It is not too long ago that this new century was touted as a moment in which the human race would finally transcend its demons and embrace its potential. When I was a student the progressive claim was that “man’ had come of age, a concept largely culled from the writings of Continental philosophers. In my simplicity I thought it was passing strange that we were taking seriously the claims of people whose world had recently been dominated by fascism and communism, led by the most repressive dictators the world had produced, at least in their capacity to visit their ambition upon most of the world.
Thirteen years into this new century, what has emerged, at least in much of the West, is a revival of tribalism, a tribalism of ideas and causes, championed by people who have obtained power or who seek for power, and who seem constitutionally unable to compromise for the greater good. These power-groups don’t represent majorities but find it possible to control institutions, in part because the majority of those who potentially elect them, remain passive or uninterested in the electoral process, or just don’t trouble themselves with anything beyond the practical day to day issues they face. Far from coming of age, a majority prefer a status which permits the paternalism of the activist to thrive, even if the result is some form of repression, or deadlock.
During the past few days a small group of people, ‘elected’ by goodness knows whom, have tried and thus far failed to elect an archbishop of Canterbury. No one seems to think it odd that the task has been given to a small secretive committee. Smallness is more telling than the confidential part of the equation. A man, for a man it will be, anointed to pastor a diocese -with much help – an ecclesiastical Province, a national church, and a world wide flock of nearly 80,000000 people is chosen by a group not much larger than a typical vestry in a large parish. Few of us know anything much about these people. If they were a vestry, at least we would know the members. Perhaps they are known in Wales, or in the Canterbury diocese, and that latter group will continue to be served by their suffragans and archdeacons. A couple of bishops are known in their dioceses. But for those of us who look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the chief pastor of all Anglicans, granted not our ruler, but at least our guide, these ‘electors’ remain mysterious and remote.
The Archbishop of Wales, alone, seeks to speak for the Communion and he, in common with the rest of the committee is a Brit. One would have thought that he would have refused the task in favor of someone from beyond the British Isles. Does Archbishop Morgan really think he can speak for Africans, or Asians, or even North Americans? How well does he know us? Has he been in touch with the Primates of the overseas Provinces? We don’t know. Surely the Primates should have met as soon as +Rowan announced his retirement, and if Wales was the cheapest and most available representative, told him how they felt? It is at this point that secrecy becomes the problem. There may be a point in keeping the meetings under wraps, but there should be no secrecy about how these ‘electors’ go about representing their constituencies. They are probably trying to be fair, but the very process is a temptation for them to be motivated by their own opinions and desires, and less by the complicated task of getting to know the needs and desires of CofE people and Anglicans in the Congo. The process reminds one of the smoke-filled rooms where American presidential candidates were until fairly recently anointed. It matters little if the smoke in this case is incense.
We are told that all these members of the Crown Appointment junta are praying. One would hope so. Those who subscribe to the pious view that the Holy Spirit is busy overruling the deficiencies of this super-vestry, may be content to watch and wait. I remain agnostic about such claims. Perhaps I know too much about church history. The small group who constituted what we call the Council of Jerusalem claimed that “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us”, but they had consensus. There can be no consensus when the Communion and the CofE enjoys no such consensus. For a majority of a small oddly chosen group to claim to say that “to seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to propose two English bishops as nominees for the job of forging unity among us seems close to blasphemy.
Of course if the task of restoring unity is impossible for a mere mortal, absent a miracle, it doesn’t really matter who is chosen. Now I believe in miracles, and thus don’t discount the possibility that the chosen-one may be used by God dramatically. I seriously doubt however that the process will be graced to discover an Ambrose, simply because I doubt whether the pool of eligible electors is confined, at least in practice to the present occupiers of CofE sees. The real person of God’s choosing might even be a suffragan, or a bishop from an obscure diocese abroad, disqualified by rules about being British citizens and by a tradition which goes back to the Reformation.
There’s nothing that can be done about that disqualification at present. There’s nothing which prevents this super-vestry from seeking out a British bishop, diocesan, suffragan or assistant, or even a holy priest. If it is possible for a person to be elected President of the US who has never been even a governor to lead the most powerful nation on earth – and to do a fairly good job of it – why does this committee struggle to propose the name from a pool which, it would seem thus far, not to enjoy the confidence of 19 people?
Rather, one suspects, that the claims of powerful and uncompromising constituencies, bedevils the task of identifying a person who demonstrates the holiness of life, the intelligence, the pastoral skills, and the willingness to sacrifice for the good of the whole. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be fairly long in the tooth. John XXIII was old. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be young in the episcopate or experience. What does matter is that, like +Rowan, he is prepared to be himself, embracing an impossible task for the life of the Church. One possible candidate, the Bishop of Norwich says he doesn’t feel up to the task. One wishes that more would be that honest and opt out. Or is that what is happening? One doubts it.
So we pray……
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