Friday, 19 October 2012

Apostolical Succession

Congratulations to Philip North, Rector of St Pancras; whose excellent transport links have taken him, not in a continental direction as some had feared, but along domestic lines to be Bishop of Whitby.

Farther North gets no points for going to any of the right colleges, and his links to the Diocese of York have so far been minimal, but we are very glad that he is now to be allowed entry to the Elysium. Great things clearly await, as indeed they should.

We commend also the Archbishop of York for the swiftness with which this excellent appointment has been made. It remains possible that Dr Sentamu is trying to prove to someone the decisive nature of his leadership, for reasons which remain opaque. Or it may be that it just doesn’t take that long to look up the name of the next Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the list. Whether Cleveland is ready for an Australian in about ten years’ time remains to be seen.

Other appointments are not always made so swiftly, and at Plumstead Rectory we are still waiting for any word from the Crown Nominations Commission concerning the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Things were much more efficient in the days when the favoured clergymen of the court received on the same day of their predecessors’ demises the notice of their own recommendations. We will not pretend that we always approved of those appointments, but the process was at least swift, transparent and sensible. I hardly think anyone would say the same of the present process; as to whether we approve of the results of it, the reader must be left to guess.

The cause of the present delay is not hard to find. The cloistered secrecy of the workings of the Crown Nominations Commission is such that the results of its meeting in September are common knowledge. The Commission is required to nominate two candidates, but can agree only on one, and cannot come to a consensus on a second appointable candidate.

We will not stoop to the level of the public press by naming the reverend gentlemen in question. Suffice it to say that the question at issue is whether the decisive factor should be the right theological college or experience in the Diocese of York. This was entirely predictable.

Long-standing readers will remember that at the time of Dr Williams resignation we argued for joint appointment with the Coptic Orthodox Church, who are in the process of choosing a new Pope. The substantial reasons for this can be found at the post An Ecumenical Proposal.

Co-incidentally, the authorities in Alexandria have now published the shortlist of five candidates (above)for the papal election. This is a breach of the procedure of the Crown Nominations Commission, and therefore we can, sadly, assume that out proposal is not to be acted upon this time.

The Coptic process has much to teach us. We do not refer to suggestions that our archbishops should be elected, although if elections there must be we view with approval the Coptic franchise, with its property qualification for voters. We are impressed, too, that so far from delaying, the Coptic committee has moved more rapidly than its published schedule. We commend also the three church-wide days of fasting observed by Copts in preparation for the election.

Most critically, though, we observed at the time of An Ecumenical Proposal, that

 [t]he selection process for the Coptic Pope involves a shortlist of three selected by the bishops followed by a final choice made by a blindfolded child; but this is near enough to the procedure of the Crown Nominations Commission as makes no difference.

and sadly this (prescient) wish was father to the thought. The comparison was not apparently quite accurate, but a random selection from a choice of three does offer a way out of the Commission’s present difficulty. Whether it will be possible, at the present rate of decline, to find any children who are members of the Church of England for much longer, is a question for another day. Sufficient unto the day is the procedure thereof: by the time of the next vacancy it will doubtless have changed again.

If the present deadlock cannot be resolved the whole process will have to start again, with a wider search for candidates. Once again the Copts are ahead of us, having excluded their own front-runners from the shortlist. (This option, of course, remains open to the Commission.)

We do not think that delay would necessarily be damaging, and would allow a reconsideration of the basis on which the search has been conducted. It would leave us temporarily under the spiritual leadership of the Dean of Canterbury (to save your looking him up: one out of two for colleges and no experience in the Diocese of York) but that need not necessarily be a bad thing.

The argument for looking beyond the present bench of bishops in this search is, on reflection, unanswerable. The Copts, in their whimsical obedience to one of the ecumenical councils, have hitherto denied serving diocesan bishops promotion to the see of St Mark.

It may be time for the Church of England to restore this godly discipline. It would be interesting to see a shortlist considered from which the bishops were excluded, consisting solely of deans, archdeacons, newspaper columnists, and other prominent clergy. 

We hope some latter-day Dr Gwynne might be found to make the case for Tory parsons from the key electoral areas of the north-west. That remote possibility aside, we hope that imaginative thinking on this subject might begin to influence the higher councils of the church. 

Of course, we do not guarantee will like the results any better. The last two deans made Archbishop of Canterbury were the unjustly-deprived Sancroft and his reluctant successor; the last two archdeacons directly promoted were Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Becket. We offer no view as to the candidates we prefer. You pays your simoniacal money and you takes your choice.


  1. I'm not sure the claim that the CNC has agreed the first name but not the second is actually credible - why hold up the entire process for a name which is now token? Much more likely that no-one received 2/3 support...

    1. That may well be likely. However, it remains credible that one name has agreement, but not two. The regulations insist on two names, token or not, and no-one should underestimate the bureacratic absurdity of Holy Mother.

      Interestingly, in addition, it is by no means certain that the first name agreed will be the first one proposed. To agree a name needs 2/3 support, but a subsequent majority vote determines the order. It's an interesting exercise in game theory, if you like to look at it like that.

  2. Fr North was appointed by the Queen, not by the Archbishop of York.

    1. You come to this blog for realism? All bishop's appointments are made by the Crown, but in suffragans' cases the relevant diocesan both has the critical influence in the nomination, and effective control of the process.

    2. But when the previous suffragan has been preferred by the Crown, his successor is then also appointed by the Crown, notwithstanding the importance accorded to the wishes of the diocesan.