He is, we are often told, the moral voice of the nation. A man (sadly it still has to be a man) who has the heady task of leading Britain’s Anglicans, speaking as the nation’s conscience and herding the 77 million cats that make up the Anglican Communion in the rest of the world, many of whom would rather stone a gay man than embrace him.
No easy task. So it must be important to make sure the candidates for the Archbishop of Canterbury are at the top of their game and picked in the most representative and transparent way possible, right? Wrong.
The method for choosing Dr Rowan Williams’ replacement is as arcane and archaic as it was in the time of Henry VIII. A secretive committee meets at a secretive location to discuss a never-made-public list. Two names are given to the Prime Minister who hands them over to the Queen. You can’t apply for the job and anyone who suggests too publicly that they want it, usually doesn’t get it.
The decision-makers themselves are overwhelmingly white, male and predominantly southern. Of the 16 people on the Crown Nominations Commission who get to vote, six are from the diocese of Canterbury alone; only three are women; and the man who is there to represent the rest of the world comes from Wales. If you want a metaphor for how disconnected the Church can be from the masses look no further. Rank and file Anglicans effectively have no say in who gets to lead them. So much for Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
But does any of this matter? Well, if the Archbishop of Canterbury really wants to represent the nation surely it would help if he had some sort of popular mandate?
At home, the Anglican church is bitterly divided over the issues of women bishops and gay clergy. Globally it is even more torn apart. In one corner you have liberal and progressive churches in America, Canada, New Zealand and beyond who have no problem with women and same-sex relationships.
In the other corner you have developing world churches in Africa and Asia – backed by social conservatives in the West – who are theologically opposed and threatening to leave. How to square that hole? You probably can’t and the next Archbishop of Canterbury – and if not him certainly his successor – will likely witness the break up of the global Anglican Communion during their time in office.
Which leaves the Church in Britain as the one thing they need to get right. Anglicanism does wonderful things and has many wonderful people in its ranks but there are times when it feels woefully disconnected from the rest of society. Church pews are emptying and the majority of Britain simply scratches its head in confusion as the bickering continues about women and sexuality.
No one’s going to sort out those thorny issues overnight but the Church could become more transparent and representative. Voting in its leader would be a good place to start.