Who does Archbishop of Canterbury lead?

By on April 1, 2002

THE SECOND page of the Anglican Journal last month included standard “head and shoulders” photographs of the three men reputed to be the most likely possibilities to succeed the Archbishop of Canterbury after a ponderous appointment process has run its weary course. Readers may have been struck by the extent to which the three seem cast from a common mold, notwithstanding that one of them, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, was born in Pakistan. Surprises in this race that is not a race are always possible; George Carey, retiring incumbent to the See of Canterbury, was himself a surprise, emerging from obscurity in 1991 with a suddenness that had newspaper editors scurrying for a photograph of a man who was not even thought to be in the running. It seems a virtual certainty that in the end, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, if he is not one of the three men depicted in our photographs, will look much like them. He will certainly be a “he” since the Church of England has yet to elect a woman bishop; and he is almost certain to be white, despite the fact that the faith of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is frequently termed spiritual leader, worships predominantly in Swahili.It is worth noting, if only in passing, that it need not be thus. The monarch, in appointing someone to the See of Canterbury, is not compelled to select a bishop of the Church of England. So, in the wildest wilderness of the imagination, it is conceivable that Archbishop Carey’s successor could be either a woman or black. (But not a black woman: there is only one black, female bishop, and she is retiring at about the same time as Archbishop Carey.) In the real world though, this is unlikely to happen in the lifetime of anyone reading this newspaper. The process whereby Archbishop Carey’s successor will be chosen will be good fun to watch, but does the outcome mean anything to Canadian Anglicans? Consider the office: The 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, like all his modern predecessors, will be two things. At home, he will effectively be head of the Church of England. Abroad, he will assume that nebulous role of “spiritual leader” to 70 million Anglicans worldwide. What does it mean to be spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion? It is arguable that it means very little or nothing at all. Leadership, for all its trappings, is a very simple concept. A leader leads because he or she shows the way or takes a group of people to a specific place. The term implies a commonality in goals that is fundamentally lacking in the Anglican Communion, by virtue of the very diversity that is the communion’s strength. The Archbishop of Canterbury is no doubt influential and as much of a leader to the Church of England as the Canadian primate and the general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada are to the church here. But abroad? What has been the leadership displayed on our shores by George Carey in the 11 years he has been in office? A spiritual leader should after all be more than a figurehead, more than a symbol of something which people may or may not even understand. Symbols are by nature static. They do not necessarily lead. The Anglican Communion comprises 38 self-governing provinces, which are fully autonomous and independent of the See of Canterbury. The democratic, from-the-ground-up nature of the communion distinguishes it, say, from the Roman Catholic church, an autocratic institution of which the Pope can much more accurately be termed spiritual leader. A pope formulates spiritual pronouncements and policies that are, in theory, fully binding on the church worldwide. Canterbury does nothing of the sort. If it did, the communion would be much more homogenous in theology and liturgy. There would not be parts that ordain women or elect women bishops and parts that do not, nor would there be places where gay people are welcome and others where they are condemned. The sole quality of leadership inherent in the See of Canterbury, it can be argued, is in the office the archbishop holds, grounded more in history than in practice, more in symbolism than in effectiveness. The archbishop, it is true, has a hand in setting agendas of the Primates’ meetings and of Lambeth conferences, but in the end, his voice at these proceedings is only a voice. Were it otherwise, these gatherings, especially Lambeth, would not be as fractious as they have been in recent times. Yet for all that, there are people, to whom indefinable qualities of leadership adhere in a way that can allow them to transcend a flawed, over-reaching office. Sometimes, there are even lofty moments when the office and its holder combine to work miracles. A particularly gifted incumbent or one who truly befits the times can redefine an office and confer upon it a kind of spiritual or moral leadership that transcends both personal and political limitations. This is truly rare and although the See of Canterbury has been blessed with gifted incumbents, the office has not, of late, risen to a stature that does justice in an effective and concrete way to the phrase “spiritual leader of 70 million.” What does the selection of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury mean to Canadian Anglicans? In the end, whichever of the three faces on last month’s page 2 emerges to lead the Anglican Communion or whether it is a face neither depicted nor contemplated, probably does not matter at all. Enjoy the shenanigans, but don’t expect your lives to change.

Skip to content