Woman named to head commission

Published May 1, 2002

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, new chair of group charged with picking the Archbishop of Canterbury short list, chats with students.


Britain’s senior woman judge has become the first female chair of the commission that will select final candidates to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, 68, is the first female president of the high court, family division, a position she attained in 1999. (Although there was earlier speculation and pressure to name a woman to the crown appointments commission, Dame Elizabeth’s name was not among those first considered in the British religious press).

Archbishop George Carey will retire in the fall after 12 years in office.

The Church of England Newspaper predicted in mid-March that Prime Minister Tony Blair would likely opt for a woman to head the commission, pleasing British Labour MPs who wanted a break from tradition.

The choice was sensitive because one of the leading contenders in the “race that is not a race” is Bishop Richard Chartres of London, well known for his stand against the ordination of women.

However, the newspaper said in a recent report that Dame Elizabeth’s appointment got around that concern since “as chairman of the council of St. Paul’s Cathedral, she will have gained a strong impression of Bishop Chartres’ abilities.”

Bishop Chartres is known to be a favourite of the Royal Family, and support could tilt in his direction because of strong public sentiment over the recent deaths of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

Mr. Blair’s appointments secretary, William Chapman, is thought to wield the real power on the panel. The commission’s nominations can also be vetoed by the prime minister, a practice drawing much public fire. Many observers feel the prime minister should have no role in the selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The commission, which meets in secrecy at an undisclosed location during the summer, puts forward two names from five to the prime minister, with a recommendation on who should be chosen. Mr. Blair can ask the commission to reconsider if he does not like its suggestions.

Barring that, he then forwards his recommendation to the Queen, who rubber-stamps it.

Dame Elizabeth made international headlines recently when she ruled that a 43-year-old social worker paralyzed from the neck down could have her life support switched off so she could “die with dignity.”

Lady Perry of Southwark, who led a study criticizing the process of choosing the archbishop, said she was “terribly pleased” about the appointment of Dame Elizabeth. “I had feared we would have a crony.”


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