IT HAS seldom been easy to be Archbishop of Canterbury. The
unfortunate Alphege was murdered by drunken Vikings who pelted him
with animal bones; Thomas Becket was famously struck down in his
own cathedral; Simon Sudbury was, less famously, beheaded by a mob
during the Peasants' Revolt; Thomas Cranmer was roasted alive in
Oxford; and William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill.
Statistically, it is one of the most dangerous jobs in Britain -
far more risky than being a farmer, fisherman, deep-sea diver, or
construction worker. Historically, more than half those appointed
have died in office, and one archbishop in every 21 meets a violent
It is not a safe or comfortable office to hold. Today,
archbishops do not find martyrdom listed on the job description,
but they quickly learn to accept that character assassination comes
with the territory.
No man (and, for now, the post is gender specific), on receiving
the official letter, will view the invitation lightly. He will
wonder not only if he has the gifts required to do a seemingly
impossible task, but also whether he will be thick-skinned enough
to cope with the welter of criticism that will inevitably come his
way. Much of it will be phrased in highly personal language that is
sometimes insulting, and often very hurtful to both him and his
AN ARCHBISHOP can perhaps brush aside the long letters scrawled
in green ink that prophesy his eternal damnation. All public
figures receive deranged missives. If they are shielded by an
efficient team, they do not need to see them. Most such letters can
be binned, although one politician used to send a reply that began:
"I am sorry to inform you that someone who is clearly insane is
using your name to send me insulting correspondence.
More hurtful, perhaps, are the criticisms that appear in print.
Journalists have no qualms about publishing sweeping and colour-ful
diatribes when they take issue with an archbishop's opinions.
Sometimes, debating points are spiced with personal
observations. One commentator who disagreed with Dr Rowan
Williams's views on the economy accused him of being "remarkably
insensitive about other people's unemployment", and added: "Perhaps
it's because he has never been unemployed himself, having mostly
gone straight from one cushy number to another, now culminating in
a very comfortable berth in Cambridge."
Most hurtful, perhaps, are the words of fellow Anglicans,
especially if they were once allies and supporters. One cathedral
provost, on hearing of Dr Williams's retirement, recalled in his
blog how he had "rejoiced greatly" when Dr Williams was appointed.
"How wrong I was," he wrote. "Personal loyalties were put aside.
Personal convictions were shelved. Personal integrity was mangled
in unseemly public displays of incompetence. Rowan Williams's
obvious intellectual gifts were squandered." Ouch.
WHY does the Archbishop of Canterbury find himself on the
receiving end of so much personal criticism? He holds a godly
office, he may well have come to it reluctantly, and, whatever his
mistakes, he must be credited with doing the best he can in an
One reason is that Anglicans fight their respective corners with
passion, and the Archbishop of Canterbury inevitably becomes the
lightning conductor at the centre of every Anglican
Criticisms levelled at him are often couched in personal terms
because, thanks to modern media exposure, the holder of the post is
a familiar figure. He is centre stage at such national events as
royal weddings. His face is instantly recognised by millions, and
not just churchgoers.
While only a few people close to an archbishop know the man in
depth, thousands think that they know him well enough to trade
opinions in shorthand, caricature images. This tendency has
increased of late with the advent of the social media. Twitter
positively encourages the exchange of short, ill-considered
Dr Williams's popular image was established early on.
"Scholarly", "deep", and "spiritual"; but, simultaneously,
"unworldly", and lacking both "street cred" and "political
OF POSSIBLE successors, some already have an image that they
will find hard to shift. In Twitter terms, Dr Sentamu is seen as
"populist" and "decisive", and yet also, by way of counter-balance,
"gimmicky" and "authoritarian". Richard Chartres is noted for
"gravitas", but thought of as "too much an establishment
Should a lesser-known figure be appointed, he needs to remember
that first appearances are important. The impression that he
creates at his first press conference or photo shoot will, for good
or ill, be hard to shift, once established.
When, as the years go by, he feels overwhelmed by the hurtful
things that will inevitably be said about him, the next Archbishop
should remind himself of his key, non-constitutional position.
Besides being a diocesan bishop, a member of the House of Lords,
and the public face of the Anglican Communion, he is also to many
Anglicans - indeed, to many British people - a focus for their own
irritations and hang-ups. When Anglicans are disappointed or
confused, the Archbishop takes the blame.
Whatever negative media image he attracts - "unworldly", "light-
weight", "all things to all men", "out of his depth" - he must
constantly remind himself that such shorthand put-downs are always
too glib to be fair. He must recognise that his destiny is to
disappoint some, perhaps many. The new Archbishop needs to worry
most when he is not attracting the brickbats and insults. That is
the time to re-read Luke 6.26.
"Woe unto you , when all men shall speak well of you!"
Ted Harrison is a former television producer, and a former
BBC religious-affairs correspondent.