Monday, 10 September 2012

Precedents, Not Presidents

In his interview with Benedict Brogan, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests the need for a presidential figure to take charge of the day-to-day affairs of the so-called Anglican Communion.

Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question of what those day-to-day duties might be, and whether they need to be done. Let us leave aside the practical implausibility of getting so-called Anglicans to agree on the person, or the duties. Let us leave aside the dubious distinction Dr Williams makes between “executive” and “spiritual” authority: a distinction which suggests he is not very familiar with the office and work of a bishop.

Let us leave even aside our doubts whether the Church of England is now a member of the so-called Anglican Communion at all. Let us instead ask ourselves what is in the Archbishop’s mind, and what it is that he has forgotten.

We must consider – but only for a moment – the possibility that this is a practical suggestion for achieving agreement and unity between the churches of the so-called Anglican Communion. Now we know that Dr Williams is more able than most to see past present difficulties to the inner reality of the kingdom, but even for him this is wildly optimistic, and he must know it. We would not dare to have suggested such a plan here for fear of being thought fantastical.

More likely, and equally characteristic, is that Dr Williams wishes for kindness’ sake to excuse his successor from the burdens of so-called-Anglican-Communion duties. That would certainly be a charitable and beneficial act.

It also seems likely that the proposal for a presidential figure has been tailor-made by Dr Williams as a consolation prize for an unsuccessful aspirant to be his successor. Probably no bishop is better placed for this new role than Dr Sentamu; and it would make sense of recent events.

Of course, we cannot ignore the possibility that as he comes to the end of his period in office Dr Williams has simply re-discovered a sense of whimsy. We certainly wish him – in case there was any doubt – a renewal of joy in his semi-retirement, and a re-discovery of Anglo-Catholicism and reaction, too.

We certainly hope that this proposal is merely whimsical. Of course, it will not affect us personally. Taking our cue from Dr Pusey, we maintain that Canterbury has nothing to do with Jerusalem. And as he was eventually vindicated on that subject, so we will be vindicated. (It is a measure of our decline, though, that an Anglo-Lutheran bishop seems a remarkably tame, even conservative proposal now.)

However, for those of you interested in the so-called Anglican Communion, I will show you a more excellent way. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have forgotten that the Church of England already has institutions of leadership apart from its bishops. (Thank God, some might say.)

No, we are not talking about WATCH, but about that altogether more feminine institution, the Royal Supremacy. 

In a secular age there certainly disadvantages to the Royal Supremacy: indeed, we have been more displeased than otherwise by its exercise over the last few centuries. But it may be the last hope of the so-called Anglican Communion. If a presidential figure is required to excite the loyalty of the bishops and to ensure that they will sit down together with respect, there can be no better candidate than the present Supreme Governor.

Her Majesty shares, we suspect, the religious and social opinions of the Archbishop of York. She will, no doubt, be thus acceptable to the average global so-called Anglican. But she is far more used than Dr Sentamu to this kind of work: the endless round of diplomacy, pushing no agenda of her own but to be the focus of unity. (Now where have we heard that phrase before?) And of course she is a better evangelist for the Faith than most of the bishops.

Some will object that she no longer appoints the colonial bishops, nor do they swear any allegiance to her. (Dr Pusey opposed that development, too, of course.) But her Majesty has coped with independence, and even republicanism, in her former colonies. She has relinquished any effective intervention overseas (an example the bishops seem unlikely to follow) and yet they still look to her as the head of a great international organisation.

If she can still be Head of the Commonwealth, why not also President of the Anglican Communion? We will not even insist on the words “so-called” being in the official title. 

Dr Williams will do well to insist that the new office under discussion should be confined to the Protestant descendants of the Electress Sophia. Then at the next Lambeth Conference we look forward to Archbishop Jensen and Archbishop Akinola lustily singing that traditional Anglican anthem: Salve Regina!

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