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'At the limit of what is realistic'

05 October 2012

THE failure of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) last week to propose two names for a new Archbishop to the Prime Minister - deduced from the official statement that "the work of the Commission continues" - has been taken as an indication that either the candidates are not good enough, or that the appointments system is dysfunctional. Concerning the candidates, there has perhaps been too much analysis already, especially since it has not been disclosed who is on the shortlist. As for the system of appointment, a chief criticism has been of its secrecy. "Open election" is the cry. There is a paradox here: if the level of secrecy that once surrounded the CNC had not been eased, we should not have known when it was meeting, nor that it had failed to agree. But if the term "confidentiality" is substituted for "secrecy", the system seems less sinister. Given that nobody applies for the post, a reluctance to release the names of those being considered is an attempt to spare them from some of the unsettling speculation.

So much for "open". As for election, the Crown appointments system was examined a decade ago (Working with the Spirit: Choosing diocesan bishops, 2001), and tweaks have been made since then. The essential fact is that the Archbishop is elected by an electoral college that is, itself, elected. The constitution of that college might be disputed. The executive role now exercised by the Bishop of Dover in the Canterbury diocese might hint at reducing the number of diocesan representatives on the CNC - currently one third. On the other hand, it might be argued that they better represent the ordinary parishioner than the members elected from the General Synod. And both are more representative than an election within the college of bishops, as in the Church of Ireland, however commendably straightforward and swift their system.

If there exists a systemic reason for the lack of an appointment so far, a better place to look would be the office that the CNC is trying to fill. There have been two recent reviews of the post: To Lead and to Serve: A review of the see of Canterbury, also 2001 (the Hurd report), and Resourcing Archbishops, 2002 (the second Mellows report). The latter begins: "The demands upon and the expectations of the Archbishops are at the very limit of what is realistic. The jobs are approaching the point at which they will become impossible." Despite these reviews, too little has changed. The abilities of Dr Williams have disguised, to a degree, some of these impossibilities. The cost is incalculable, being paid in decisions made too hastily, consultations unsought, mission opportunities declined, and, of course, personal wear and tear. It is not enough to invoke the aid of the Holy Spirit in the choice of Dr Williams's successor, nor even to sustain whoever is chosen. The Spirit of grace and freedom has something to say, too, about the demands made upon individuals. Several recommendations from those earlier reports remain on the table. This might be time to look at them afresh, so that he who is eventually appointed may approach the office with not so heavy a heart.

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