A Canterbury Tale
by Michael McGough
In the United States, the news media are obliged to justify their
snooping into the affairs of organized religion. Witness the agonized
insistence of some editorial writers during the present Catholic pedophilia
scandal that because the issue is crime and not just sin they are entitled
to criticize, and even call for the resignation of, princes of the church.
But what happens when the church in question is both an assemblage of
believers and an integral part of the national political system? The British
media’s reporting of this year’s search for a new Archbishop of
Canterbury—a search that culminated in the choice of Rowan Williams, the
Archbishop of Wales—offers an object lesson in the unzipped coverage of a
story that involves the convergence of religion and government (not to
mention lobbying at cocktail parties and exclusive London clubs).
Although it attracts fewer churchgoers on Sunday than the ascendant Roman
Catholic Church, the Church of England has long served as fodder for both
highbrow and lowbrow British newspapers. In the 1970s, when an
Anglican-Roman Catholic theological commission reached agreements on such
abstruse issues as the nature of priesthood and Holy Communion, the
"quality" newspapers provided expert analysis.
Down-market tabloids have long had a fondness for CoE clergymen who find
themselves in worldly scrapes, whether it be the "sex-change
vicar" worried about whether the congregation will be accepting of
his/her gender reassignment or the "kerb-crawling vicar" caught up
in a police prostitution sting. As an institution that claims to be, as
Lenny Bruce would say, THE church, the Church of England acknowledges that
it can’t withdraw from the journalistic scrutiny to which other aspects of
the British establishment are subjected.
Clifford Longley, the former religious affairs editor of the London Times
and the dean of British religion writers, notes that the established
church has traditionally seen itself as charged with the care of the souls
of the English nation, not simply its own communicants.
The nation, as represented in Parliament, returns the favor. In 1928, the
House of Commons, with some non-Anglican Protestants leading the charge,
killed a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer because its theology
smacked to many MPs of popery.
For journalists, this equation of church and nation can open vestry
doors. Longley, a Roman Catholic, recalls, "I justified my position
vis-à-vis the church when I was at the Times by claiming ownership.
‘Your head of church is my head of state,’ I would say, referring to the
Ruth Gledhill, the Times’ current religion reporter, agrees that
the Establishment, as the church’s official status is described,
"makes them feel they have to be open to the press." (Gledhill
acknowledges, to be sure, that there was comparable journalistic interest in
the selection by the Vatican of Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as archbishop of
Westminster and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.)
So it is not surprising that a media frenzy ensued in January when
Archbishop George Carey, an evangelical Anglican who had been the darkest of
horses when he was chosen by Margaret Thatcher in 1990, announced that he
would be stepping down in October. Journalists of all religious backgrounds
and none proceeded to pronounce on the Canterbury sweepstakes and the
candidates that clustered at the starting gate. (The racing metaphor is apt.
London bookmakers promptly laid odds on the various contenders.)
Newspapers published short lists, most of which included Archbishop
Williams, an erudite former Oxford divinity professor who as head of the
autonomous Church in Wales was not technically a member of the Church of
England; the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres; the Bishop of Liverpool,
James Jones, touted as a favorite of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s; and
Michael Nazir Ali, the Pakistani-born bishop of Rochester—a
"diversity" candidate who was widely portrayed as self-promoting.
In the taxonomy favored by most journalists, Chartres and Williams were
Anglo-Catholics, part of the liturgically minded "smells and
bells" wing of the church. Jones and Nazir-Ali were described as
Evangelicals, though Nazir-Ali flirted as a youth with Roman Catholicism
(giving rise to the slur "Paki papist"). Almost from the beginning
of the coverage, however, the positions of the candidates on the
Anglo-Catholic/Evangelical spectrum—what Anglicans call
"churchmanship"—were overshadowed by issues of sex and gender
and the grand question of religious establishment itself.
Chartres was invariably described as opposed to the Church of England’s
decision to ordain women as priests (though his supporters let it be known
that he was moderating on the question). By contrast, Nazir-Ali and Williams
were strong supporters of women’s ordination despite their contrasting
On the even more emotional issue of ordaining practicing homosexuals,
Nazir-Ali was described as a family-values traditionalist, while reporters
made much of Rowan Williams’ acknowledgment that he had ordained a gay man
involved in a "committed relationship." "I am not convinced,
Williams had said, "that a homosexual has to be celibate in every
Was the fixation on the candidates’ views of homosexuality an example
American-style obsession with sexual politics to the exclusion of
theological issues—for example, about the nature of Holy Communion, a
subject that traditionally has divided Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics?
