Summer 2002, Vol. 5, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2002

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

Church State Entanglement

Vouching Towards Bethlehem

The Real Man Without a Country

A Canterbury Tale

Kashmiri Muslims Caught in the Middle


On the Beat:
A Canterbury Tale

by Michael McGough

In the United States, the news media are obliged to justify their snooping into the affairs of organized religion. Witness the agonized insistence of some editorial writers during the present Catholic pedophilia scandal that because the issue is crime and not just sin they are entitled to criticize, and even call for the resignation of, princes of the church.

But what happens when the church in question is both an assemblage of believers and an integral part of the national political system? The British media’s reporting of this year’s search for a new Archbishop of Canterbury—a search that culminated in the choice of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales—offers an object lesson in the unzipped coverage of a story that involves the convergence of religion and government (not to mention lobbying at cocktail parties and exclusive London clubs).

Although it attracts fewer churchgoers on Sunday than the ascendant Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England has long served as fodder for both highbrow and lowbrow British newspapers. In the 1970s, when an Anglican-Roman Catholic theological commission reached agreements on such abstruse issues as the nature of priesthood and Holy Communion, the "quality" newspapers provided expert analysis.

Down-market tabloids have long had a fondness for CoE clergymen who find themselves in worldly scrapes, whether it be the "sex-change vicar" worried about whether the congregation will be accepting of his/her gender reassignment or the "kerb-crawling vicar" caught up in a police prostitution sting. As an institution that claims to be, as Lenny Bruce would say, THE church, the Church of England acknowledges that it can’t withdraw from the journalistic scrutiny to which other aspects of the British establishment are subjected.

Clifford Longley, the former religious affairs editor of the London Times and the dean of British religion writers, notes that the established church has traditionally seen itself as charged with the care of the souls of the English nation, not simply its own communicants.

The nation, as represented in Parliament, returns the favor. In 1928, the House of Commons, with some non-Anglican Protestants leading the charge, killed a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer because its theology smacked to many MPs of popery.

For journalists, this equation of church and nation can open vestry doors. Longley, a Roman Catholic, recalls, "I justified my position vis-à-vis the church when I was at the Times by claiming ownership. ‘Your head of church is my head of state,’ I would say, referring to the Queen."

Ruth Gledhill, the Times’ current religion reporter, agrees that the Establishment, as the church’s official status is described, "makes them feel they have to be open to the press." (Gledhill acknowledges, to be sure, that there was comparable journalistic interest in the selection by the Vatican of Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as archbishop of Westminster and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.)

So it is not surprising that a media frenzy ensued in January when Archbishop George Carey, an evangelical Anglican who had been the darkest of horses when he was chosen by Margaret Thatcher in 1990, announced that he would be stepping down in October. Journalists of all religious backgrounds and none proceeded to pronounce on the Canterbury sweepstakes and the candidates that clustered at the starting gate. (The racing metaphor is apt. London bookmakers promptly laid odds on the various contenders.)

Newspapers published short lists, most of which included Archbishop Williams, an erudite former Oxford divinity professor who as head of the autonomous Church in Wales was not technically a member of the Church of England; the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres; the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, touted as a favorite of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s; and Michael Nazir Ali, the Pakistani-born bishop of Rochester—a "diversity" candidate who was widely portrayed as self-promoting.

In the taxonomy favored by most journalists, Chartres and Williams were Anglo-Catholics, part of the liturgically minded "smells and bells" wing of the church. Jones and Nazir-Ali were described as Evangelicals, though Nazir-Ali flirted as a youth with Roman Catholicism (giving rise to the slur "Paki papist"). Almost from the beginning of the coverage, however, the positions of the candidates on the Anglo-Catholic/Evangelical spectrum—what Anglicans call "churchmanship"—were overshadowed by issues of sex and gender and the grand question of religious establishment itself.

Chartres was invariably described as opposed to the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as priests (though his supporters let it be known that he was moderating on the question). By contrast, Nazir-Ali and Williams were strong supporters of women’s ordination despite their contrasting churchmanship.

On the even more emotional issue of ordaining practicing homosexuals, Nazir-Ali was described as a family-values traditionalist, while reporters made much of Rowan Williams’ acknowledgment that he had ordained a gay man involved in a "committed relationship." "I am not convinced, Williams had said, "that a homosexual has to be celibate in every imaginable circumstance."

