With the decision that
Justin Welby is to be enthroned as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, it is
worth reassessing the value of the role. This is one of the most historic
offices of the land, along with that of Monarch and Lord Chancellor. The
Archbishop precedes the Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister in order of precedence,
but is this merely a historical anomaly? Does the Archbishop as the primus
inter pares of the established church still have relevance in twenty-first century
This article argues that
the office of Archbishop could not be more relevant today. It may help first to set out what the role of
the Archbishop is, how he exercises his authority and thereby correct some
misapprehensions to assess the utility of this ancient office
The Archbishop has a multi-faceted
role. He is President of the worldwide
Anglican Communion, first among the Bishops of the established Church of
England as Primate of All England, Metropolitan Bishop of the Province of
Canterbury (thirty dioceses) and diocesan Bishop of Canterbury. He sits by
right as a Lord Spiritual in the legislature along with
the other twenty-one are there on the basis of seniority. The current Convenor of the Lords Spiritual
is not however the Archbishop, but the Bishop of Leicester.
The authority the
Archbishop exercises in these roles is not that of a chief executive – he is
not a Prime Minister exercising the Royal Prerogative or a Pope with papal infallibility. The only two roles in which the Archbishop
can exercise executive power are in the See of Canterbury, when he is acting as
a diocesan bishop and as Metropolitan Bishop of the Province of Canterbury. In
every other aspect of his office his authority rests on intangibles and
concepts that are, it must be conceded, somewhat out of fashion.
As the lead bishop of
the Anglican Church he is primus inter
pares – first among equals. Rather
like the old concept of cabinet government, he exercises his authority through
the respect in which his office is held.
The bishops therefore operate in a very different way from the world of
business or politics. It is the contention of this article that this is no bad
thing, but it does lead to misunderstandings as to why the Archbishop does not seem
to set a clear public position for the Church.
He is not of course
the head of the church, that is Christ; but, neither is he the Supreme
Governor, for that role falls to the Queen. This is of course a complicated
picture, but the reason it works is because it depends upon values and ways of
behaviour different from the unambiguous accountability of the world of elected
politicians (which when choosing the government of the nation is of course the
fundamental principle upon which legitimacy must rest). The Archbishop is not
fulfilling the same role as an elected government and his authority does not
derive from a bottom-up election so much, as accountability to God.
A close analogy can
here be drawn with the role of the Monarchy. The Queen looks for legitimacy to
history and a coronation ceremony that emphasised her accountability to
God. If the legitimacy of the Monarchy
simply rested on accountability in the same way as elected governments then we
would hold elections for the Head of State.
While this is the process elsewhere, there is broad agreement that for
reasons of history and emotional attachment, that is not how the British Head
of State is chosen. Precisely because the Monarch is not chosen in that way,
she is part of the social glue that holds society together.
The Archbishop can
only command authority by relying on similar claims of legitimacy. He cannot claim to have won an election via
universal suffrage. No, he relies on what are now counter-cultural concepts of deference,
tradition and answerability to the Almighty.
Indeed both Monarch and Archbishop derive legitimacy from the ultimate
top-down authority and are very unfashionably not based on the bottom-up approach. And that is a good thing, because it ensures
the persistence of important values that an individualistic analysis does not
comprehend. Duty, faithfulness,
selflessness, patriotism are all values not recognised in a world-view that
sees life as the individual achieving his own satisfaction.
The political class
now looks only to different interpretations of individualism making the Monarch
and Archbishop’s roles difficult concepts to grasp. The public, however, as
demonstrated by the recent Jubilee celebrations does intuitively get it! Politicians
meanwhile seem preoccupied with people having a right to do what they want
regardless of the impact on institutions – the arguments for gay marriage are a
case in point, where an individual wanting to have something trumps the damage
to the institution of marriage, despite marriage being part of that social glue
so vital to civil society. The nature and role of the Archbishop means by
definition he asserts values contrary to the entitlement agenda of left-wing
equalities and rights ideology.
On the right commentary
seems to have narrowed conservative thinking to being little more than
pro-market ideology. Once Conservatism was about so much more and certainly
involved the conserving of those institutions that hold the nation together. When looking through such a narrow prism of
the market being the answer to everything it is no longer possible to
articulate arguments in favour of Monarchy, Church and nation.
therefore has an important role in national life, to act as a custodian and
advocate for older and more selfless values. This is not a left or right wing
position. It challenges politicians across the spectrum to take into account
that there is much more to our nation’s values than the narrow ideological
critiques that either look to the market or entitlement to equality at the
expense of the social fabric. In the current climate of secularist
individualism this is quite simply counter-cultural.