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The New Archbishop: A counter-cultural first among equals

Matthew Groves on the nature of the role and its continued relevance

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 Britain?

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 York, London, Durham and Winchester; 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.  

The Archbishop 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.

 

   


Comments on: The New Archbishop: A counter-cultural first among equals

Gravatar George Lees 16 November 2012
Very well put. The new Archbishop has a great oportunity to lead on British cultural values and rebuild the C of E as a great institution of the state, a repository of British cultural values. Remembering the embarrasing beatification of Princess Diama an
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Detailed Summary

Date Published
16 November 2012

Issue(s)
British Civic Life

About The Authors

Matthew Groves

Matthew Groves, a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate at the last general election (Plymouth Moor View), takes...