George Austin airs his suspicions about the process of appointing a new Archbishop of Canterbury

If I were a betting man – which I am not! – I would see the Bishop of Durham as the favourite possibility as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. You know – Justin Welby, at Durham for less than a year and before that Dean of Liverpool from 2007 to 2011. Ordained 20 years ago, he had had a career in the oil industry before that ordination, so his experience is vast.

He himself seems dismissive of his talents, saying, ‘I drifted into the oil industry because I couldn’t get a job when I left university.’ And of his new career as a bishop he commented, ‘Let’s be clear, I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England.’ That in itself is a very welcome change from those who might (in all modesty of course) be pointing out the virtues and experience they would bring to the job. So whether or not he is the right man for the post, this at least is a good start.

Advance discussions

However, when the Sunday Times headlined the story, it soon became clear there was more to it – nothing at all to do with Welby’s qualities, but rather fishy instead. I was a member of the Crown Appointments Commission in the early Nineties and there was a strict and absolute code of secrecy. Now the article claims that ‘senior figures on the panel regard Welby as the outstanding candidate.’

Moreover, it is claimed that in regard to the obvious candidate, Sentamu of York, ‘members of the committee have privately expressed concern about his opposition to gay marriage and his managerial style.’

If these comments are really from members of the Crown Nominations Commission (as it now is called), how can they know that, if the system is as it was in my day, when the names were only revealed when we actually met for the process? And if strict confidentiality still applies, even if they did know the candidates’ names it would be totally improper to discuss it publicly before the meeting. But according to the Sunday Times, the committee will choose the names ‘from the shortlist it drew up in January.’ Is this ‘committee’ the Crown Nominations Commission or is there another power behind the scenes?

It is at this point for me that a conspiracy theory kicks in. For Welby was ‘Eton-educated’ though, being some ten years older, well before David Cameron. Moreover, ‘his mother was Winston Churchill’s private secretary’ and he is ‘related to Rab Butler, the former (Tory) deputy prime minister.’ Butler’s father ‘was also the father of Welby’s grandmother.’ So regardless of his undoubted gifts, he is obviously also ‘the right sort of chap’ for Cameron to approve.

Two names

But does Cameron have that power? In earlier days, two names were sent to the Prime Minister, sometimes with a preferential order, sometimes not. Gordon Brown quite rightly thought this gave a politician too much power over the Church and insisted that only one name be sent to him, which he would then pass to the Queen.

This now appears to have changed, with two names going to the Prime Minister, who will then make his choice. Moreover, when the vacancy is for an archbishop, the Commission is not chaired by the archbishop of the other province but by an appointee of the Prime Minister. Cameron has appointed a former Tory Minister of state, Lord Luce.

What is going on here? Perhaps nothing. And anyway God really does have a part to play. When the Commission met in the Nineties to produce names for London and York, I left both meetings convinced that no power on earth could prevent the preferred candidates, Chartres and Hope, from being rejected. When both were appointed, I began at last to feel that the Holy Spirit really did have his place in the process. As he does now. ND