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Editorial: In choosing a leader, the Church chooses its future

The deadlock inside the electoral college tasked with choosing a new Archbishop of Canterbury has been said to reveal that the available candidates are not good enough or that the appointments system is dysfunctional. But that is not the problem. The reason is that there is no real agreement within the Church as to what its role should be in a largely secular society at the start of the 21st century.

In the past, the Church has divided along the tribal lines of evangelicals, liberals and Anglo-Catholics. The totemic issues which mark its dividing lines – over the acceptability of gay relationships, women priests and now women bishops – are completely settled for the vast majority of the population. Interestingly, there are suggestions that they are now being settled in the Church too; though conservative evangelicals remain implacably opposed to modern views on gender and sexuality, the terms in which they debate have subtly shifted in ways which suggest that it is only a matter of time before liberal tolerance prevails.

Instead, there is a new division inside the Church. It is between those who want a safe pair of hands to keep Anglicans together long enough for the old differences to dissolve and those who want someone who will reimagine the institution for the modern age with a bolder vision of purpose. The choice has significant implications for the rest of society.

Some think the primary job of an Archbishop of Canterbury is to offer spiritual insights to a nation which now finds the jargon of Christian faith a foreign tongue. To do that requires someone who can translate religious intuitions into everyday language – and with a tone which conveys understanding of the problems ordinary citizens today face. The obvious candidate here is the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, 56, who worked in the oil industry for years before becoming a vicar. He is a good communicator with a bold vision for a modernised Church, but he has been a bishop for less than a year.

The steady-as-we-go faction in the electoral college looks to the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, 61, who is used to the inner workings of Lambeth Palace, having served two previous archbishops, Robert Runcie and George Carey, there. He has all the skills to effectively reorganise the job but his liberal Anglo-Catholic background seems to some on the appointments commission to be too similar to that of Rowan Williams, the outgoing Cantuar. But he is an able and amiable man with a lot more experience than Dr Welby.

The commission has to forward the names of two candidates to the Prime Minister. It has been reported that it has agreed on the Bishop of Durham as one. But it is divided between those who want the other to be Dr James and those who prefer John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. Dr Sentamu, who would be the first black Archbishop of Canterbury, is a bold and charismatic figure but he has been reactionary on homosexuality and even opposes divorced clergy becoming bishops. And he lacks what are euphemistically called the necessary "diplomatic skills" for the job.

But stalemate seems to have been reached in successive secret ballots. Welby is seen as too inexperienced and possibly too conservative and James as too liberal and a bit uninspiring. It may be time for a caretaker until the qualities of the new generation of bishops have become more clear. In the circumstances, the Church should consider the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, 64, whose leadership in the Hillsborough inquiry has shown he has the skills, vision and humility to act as an effective bridge between the Church and the rest of British society.