Tom Woolford offers a note of caution on proposals for electing the next Archbishop of Canterbury


Back in early February, I had one of the greatest honours of my life – as unexpected as it was wonderful. A pen-pal with whom I exchange regular news, encouragements, and requests for prayer – a brother-priest in the Church of Uganda whom I met some years ago at an international Anglican conference – asked me to name his first-born child, a son. After briefly consulting with a couple of friends with relevant experience, I was delighted to accept this great honour. I then successively resisted the temptation to name him after myself, despite the fact that I could have concealed this vanity under the pretence that it was because the child was born on St Thomas Aquinas’s day.

I absolutely love the Anglican Communion. This brother priest in Uganda is one of a number of brother priests around the world with whom I communicate regularly and for whom I pray by name – from such Provinces as Australia, Brazil, the US, the Gulf, and even Wales. The Anglican Communion – a global family of churches of a reformed and catholic character, bound together in love through a shared history, ministry, and liturgical heritage – is the Church of England’s greatest gift to the world.

But the Anglican Communion is an accident of history. It was never the intention of Pope Gregory the Great when he dispatched Augustine at the end of the sixth century to found a new global Church. The English Reformers in the sixteenth century did not conceive of their efforts as resulting in a new ‘ism’ – Anglicanism – they just intended to reform and renew the catholic Church in England. Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion are accidents of history: they exist because ‘stuff happened.’ 

I sincerely believe both are very happy accidents of history. A lot of the stuff that happened – the evangelism of whole people-groups, the courageous martyrdoms of scores of lay and ordained missionaries, the establishment of a family of indigenously-led autocephalous churches, the genesis of the Lambeth Conference – is reason for joyful thanksgiving. I’m grateful to God for very many aspects of how things have turned out.

But my concern with the proposed changes to the Crown Nominations Commission for the See of Canterbury is that they make what seems like a pragmatic redress to an imbalance in how things are, without sufficient theological reflection on how things ought to be ecclesiologically. 

Currently, the process for electing the Archbishop of Canterbury is largely the same as the process for any other diocesan See: a Crown Nominations Commission comprising nine representatives of the national church (other diocesan appointments have six) and six representatives of the Diocese of Canterbury, plus one Primate from an Anglican Communion province. The proposal presented for consultation is to reduce the representation from Canterbury from six to three members, and to increase the representation from the worldwide Communion from one to five. On the face of it, this makes a great deal of sense: the Archbishop of Canterbury has a global profile as an ‘instrument of Communion’ for the Anglican churches worldwide (the current incumbent thinks a quarter of his time is spent on international Anglican business). It seems, those who support making this change argue, grossly ‘colonial’ for the English alone to choose the leader of a church whose clear majority of members are in the global south. Increasing Communion representation from 1/16 to 5/17 is surely an appropriate, pragmatic, proportionate solution.

A pragmatic solution it may be, but equally that pragmatism has overshadowed entirely theological and ecclesiological principles. Paragraph 17 in the consultation document is telling. It acknowledges that there is an ecclesiological aspect to this matter – and then proceeds to quote the creedal commitment for the Church to be one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. But the claim of the Church of England since the Reformation, as reflected in the preface to the Declaration of Assent, is that the Church of England is part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church – not that it is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. 

By making the Archbishop of Canterbury much more of an international appointment, we risk claiming for that office an ecclesiological global primacy in place of the historical primacy of honour that See already enjoys. It is formalising the primus aspect, and thereby subtly diluting the inter pares aspect of the role. It is making the Primate of All England ever so slightly more into the Primate of All the World – and an appointment which we in England will still control by a clear majority! Archbishop Welby claims in the consultation document that only about 5% of his work relates to the See of Canterbury. I don’t doubt that that is the case, but should it be the case. For the Archbishop of Canterbury to be primus inter pares, he ought to be doing an essentially similar job to his peers, acting as a diocesan bishop and provincial Primate: only then does his position as first among equals, for historical reasons, remain credible and humble. If he is elected in a special, international way, it can only be because his office is fundamentally a special, international office. Is that what we want our Primate to be? Historically, it hasn’t been (he is the Primate of All England only); theologically, it needn’t be (we do not require our holy orders to flow from Canterbury in the way that Roman orders must flow from Rome); and morally (if we are uncomfortable with our colonial past), it shouldn’t be.

It is not yet clear that the ecclesiological implications have been sufficiently considered. This important conversation ought surely to start with theology and then come down to pragmatic suggestions; and start at the level of the global Primates of the Communion, and then come down to the English church to consider. I fear we are starting with pragmatic suggestions we will scramble to reverse-theologise afterwards, and starting in England despite claiming for the See a global primacy. We are told we need to seek a church that is simpler, humbler, and bolder. Bolder, yes; but this change would make things rather more complex, and (despite the very opposite intention), prouder.


The Revd Tom Woolford is the Vicar of New Longton and a member of General Synod for the Diocese of Blackburn.