Sherlock O’Brien investigates a Welsh leak

Just before England were ejected from the World Cup by ten Brazilians a glance at the front page of The Times one morning was enough to convince me that the silly season had arrived. For a start the Religious Affairs correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, had two front page stories. The second story naturally had a world cup flavour. Apparently a member of the Liturgical Commission, never at a loss to provide liturgy that no-one requires, had written a set of prayers for the quarter final. One would have thought that he must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek, with lines like, ‘Arise O Lord, and let not Brazil prevail over us.’ But no matter, he had his answer in a mere twenty-four hours – and that is a lot quicker than prayers sometimes get answered. I suppose it is good for a laugh, but I hope the quota payers in Southwell diocese, where this liturgist is Bishop’s chaplain, feel they are getting good value for money.

Prayers answered?

It was the other story that caught my eye, though. ‘Church turns to Wales for Archbishop’, proclaimed the headline. ‘Rowan Williams is first choice to succeed Carey at Canterbury,’ read the sub-heading. I was somewhat taken aback, because the proceedings of the Crown Appointments Commission are confidential and the participants are all sworn to secrecy. My immediate thoughts of whether this leak could be true rapidly turned to speculation as to why someone in the know should decide to dispense with their undertaking not to divulge the secrets they were privy to.

I suppose it is possible, but unlikely, that someone who ought to have known better had been out to lunch with Ruth Gledhill. Having been plied with some vintage plonk they might have thrown discretion to the winds and broken confidences left, right and centre. Let’s face it – if you were a reporter in such circumstances, would you not have rushed to your editor with your scoop?

The usual suspects

But the list of suspects is quite short. There are probably less than twenty people who would be in-the-know, and one has to ask what motivation they would have for divulging the names that had been sent to the Prime Minister. The name of the PM’s nominee would become public within a few weeks, so why would someone oblige The Times with advance notification? They would hardly want to gain personal notoriety as someone with an uncontrollable urge to blab any confidential information to which they had access.

When great detectives are investigating a murder, they always seek to discover a motive for the deed, and my fascination with conspiracy theory set me thinking. What motivation might someone have for feeding such information to The Times?

Well, let us suppose that Rowan Williams was the first name on the list. That is plausible. Bookmakers were offering short odds against him and several members of the CAC are known to be much more sympathetic to Mr Williams’ views on certain subjects than most Anglicans are. It could be that one of the liberals reasoned that notwithstanding victory in the CAC, their favoured candidate might still be rejected by the PM. That too is plausible. After all an Archbishop who took a strong line on consecrating women bishops, ordaining practising homosexuals and so on could easily alienate large sections of the Church – and in particular the better financed sections of the Church.

At variance with the consensus

After his tenure in office in Wales, there have been predictions that if present trends continue, Anglicanism there could become extinct within thirty years. Then there is the prospect of Lambeth 2008. It is arguable that the overwhelming majority of Anglican Bishops, who voted so strongly for orthodoxy in 1998, might well be unwilling to accept the leadership of an Archbishop of Canterbury whose views were so at variance with the consensus. It is quite conceivable that the PM might receive advice that it would be wise to nominate a candidate with more orthodox views, and if indeed the second name was that of the Bishop of Rochester, as The Times suggested it was, the stance of the new Archbishop might not differ significantly from that of the present one.

Now if it was widely believed that Rowan Williams was the first name submitted to the Prime Minister, and then the PM were to choose someone else, the scene would be set for a pitched battle on disestablishment. Would Mr Blair’s prospects be enhanced by having to deal with this issue in reactive mode? If disestablishment were part of his agenda, surely he would prefer to be proactive and conduct the debate on his own terms? There would therefore be created strong counter-arguments to any advice the PM might receive that it would be unwise to nominate Mr Williams, thereby increasing the possibility that Mr Williams might be appointed.

On the other hand, let us suppose that Rowan Williams is not the first name on the list. In that event it is almost certain that the first named nominee would be far less sympathetic to the liberal cause. The name might, for instance, be that of the Bishop of Rochester, who has already been the subject of smears according to reports in The Times, and it is quite plausible that there would be liberals who would like to derail his nomination. It is possible that liberals in the CAC might be smarting from their failure to secure the nomination of their preferred candidate.

In which case, spreading a rumour that Mr Williams was in fact the first name on the list has exactly the same effect as before. The PM comes under pressure to choose the second name (Mr Williams) because if he chooses the first name, everyone will suppose that he has in fact overruled the CAC. So whether or not the first name was that of Rowan Williams, the liberal cause is served well by a plausible leak to a national newspaper.

Heads you win, tails I lose

The whole process is now hopelessly compromised, and because of the ridiculous secrecy that surrounds the whole process, no one is able to quash the rumours with an authoritative statement because all the participants are sworn not to do so. How much longer will we have to wait for legislation to overhaul the workings of the Crown Appointments Commission?

So there may be rather more to Ruth Gledhill’s scoop than meets the eye. It would not surprise me if there were some in our midst who would stoop to low cunning. But if my theory is anywhere near the mark, you have to hand it to the perpetrators of this ingenious stitch-up. It is a classic ‘heads I win, tails you lose,’ if ever there was. Maybe it is not the silly season after all.