The only real role left is to manage decline gracefully

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The Independent Online

The hurd report into the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury shows that, after a decade of vigorous public denial, the Church of England has finally faced up to its declining importance and solvency.

The collapse of Christian practice in this country is illustrated by the Archbishop of Westminster's fear that Christianity in Britain has been "vanquished" and the finding that fewer than half the children born in the last 30 years have been baptised. About the only place where Christianity appears to matter is Northern Ireland, where people throwing rocks still call themselves Catholics or Protestants. No one in England wants a return to that level of commitment.

So what is an archbishop of Canterbury to do? Lord Hurd's answer is that he should get three people to help: the Archbishop of York to take over more of the boring bits in England; a bishop at Lambeth to supervise the church in general; and another bishop to watch over the foreign parts of the Anglican communion, whose growth is behind Dr George Carey's belief that his role as Archbishop of Canterbury is that of a world spiritual leader and not a comic gargoyle on the British constitution.

There are far more Anglicans in Africa and Asia than in Europe or America, so in those areas Dr Carey feels as if he is being taken seriously, as he manifestly is not here. The trouble is that the Anglican communion is in the throes of a noisy and messy break-up.

Many new Christians despise characteristic features of the Church of England and of the Anglican Church of America, which pays for the whole show. Those in the southern hemisphere hate the northerners' relative tolerance of homosexuality. One African bishop wanted to exorcise a leader of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement at the last meeting of the bishops of the Anglican communion.

The conservatives have started to send missionary bishops into enemy territory and to ordain priests there who are not recognised by the rest of the church. This is the formal definition of schism. And women priests are not recognised by a passionate minority of churchgoers; when women are finally made bishops in the UK in the next decade, the church will split once more.

Everyone knows this, as they know that the financial crisis will worsen. So it looks crazy to respond to this mess by hiring more chiefs. Actually, it makes a kind of sense. The only way that the Anglicans can get through the next 20 years is with a huge amount of mutual charity and goodwill. The hope is that, by taking away some of the burdens of office, the Archbishop will be free to show these qualities and to manage decline gracefully.