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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 07:14 GMT
Lining up for Canterbury
Lambeth Palace tower and statuary   BBC
Lambeth Palace will soon have a new occupant
By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

A new pope is chosen by the Catholic church's spiritual leaders, the college of cardinals.

A new archbishop of Canterbury, though, is effectively chosen by the prime minister of the day.

That underlines the political nature of the church of England, still one of the pillars of the establishment.

And those who hope to influence the prime minister's choice are sharpening their political stilettos.

The church of England remains the established church, and while it does politicians have at least to appear to take it seriously.

Rowan Williams   Church in Wales
Rowan Williams: A prophet
For the present Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that is simple enough: he is an Anglican. But he is faced with a church splitting in ways it had managed till recently to avoid.

It has always been a scarcely-credible compromise, taking mind-boggling leaps of logic in its stride by ignoring any claim to logic.

It has always included those who believe every word of the Bible is divinely inspired and literally true, and those who understand the word "God" purely subjectively.

Nelsonian approach

It is used to embracing extreme Protestants and virtual Catholics, worshippers united in name and little else.

It has, until recently, happily employed significant numbers of gay priests: officially it disapproved, practically it did not ask them what they got up to.

But the balancing act is now collapsing, and the splits are impossible to hide.

Michael Nazir-Ali   Rochester diocese
Michael Nazir-Ali: Pakistani roots
Whoever Tony Blair recommends the Queen to choose as Canterbury's 104th archbishop will face four crises on day one (there is no chance of a female archbishop, as the church refuses to have women bishops).

Internationally, he will confront what many believe to be the clash between Islam and Christianity (in fact they share a significant doctrinal heritage).

Nationally, he will face the church's declining membership and influence.

Prophets not wanted

And domestically he will have to try to stop the divisions on women and gay and lesbian priests becoming even wider.

Among the fancied bishops are:

  • Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester. Born in Pakistan, he could be a shrewd choice in a racially-divided Britain. He knows the Islamic world well, and chairs the committee considering allowing women bishops
  • Rowan Williams, archbishop of Wales. The Welsh church is separate from the church of England, but this would not debar Dr Williams. A visionary theologian, he would be a prophetic appointment, but is probably too radical for the prime minister
  • Christopher Herbert of St Albans, respected for his unassuming work in the general synod, the church's policy-making body
  • John Gladwin of Guildford, a low churchman who has taken risks by championing gay and lesbian clergy
  • Richard Chartres of London. His failure so far to ordain any women priests may count against him. But he has close links to the Royal family. That could help if Prince Charles were monarch (and so head of the church of England) and wanted to marry Camilla Parker Bowles despite the church's rule against the remarriage of divorced members
  • James Jones of Liverpool, an up-and-coming figure known to be close to Tony Blair

It is possible that the choice will fall on someone as relatively unknown within the church as George Carey was when Margaret Thatcher picked him. And there is nothing to stop Mr Blair bringing in someone from outside the UK.

See also:

08 Jan 02 | England
Archbishop of Canterbury to retire
06 Jan 02 | UK
The people's Archbishop
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