The 50,000 guineas
When George Carey retires as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, he will leave both a Church of England and an Anglican Communion to his successor in far better shape than many might have imagined. This is a quite remarkable achievement given that the nature of the job is that it is almost impossible for the incumbent to be master of his own destiny.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has to preside over a House of Bishops, the members of which are appointed for life (or at least until they are 70). He has limited powers to intervene in what goes on in their dioceses, but whatever does go on can impact the public perception of the whole Church of England. He may approve of the way their dioceses are run, but if he does not, his scope for manoeuvre is very restricted. If a diocesan were publicly to disagree with him, it would quickly become obvious that the Archbishop has no effective sanctions that he can apply.
He must endure criticism of the ‘he ought to do something about so-and-so’ variety, when in practice doing nothing is the pragmatic course, however much he might wish that there were actions that he could take.
He presides over the Anglican Communion, but in practice his influence over other autonomous provinces is more symbolic than real. It was greatly to the Archbishop’s credit that the outcome of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was such a strong endorsement of traditional teaching and values. The consensus that was achieved helped to hold the communion together, however weak may be the ties that bind. Nevertheless, the Archbishop was powerless to prevent numerous bishops returning home and promptly encouraging their diocesan synods to pass motions in complete defiance of what had so recently been agreed by an overwhelming majority of the Primates.
So Archbishop George is to step down. However, what never ceases to amaze me is how the media always feel compelled to report Church events in a secular context.
A friend was in Dublin on the morning that the news broke. He came back to London with a copy of the Irish Times to comment, with wry amusement, on the way that journal had handled the story. Their main interest appeared to be the odds being offered against the likely candidates by Dublin bookmakers.
Now, of course, we all know that you cannot believe what you read in the newspapers. The London Times jumped to the conclusion that an American-style Presidential contest must be underway. It seized upon an appearance by the Bishop of Rochester on Radio 4’s Today Programme, which described him as ‘the front-runner to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury effectively declaring his candidacy.’ You’d have thought they were talking about the 3 o’clock at Newmarket, or ‘the 50,000 guineas’ as a racing correspondent might call it. William Hill were apparently quoting the Bishop of Rochester at 3-1, the Archbishop of Wales at 7-2 and the Bishop of London at 4-1.
Clearly unable to fathom the convoluted workings of the Crown Appointments Commission, for whom this appointment may be a swansong before Baroness Perry’s proposed restructuring is implemented, the correspondents of The Times revealed that the Bishop of Rochester has not just one press officer, according to the Church of England Yearbook, but an ‘advisory council for communications’. Some of my friends on this latter body are, no doubt, extremely flattered to find that The Times rates them on a par with the political machines in Washington. A phone call to the Diocesan Office would rapidly have elicited that the terms of reference of the advisory council do not extend to political-style campaigning – but what a shame to spoil a good story!
And what a good story it was. On Saturday The Times had a splendid colour picture of the Bishop of Rochester covering a quarter of its front page under the heading ‘Bishop Nazir-Ali smeared.’ Let’s face it, even Tony Blair’s spin doctors can’t arrange photos of their man, in colour, on the front-page of The Times twice in three days. Various allegations about the Bishop, which The Times admitted were untrue, were reported.
I had always thought it was common knowledge that the Bishop had been ‘involved with the Roman Catholic Church’ before becoming an Anglican. But that is hardly a smear. The same could be said of Thomas Cranmer, and I’m not aware that anybody holds that against him.
However, The Times got the story it wanted. The report asserted, ‘It appears that the race to become the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of 70 million Anglicans worldwide will be one of the most malevolent yet.’
This surely is a prophecy that simply has to be proved wrong. It may be that those responsible for passing untrue allegations to a number of national newspapers about Dr Nazir-Ali are not Anglicans, but one does wonder why a non-Anglican should be so concerned about who succeeds George Carey.
The Times also carried a rather unsavoury allegation about the election of Dr Carey. ‘William Hill hopes there will be no repeat of the sting that marred Dr Carey’s election when some clerics apparently used inside knowledge to place last-minute bets.’
If that allegation is untrue, it is a libel. If it is true, it is a sad reflection of how far some of us have drifted from the standards of the Lord we claim to serve. If national newspapers are manufacturing outlandish allegations, they ought to know better. If someone within the Church is feeding the press with unsubstantiated rumours and false allegations, it is time they stopped. If people in the Church behave like political spin-doctors, the witness of the Church of England will be seriously compromised.
The process to appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury will take many weeks and it would seem quite inappropriate for speculation approaching fever pitch to be splashed across the front pages of national newspapers. Has the time come for a self-denying ordinance for us all? God’s honour might be less damaged if we all desisted from having a flutter at William Hill, or anywhere else for that matter. The process might be helped if we wrote to the Crown Appointments Commission, rather than to news editors, with our thoughts.
The 104th Archbishop of Canterbury could easily be the last to preside over the whole Anglican Communion, as it presently exists. For that matter he could be the last to preside over the whole Church of England before we fragment into separate provinces. There are several issues in the pipeline, any of which could be the catalyst for major schism if not handled very carefully indeed. Should we perhaps encourage Anglicans everywhere to be on their knees rather than on the telephone?
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.