THE famous joke about the man asking for directions to Dublin and receiving the unhelpful response “I wouldn’t start from here” applies to many of the challenges of Anglican ecclesiology. We are not a Church of tidy structures and neat theological systems. Pragmatism, incremental change, and compromise are our watchwords. But our perennial danger is that, in tinkering with a problem instead of grasping the nettle, we make the problem knottier as the challenges deepen.
It is with this in mind that I am troubled by this line in the newly published consultation document on the composition of the Canterbury Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) (News, Leader comment, 21 January): “The big picture is, perhaps, too big for us to address, and we have to start somewhere, even if we are unsure where.” It seems to imply that its proposals to add four more representatives from outside the Church of England to the group selecting the next Archbishop of Canterbury are simply well-meaning steps towards addressing a problem that is ill-defined, with a solution that we have yet to grasp. I fear that, in the long run, they will make the problem knottier.
Big pictures require big thinking. But the big picture is, at least, relatively clear: we are living in the age of dramatic shifts away from Western hegemony and the assumption that all cultures will adopt Western norms. To move from its colonial paradigm, the Anglican Communion needs to recognise this multipolar reality, giving agency and authority to other Provinces, without losing the sense of ecclesial identity which flows from its English roots.
In the post-colonial era, accelerating global interconnectedness has meant that the international position of the Archbishop of Canterbury has grown and not shrunk. Tensions between Provinces have become starker, and we have looked to someone to convene, arbitrate, and offer decisive leadership. So, we are faced with this dilemma that the consultation rightly addresses: why the Primate of All England, the former colonial power, should continue to assume this growing position.
THERE are two ways of resolving the problem. One is to give the Archbishop of Canterbury greater international legitimacy. That is the direction of travel chosen in these proposals. More representation from the global South will be present in the decision-making process.
But the danger is that, far from addressing the post-colonial concerns, this minority on the CNC serve only to legitimise and entrench the part played by an English Primate in an increasingly universal position. Significant cultural and legal obstacles would continue to prevent the CNC’s nominating someone who actually reflected non-Western identity and experience. But that would not stop future Archbishops of Canterbury being able to see the new CNC composition as justification for greater global authority.
A logical extension of this approach could be for the office of Archbishop of Canterbury to be divorced of responsibilities in the English Church (these, perhaps, passed to the Archbishop of York), thereby becoming more explicitly that of a global figurehead, and opening the possibility for candidates from non-Western Provinces. But we would have to acknowledge that this is a papal model of oversight, and a huge departure in Anglican ecclesiology, which is likely to deepen rather than overcome cultural divisions.
A far more attractive and coherent post-colonial resolution would be for a rotating presidency within the Communion. The Commonwealth provides an obvious model from the secular world in which the Queen is the symbolic head, but the biennial Heads of Government meeting is chaired in rotation by prime ministers or presidents, who become chair-in-office until the next meeting.
The emphasis is on free association of member states on the basis of mutual interest rather than on the “ever closer union” that is proving unpopular in the European Union. On a similar model, the see of Canterbury could retain the symbolic part of “instrument of unity” (continuing, perhaps, to convene the Lambeth Conference), but leadership would be radically dispersed across all Provinces, guided by bonds of affection rather than post-colonial powerplay.
THIS would undoubtedly be a looser and more federal Anglican Communion than the course that we have been on for some time. But the failure of the Anglican Covenant, as well as the more recent controversy over LGBT legislation in Ghana (News, 19 November 2021), suggest that a single global Church in which uniformity of teaching is imposed from the centre is not the form that Anglican unity is going to take.
Christians are called to ever closer union; but that is a unity of different but interdependent members, of whom Christ alone is the head. A rotating presidency for the Anglican Communion would honour our history as a family of Churches that look to Canterbury, but recognise that we now live in a multipolar world in which tinkering with the structures of Western privilege will not do.
Canon James Walters is Chaplain and Senior Lecturer at the London School of Economics. He was a member of the Crown Nominations Commission review group (News, 16 February 2018), but writes in a personal capacity.