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Wanted: the ability to make waves

28 September 2012

NOT wanting to be Archbishop of Canterbury has to be a qualification for the post. I don't mean this in terms of a natural Christian reluctance to put oneself forward. Rather, it is an impossible appointment, and anyone who really wants to do it must be stark raving mad.

Worse than the job of England football manager in terms of unrealistic expectations, it is a job in which it is impossible to succeed. Or, to be more accurate, one in which success may constantly feel like failure.

Some may say this is Christian ministry writ large. After all, no Christian is promised an easy ride. But most us don't have to carry our burdens under the constant scrutiny of the press, the all-seeing eye of the modern world.

This week, in Manchester, the Church and the media conference gathered to think once again about this complex relationship. I was asked to give the keynote address, and used the opportunity to have a pop at the defensiveness of church leaders who seem to sieve what they want to say through the fear of being got at. Too often, as a result, they say very little and stay well below the parapet.

It thus becomes the task of church communications people to keep the media off the bishop's back, to be blocking intermediaries, and conduits only of the most inane and inoffensive stories. In other words, it has become the task of many of the communications people to keep their bishop out of the press.

And so the Church of England dies the death of a thousand qualifications, overly fearful of saying anything big or controversial.

The Church then goes on to blame secularisation for keeping Christianity out of the public realm, when in fact the Church is doing a pretty good job of managing this on its own, without any help from the National Secular Society.

At the time of writing, I have no idea who will be the next Archbishop. But, first and foremost, before any party preferences about theology, I hope for someone who is brave. The idea that we might get a kindly manager, who seeks to appeal to all and none, fills me with dread.

But being brave will always extract a heavy price on the holder of the Archbishop's office. If he is doing his job properly, he will be regularly vilified in The Sun, the Daily Mail, and The Guardian - to say nothing of the Wild West that is the internet.

Dr Williams faced all of that with genuine courage, and I suspect few of us will really know the personal cost that it extracted from him.

This is why no one ought to want that appointment. But whoever gets it, I wish them the unwelcome gift of controversy. For the only way in which that person can create no waves will be by saying nothing. And that is so much worse.


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