Why I would like to help choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury

By Graeme Smith
March 18, 2012

I would like a vote in the decision to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Ideally, if I am honest, secretly, I would quite like to have the only vote. But that would be monarchy, and I don’t believe in that for all sorts of reasons, and nor do I believe in oligarchy, so what I would like to see is a democratic election. Perhaps something like they have in the Episcopal Church in the US, an open contest in which candidates put forward their ecclesial and spiritual credentials.

Of course I shall not have a vote. The next Archbishop will be chosen by the great and the good, sprinkled with some local diocesan worthies. They will weigh up the diverse and competing needs of the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, the British State, and the diocese of Canterbury. They will receive submissions, take soundings and consult widely before reaching their considered opinion.

Opponents of democracy, of which there are a growing number amongst academic theologians, such as John Milbank and Phillip Blond, will welcome this kind of process. The idea of subjecting the appointment of a new Archbishop to a democratic election is too dreadful to contemplate. It would, they argue, turn the whole process into a popularity contest. There would be manifestos and hustings, promises (later broken) and campaigns, probably negative personality attacks and the deepening polarisation of the Anglican Church into opposing camps.

Democracy, in their view, only gives power to the media manipulators, the spin doctors and campaign gurus who, through their focus groups and bullying of editors, their sound-bites and dirty tricks, have done so much to debase our politics.

Before anyone could blink the appointment of a great, historic, ecclesial office of State would be turned into nothing better than an extended round of X-Factor. Ordinary people, those who would vote, would not be able to see beyond their own self-interest, so easily manipulated by the Alastair Campbells of this world. Much better to have the great and the good decide what would be in everyone’s best interest.

But, and this is the problem with oligarchy, the great and the good are going to do the same, they are going to act in their own self-interest. Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists are surely right when they argue that sin is all pervasive. In groups sin operates through self-interest. It is a heresy to say that anything these groups do, like employ reason or receive evidence, can remove that sinfulness. Ultimately the group will not be able to transcend or combat their own self-interest. So when Milbank or Blond condemn democracy for elevating self-interest they are, at the same moment, condemning oligarchy as well; there is no escaping self-interest.

So how do we limit the impact of self-interest? Augustine’s answer was the exercise of the sword in the earthly city; might and dominion restraining the worst excesses of the sinful robber band. But Christianity has come up with a better answer since Augustine’s day, an option unimaginable to Augustine. That is democracy. One feature of democracy is that it diffuses, and so lessens the corrupting influence, of self-interest. Scholars argue that democracy is a product of Christian thought and the societies that have been shaped by it, and if they are correct then democracy is Christianity’s answer to the problem of group self-interest, to the problem of sinfulness in politics. The more people who are exercising their own self-interest then the less exclusive, and so oppressive, that self-interest, will be.

We can expect many deserved tributes to Archbishop Williams in the coming months, not least his impressive achievement in holding together a fundamentally divided Church. But, despite his Welsh background, and despite his socially liberal credentials, he turned out to be an establishment figure. His priority was peace (or at least the quelling of hostilities), and so unity (of a certain kind), rather than strife, and so justice for minorities. He is evidence that the establishment will ultimately choose one of their own, even when they seem to be taking a risk.

Unless we want more of the same then we shall have to change the system by which Archbishops are appointed. If we want someone genuinely radical then democracy holds out a better hope than another round of oligarchy.


(c) Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the journal Political Theology and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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