the Canterbury stakes entirely misses the point about structures and culture. The structures of the National Church Institutions are overdeveloped but not purposeful. The culture is weak. Everyone imagines the Church of England is run by a civil service. The General Synod to a possibly undesirable extent is run by the Secretary General’s office, and there is in effect a very efficient civil service in Church House.
The abolition of the General Synod Standing Committee, and the supposed adoption of that function by the Archbishops’ Council, has lobotomised the General Synod – effectively removing the power of initiative which to an extent it formerly held, though often stymied by the stalemate of representation of various church parties on that Standing Committee. The General Synod’s Business Committee is in no way a substitute for that function, and listening to the desire for initiatives evolving or represented in the General Synod membership is not something that the Archbishops’ Council or the Archbishops themselves see as any significant part of their work.
The Archbishops can now even choose outsiders to be members of the Archbishops’ Council (they have to be approved by the General Synod, but to reject these choices would be like calling for the dismissal of the Archbishops): Carey also followed the modern political and business fashion of preferring to listen to the messages from focus groups of his own choice. But by now, with the coming appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury in view, the culture at Lambeth is Rowan-shaped rather than Archbishop-serving. It will be a mammoth task to reverse these arrangements. Whoever takes up the Canterbury Cross (if this analysis is in any way correct) will not find it easy.
Anyone yearning to be Archbishop of Canterbury must either be naďve or consumed by vanity. There is indeed a crisis. But few people seem to be asking the right questions about what the Archbishop of Canterbury is actually for. It is so much easier to make him the focus of all our fantasies and frustrations, and to expect him to provide the answers to our problems without giving him any levers of power. If we have felt during this difficult decade that we have needed heroic leadership, then in a way (and despite the apparent failures and disasters of his term in office) Rowan may indeed have provided that.
In the immediate future after his retirement, there are actually some rather dull engineering jobs to be done to our ecclesiastical machine. Not very exciting for anyone to contemplate and undertake, necessary though they may be, nor easy to fix. Perhaps we need to be a great deal less ambitious in the search for a successor. We need somebody with a realistic sense of the nature of the task inside and outside the Church of England itself, and of the potent subtle tradition from which that task stems. We need to lower our expectations and admit that there are no short-cuts, and to accept that a bumpy ride is not going to be the end of the world.
[A shorter version of this article was posted on the website of The Spectator magazine on March 30th, 2012.]
Tom Sutcliffe was a boy chorister at Chichester Cathedral in the days of Bishop George Bell, and then educated at a strongly CofE school, Hurstpierpoint College, before studying English at Magdalen College, Oxford where he was a tenor choral scholar. He taught English at what became the specialist musical Purcell School, and then was countertenor lay-clerk at Westminster Cathedral. He was manager of the pioneering early music ensemble Musica Reservata, and a founder member of the chamber vocal group Pro Cantione Antiqua, as well as singing for the Schola Polyphonica and the Concentus Musicus in Vienna (under Nikolaus Harnoncourt). He made his opera debut in Darmstadt in 1970. He edited Music & Musicians magazine and then worked on staff for The Guardian newspaper for 23 years, before becoming opera critic of the London Evening Standard from 1996 to 2002. He was twice awarded Leverhulme research fellowships, and is an Hon Fellow of Rose Bruford College. He wrote Believing in Opera, and edited The Faber Book of Opera. He was first elected to the General Synod of the Church of England in 1990 and remains a member. He was on the executive committee of Affirming Catholicism from 1996 to 2002, and was a member of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England from 2002-11. He is currently President of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.