Was the fixation on the candidates’ views of homosexuality an example of an

American-style obsession with sexual politics to the exclusion of theological issues—for example, about the nature of Holy Communion, a subject that traditionally has divided Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics? Ruth Gledhill insists that in focusing on gay issues the press reflected the priority of the issue for many within the Church of England, which has a large contingent of gay clergy.

Then there was the question of whether Anglicanism should remain "by law

Established" in a multicultural and multi-religious Britain. It was even suggested that supporters of continued establishment were being more Anglican than the queen. For, in a widely reported break with tradition, Elizabeth II in January welcomed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor as a guest preacher in her chapel at Sandringham.

Many columnists used the Canterbury sweepstakes as a journalistic peg to praise or, more frequently, to denounce the idea of establishment. On this issue, too, Rowan Williams—the primate of a non-established Anglican church—was portrayed in the press as an innovator. According to the Times, he was "understood to favor looser church ties with the State in England."

For the present, those ties bind tightly. Although the Holy Spirit was believed to be at work in the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the decisive vote was cast by Britain’s pre-eminent politician, Tony Blair. And while Blair is a High-Church Anglican (Ruth Gledhill says "everyone thinks he's a wannabe Catholic"), a Methodist or

Roman Catholic or Jewish prime minister would have the same power.

When a bishopric must be filled, a Crown Appointments Commission provides two names to the prime minister, ranking them if one candidate has significantly more support. The prime minister may choose either of the candidates to propose to the queen, or he may discard both names and ask the commission for a new list. The process is, as readers of Trollope would expect, political in the extreme.

It is also secret. The commission does not publicize the names on its short list, nor is the prime minister required to disclose who is under consideration. Clifford Longley thinks that if the selection of a particular bishop were raised during Question Time in the House of Commons, the prime minister would find a way not to answer.

This might seem odd behavior for a democratically elected leader, but Longley warns against too "American" an understanding of the prime minister’s role: "He is not only an elected politician. He is the queen’s first minister and the appointment of bishops is something done actually for the queen rather than [as] someone acting for the population."

This explanation aside, the process and the prime minister’s role in it have occasioned considerable criticism in the British press. "If this is a state appointment," the Guardian editorialized January 22, "it should be conducted according to...rules of fairness and transparency, rather than the labyrinthine and secretive process now underway. If it is a church appointment, then it should be left to the General Synod to choose the man or woman best suited to give spiritual leadership. The prime minister is literally the last person who should have a hand in such an appointment."

That is not a fringe position. In May, the Independent noted the results of a poll in which 48 percent of Britons surveyed said they were opposed to the prime minister choosing the archbishop of Canterbury. In the event, as the British say, the identity of the likely 104th archbishop was first disclosed not by the prime minister or the Crown Appointments Commission but by the venerable Times of London.

On June 20, in an exclusive any British or American religion reporter would die for, Ruth Gledhill reported that the Church of England had given the nod to Williams: "Dr. Williams was selected as the first choice of the Crown Appointments Commission after a two-day meeting in Woking, Surrey last week." Gledhill went on to quote a Labor Party source as suggesting that Blair would accept the recommendation: "He is very enthusiastic about Rowan and thinks he is a terrific theologian." The next day, a Times editorial endorsed the choice of Williams, even as it commented that the prime minister’s role in the process was "ripe for reform."

Like any good exclusive, the story generated its own follow-up. On June 21, Gledhill reported that in an open letter to Blair a group of Evangelicals, apparently galvanized by Williams’ tolerance for gay priests, warned that Williams "would not have the confidence of the vast majority of Anglicans in the world who are now in the Third World and who as loyal Anglicans take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority. His appointment would lead to a major split in the Anglican communion."

Meanwhile, as the church waited for confirmation from Downing Street that

Rowan Williams was the next primate of all England, the cause of disestablishment associated with the Welshman suffered a setback. On July 8, the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in York, overwhelmingly voted in favor of preserving a role for the government in the selection of bishops.

The Times’ coverage offered this piquant quote from one of the anti-disestablishmentarians, the Very Rev Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark: "This is the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. By rejecting this motion, synod has a golden opportunity of showing its loyalty. The motion is a Trojan horse towards the disestablishment of the Church, no matter what blandishments we might hear."

A supporter of reform, Bishop Colin Buchanan on Woolwich, warned that "if

this is defeated now, it will come back again." In the future, perhaps with some prodding from its Welsh primate, the church might deprive Downing Street of its involvement in the apostolic succession. But that wouldn’t stop journalists like Longley and Gledhill from aggressively covering the church that is established not only "by law" but also by centuries of custom.

Hit Counter