Ruth Gledhill insists that in focusing on gay issues the press reflected the
priority of the issue for many within the Church of England, which has a
large contingent of gay clergy.
Then there was the question of whether Anglicanism should remain "by
Established" in a multicultural and multi-religious Britain. It was
even suggested that supporters of continued establishment were being more
Anglican than the queen. For, in a widely reported break with tradition,
Elizabeth II in January welcomed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor as a guest
preacher in her chapel at Sandringham.
Many columnists used the Canterbury sweepstakes as a journalistic peg to
praise or, more frequently, to denounce the idea of establishment. On this
issue, too, Rowan Williams—the primate of a non-established Anglican
church—was portrayed in the press as an innovator. According to the Times,
he was "understood to favor looser church ties with the State in
For the present, those ties bind tightly. Although the Holy Spirit was
believed to be at work in the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury,
the decisive vote was cast by Britain’s pre-eminent politician, Tony
Blair. And while Blair is a High-Church Anglican (Ruth Gledhill says
"everyone thinks he's a wannabe Catholic"), a Methodist or
Roman Catholic or Jewish prime minister would have the same power.
When a bishopric must be filled, a Crown Appointments Commission provides
two names to the prime minister, ranking them if one candidate has
significantly more support. The prime minister may choose either of the
candidates to propose to the queen, or he may discard both names and ask the
commission for a new list. The process is, as readers of Trollope would
expect, political in the extreme.
It is also secret. The commission does not publicize the names on its
short list, nor is the prime minister required to disclose who is under
consideration. Clifford Longley thinks that if the selection of a particular
bishop were raised during Question Time in the House of Commons, the prime
minister would find a way not to answer.
This might seem odd behavior for a democratically elected leader, but
Longley warns against too "American" an understanding of the prime
minister’s role: "He is not only an elected politician. He is the
queen’s first minister and the appointment of bishops is something done
actually for the queen rather than [as] someone acting for the
This explanation aside, the process and the prime minister’s role in it
have occasioned considerable criticism in the British press. "If this
is a state appointment," the Guardian editorialized January 22,
"it should be conducted according to...rules of fairness and
transparency, rather than the labyrinthine and secretive process now
underway. If it is a church appointment, then it should be left to the
General Synod to choose the man or woman best suited to give spiritual
leadership. The prime minister is literally the last person who should have
a hand in such an appointment."
That is not a fringe position. In May, the Independent noted the
results of a poll in which 48 percent of Britons surveyed said they were
opposed to the prime minister choosing the archbishop of Canterbury. In the
event, as the British say, the identity of the likely 104th
archbishop was first disclosed not by the prime minister or the Crown
Appointments Commission but by the venerable Times of London.
On June 20, in an exclusive any British or American religion reporter
would die for, Ruth Gledhill reported that the Church of England had given
the nod to Williams: "Dr. Williams was selected as the first choice of
the Crown Appointments Commission after a two-day meeting in Woking, Surrey
last week." Gledhill went on to quote a Labor Party source as
suggesting that Blair would accept the recommendation: "He is very
enthusiastic about Rowan and thinks he is a terrific theologian." The
next day, a Times editorial endorsed the choice of Williams, even as
it commented that the prime minister’s role in the process was "ripe
Like any good exclusive, the story generated its own follow-up. On June
21, Gledhill reported that in an open letter to Blair a group of
Evangelicals, apparently galvanized by Williams’ tolerance for gay
priests, warned that Williams "would not have the confidence of the
vast majority of Anglicans in the world who are now in the Third World and
who as loyal Anglicans take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority.
His appointment would lead to a major split in the Anglican communion."
Meanwhile, as the church waited for confirmation from Downing Street that
Rowan Williams was the next primate of all England, the cause of
disestablishment associated with the Welshman suffered a setback. On July 8,
the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in York, overwhelmingly
voted in favor of preserving a role for the government in the selection of
The Times’ coverage offered this piquant quote from one of the
anti-disestablishmentarians, the Very Rev Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark:
"This is the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. By rejecting this
motion, synod has a golden opportunity of showing its loyalty. The motion is
a Trojan horse towards the disestablishment of the Church, no matter what
blandishments we might hear."
A supporter of reform, Bishop Colin Buchanan on Woolwich, warned that
this is defeated now, it will come back again." In the future,
perhaps with some prodding from its Welsh primate, the church might deprive
Downing Street of its involvement in the apostolic succession. But that
wouldn’t stop journalists like Longley and Gledhill from aggressively
covering the church that is established not only "by law" but also
by centuries of custom.