George Austin on the Canterbury Stakes

Last month’s Media Watch, written before Canterbury announced he was to put himself out to pasture, originally began with a comment that the media were now uninterested in anything the Church of England said or did. I had to eat my words and amend it before we went to press.

Carey’s retirement, or rather the possibilities of succession, really hit the headlines, with speculations from all the major broadsheets and broadcasting media, including, of course, Newsnight and the Today programme. Some of us took the opportunity to pour petrol on the fire by pointing out that Baroness Perry’s report, utterly condemning the present system, had been quietly sidelined.

Oh yes, there was a committee looking at it, but we all know that when the Archbishops’ Council appoints such a body its purpose is not to act but to prevent anyone else from acting. The Perry Report had not been the anodyne ‘everything-in-the-garden-is-lovely’ report that had been expected (and intended), but a comprehensive condemnation of the current machinations that take place within the Crown Appointments Commission.

I stirred the pot on the Today programme and in a Guardian article and quite expected a firm reproof either from God’s Own Spin Doctor at Church House or else in the form of a statement from Lady Perry saying that I had got it all wrong and that her committee’s report was really supportive of the wonderful system by which new bishops emerged from the secret conclave.

Perry beyond Perry

Again I was wrong. The Times reported that she had ‘now gone one step further’ and had suggested it was ‘monstrous’ that Downing Street could reject both names recommended by the Appointments Commission. She claimed that the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary ‘really does run the show’ and that the PM can in effect ‘tell the Commission to go back and keep guessing until they come up with the right answer.’ Chairing the enquiry had made her ‘realize how pervasive No 10’s influence is on all aspects of the Church.’

Strong words and, for anyone who has had the slightest contact with the process, not before time. It must all have sent a shiver down the spines not only of the Establishment but also of the bishops, all of whom owe their present office to a system now utterly discredited. Perhaps the Baroness should be chosen to chair the Appointments Commission this time.

Such has been the furore that surely some action will have to be taken to amend the worst aspects of the Commission’s procedure. Or if it is not, then the next Archbishop of Canterbury will carry the extra load of knowing he has reached the heights by means of a system that is suspected of plumbing the depths of Machiavellian intrigue.

Removing the duffers

We can all guess who the candidates are simply by taking away the categories of ‘too old’, ‘too young’ and ‘you have to be joking’. Left with about ten or twelve possibilities, all of them already named in the media, there is no reason why they should not see what is in the references to be presented to the Commission, which might at least meet some of the criticism about ‘unattributed references’.

I actually believe that the system we have, for all its quite shameful faults (and leaving out the Prime Minister’s involvement), has the potential to be the best of all possibilities, avoiding many of the abuses suffered in some other parts of the Anglican Communion. Yet even here we are seeing some of the worst aspects of electioneering. That The Times should be able to have as its main front-page story details of the public dirty tricks played by theological enemies against the Bishop of Rochester is itself an indication of what might be said and done privately in the preparation of references for consideration by the Commission.

It had been suggested that he had lied about his age (he produced his baptism certificate), lied about his degrees (both universities made statements that this was untrue) and that he had bought his bishopric in Pakistan (again proved to be untrue). But imagine if all this had been said during the secret deliberations of the Crown Appointments Commission. Surely the ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ tendency would have scuppered his candidacy with no possibility of redress.

His interview on the Today programme might have seemed like electioneering (though it wasn’t), but if that did him damage, it was more than compensated by the public disgust at the actions of those who wished to damage him.

At the other end of the scale, the Archbishop of Wales was ready to risk his own candidature by criticizing American and British action in Afghanistan and made it clear that, if it spoiled his prospects, then so be it. But the fact that it was done at this time might well have caused others to believe that it was an attempt (which it clearly was not) to display himself as the courageous, outspoken critic, ready to challenge government policy, and therefore a highly suitable candidate.

Certainly, Synod members voted him their first choice, and for some of the older members it might have recalled the heady days in the 1980s when the radical liberals, who dominated areas of social policy-making both in synodical and ecumenical circles, made a virtue of opposing anything originating from British, American and other Western governments. But at least with Rowan Williams it came from a theological perspective rather that a political ideology.

Goldsmith’s Revenge?

In general, the media now seems to have settled upon Rochester and London as the theologically conservative candidates, Wales along with Guildford as the liberal hopes, Liverpool as the thrusting media-friendly guru, and St Albans as the safe compromise, the man who would not rock the boat. Since any candidate making it to the final two names must have the support of two-thirds of the Commission members, simple mental arithmetic puts the odds firmly on St Albans.

‘He is a very nice man,’ someone said to me, as if – poor guy – that were the only qualification that could be offered. But in a Church in danger of fracture, there is the worry that a man who will not rock the boat will simply allow it to founder. At a time like this, we need an archbishop who will have sufficient courage to work actively to retain a place within the Church for those who have no wish to further the liberal agenda.

We all wait with bated breath but without too much hope for the name of the charismatic and mission-centred man who will be our new leader and inspiration. Last time, Carey was the wild card who rose above the gentlemen-in-waiting, carefully placed there for the succession. Dare I suggest the Bishop of Wakefield as the one now to emerge from the shadows? We could do a lot worse.