Bishop Richard Chartres
The announcement of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s retirement next fall has spawned a swirl of soul-searching in Britain over how the next man will be chosen, and kept British bookies and editorial writers busy speculating over who is likely to succeed him.
As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s surprise choice, George Carey became the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury 11 years ago, and ever since, the British press have had a high time pointing out his humble origins as a hospital porter’s son from London’s East End.
His tenure has been one of shepherding the church through declining Sunday attendance, infighting, public controversy and declining significance.
Archbishop Carey’s support for the ordination of women was greeted at the time with dire predictions of a clergy exodus. This failed to materialize, in large part because of the archbishop’s adroit maneuvering of an Act of Synod which allowed “flying bishops” to perform ecclesiastical duties in more traditional congregations at odds with their own bishops over the issue.
His legacy for what has been dubbed by one of the contenders as a “nightmare of a job” also includes the 1998 Lambeth conference, a world-wide meeting of Anglican bishops, where liberals and conservatives faced off acrimoniously over homosexuality.
Jonathon Petrie described Archbishop Carey in the Sunday Telegraph, “a workaholic who writes speeches on his laptop, he has devoted much energy to streamlining church bureaucracy, and these reforms may prove his most lasting legacy.”
The London Times labeled him more of a fixer than a philosopher, adding, “The Church of England in the 1990s desperately needed some careful fixing and had perhaps endured too much philosophy.”
But insiders say that how the Archbishop of Canterbury is viewed depends on where in the world the assessment is made. Archbishop Carey expanded the office’s international profile, and African bishops who value the role highly, celebrated him for his advocacy on behalf of Christians persecuted as unwelcome minorities.
British bookies have had a bonanza taking bets over the succession. A recent poll by the London Times of members of General Synod showed Archbishop Rowan Williams of Wales in the lead. Pakistan-born Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a convert from Roman Catholicism, was second, and Bishop Richard Chartres of London third. A crony of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, was fourth followed by Bishop Christopher Herbert of St. Albans.
The 51-year-old archbishop of Wales is considered a leading intellectual and was once the youngest professor of theology at Oxford when he began teaching in 1986.
He is most strongly supported by the British clergy, while the laity, according to the Times, is divided between the top three.
Each is seen to represent a different position within the church – Wales the liberal; Rochester the evangelical and London the conservative.
Commentators have said that Archbishop Williams, a prolific author, is Archbishop Carey’s least favoured candidate, perhaps because of his support for lesbians and gays in the church. However, this may be to his advantage, since it has seemed an unwritten rule that the prime minister – who chooses the final candidate from among two recommended – often picks the man his predecessor would have wanted least.
Archbishop Williams, born into a Welsh-speaking family, has been described as “both a contemporary and rigorously intellectual thinker.”
Bishop Nazir-Ali, rumoured to be Archbishop Carey’s choice, is a native of Pakistan and deeply complimentary of Archbishop Carey’s international role. He was the first diocesan bishop in England to come from a minority group.
In a racially divided Britain, pundits speculate that he may have an advantage with his profound understanding of Islam.
Bishop Chartres is a conservative and friend of the Royal Family who, since Archbishop Carey announced his retirement, is quietly letting it be known the he could soften his well-known opposition to the ordination of women.
However, the Times notes that despite bookmakers’ odds, “the only way in which one of the Big Three will take the title is if two of them are on the ultimate shortlist,” because to place one of them beside a safer candidate would ensure the less controversial man is picked.
The process, which leaves the ultimate choice up to the prime minister has come under its heaviest fire since it was implemented in 1977.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is selected in tightly guarded secrecy, in a process originally intended to prevent vote hustling and open campaigning and to bring dignity to the election.
The 13-member Crown Appointments Commission meets at a secret location to select potential candidates, who at least in theory do not know that they are even being considered.
The commission’s choice of two candidates then goes to the prime minister who can accept one of them or send the names back for reconsideration.
Archdeacon George Austin, a former Archdeacon of York writing in the Guardian, roundly condemned the selection process. A one-time member of the Crown Appointments Commission, he wrote, “this is a crucial make-or-break time for the Church of England. Getting the method of appointment right will probably not make too much of a difference to whoever eventually gets this impossible job.
“But he does need to be seen to be produced by a system that is as open and as fair as it is possible to be, rather than through the Machiavellian processes of one which has been so comprehensively condemned.”
Archdeacon Austin pointed to the recent report of an enquiry into the appointments process led by Baroness Perry of Southwark, which recommended sweeping reforms.
The impending selection has led at least one columnist to question the relevancy of the Church of England.
Paul Vallely, writing in the Independent, said, “Archbishop Carey leaves behind an organization of considerably less significance than the one he inherited. This is not just because the decline in churchgoing has reached the point where baptized Anglicans are thought to have become a minority in England for the first time since the Reformation. ? Something more profound has happened to the Church of England. Put it on a therapist’s couch and the diagnosis might be that it is suffering from low self-esteem. It has become less and less relevant to the nation.”