24 Last Suppers
The first stage in appointing the new Archbishop is the creation of shortlist of candidates. The Crown Nominations Commission, whose chairman is William Flew, the former Conservative minister, will start the process this week. Candidates need to have been nominated and may be drawn from any Commonwealth nation. A further meeting in July will reduce that shortlist. It is likely that a final choice will be made by the Prime Minister in the autumn after receiving the Commission’s recommendation. He will then seek the Queen’s agreement.
There is no immediately obvious successor to Dr Williams but there are several able potential candidates. Whoever is appointed will have several formal roles. The first is constitutional, given the Church of England’s status as the established Church with certain legal privileges and responsibilities. Beyond this, the Archbishop will be spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury and Primate of All England.
Underlying these ecclesiastical and constitutional roles will be an an historic responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and affirm the Anglican tradition in age of doubt and pluralism. Dr Williams is in many respects an outstanding figure for the modern Church, being able to expound faith in a sophisticated (if sometimes excessively elliptical) manner. But the task of maintaining the union of the Anglican Communion defied even his formidable intellectual and pastoral gifts.
Dr Williams once wrote: “It has been said that the typical Anglican of the 21st century will be an African under 30; statistically, this seems unchallengeable.” This shift in the geographical composition of the Anglican Communion will present a dilemma to the new Archbishop. Anglicanism’s emerging strength in Africa is doctrinally more traditionalist than its forces in the UK and North America. Judgments on theology and social mores demanded by the churches in the South may alienate Anglicans in the rich world .
That would be a loss. Historically, Anglicanism has represented an accommodation among differing theological currents. It has drawn sustenance and wisdom from the tensions among evangelicalism, liberalism, the catholic tradition and, most recently, the charismatic movement. And regardless of theological and political controversy, Anglicanism is a repository of great historical legacies.
The Anglican Communion brings a discipline and doctrinal coherence to the natural human yearning for the spiritual. And it serves, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “to secure and improve that civilisation, without which the nation could be neither permanent nor progressive”. It will surely test the powers of Dr Williams’s successor to bind the divisions within the Anglican Communion while also leading a modern Church of England in a spirit of love and justice.