Saturday, September 29, 2012

Try the Sorting Hat? Choosing the New Archbishop

Hermione for Archbishop!  Oh wait she's a girl.
This week the Crown Nominations Committee met to consider whom to present to the Prime Minister and Monarch for appointment as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  Here, before beginning to break any of this down, Crusty Old Dean feels the need to do two things:

1)  explain how the Committee actually works.  Each diocese  in the Church of England has a "vacancy in see committee," which includes any other bishops in the diocese (suffragan), the dean of the Cathedral, the representatives to General Synod (kind of like having the General Convention deputation be on it), a couple of archdeacons (which are more like heads of deaneries, in some US dioceses archdeacons coordinate the community of deacons), and representatives from the diocesan House of Clergy and Laity (kind of like having reps from diocesan Convention).  When it's time to choose a new bishop, it is this group that more or less draws up a job description, which it sends to the Crown Nominations Committee (hereafter CNC).

The CNC itself consists (with slight variations depending on whether a bishop or Archbishop is being nominated) of a chair (who must be lay person), six members of the local vacancy in see committee, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York,  three lay and three clerical members of the General Synod, as well as someone from the Prime Minister's office, as well as advisory nonvoting members (in this case the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion and the appointments secretaries of the PM and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who provide advice and assistance).  For the first time ever, the CNC in this case includes someone from outside the Church of England, though not very far outside:  Archbishop Barry Morgan of the Church in Wales (elected by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, which includes representation from the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates) .  Thus, in Episcopal Church terms, the diocesan convention, house of deputies, and house of bishops, and all orders of ministry, are represented on the CNC.  The CNC has followed this pattern for a successor to Archbishop Williams, with one wrinkle -- Archbishop Sentamu of York resigned from the Commission (and the House of Bishops chose a successor), in essence indicating he was running for the office because the CNC cannot consider one of its members for an appointment.  In order to be nominated, a candidate must receive 2/3rds of the votes (or 11 out of 16).  Once a first choice has been made, a second choice will be made, also by a 2/3rds vote.  The CNC supplies two names to the Prime Minister.  In the olden days, the Prime Minister could choose either of the names to forward to the monarch or send them back to the CNC and request different ones -- and something like this happened under Margaret Thatcher.  However the process was reformed slightly under PM Gordon Brown and now the Prime Minister sends the first name to the monarch, the only way the second person can get appointed is if for some reason the nomination of the first name on the list cannot proceed (say, the person suddenly is revealed to be a woman).  The monarch confirms the appointment, and then, in Crusty Old Dean's favorite part, the Canons of Canterbury Cathedral (who remember, have the right to elect their bishop) are instructed whom to elect, which they dutifully file in and so do.  Yet even this action must in turn be confirmed by other diocesan bishops.

OK, that's one thing COD needed to get say at the outset.  There's one other thing COD needs to do:

2)  provide a translation from English to American of an important word: appointment.  Now, in American English, this usually has the connotation of someone selecting a person for something.  COD would rarely imagine it is used in a collective or elective sense.  You would say, "The President appointed a new Secretary of State," or "The principal of the school appointed a new crossing guard," or "the seminary dean appointed a new chair of the committee."

In English English, the connotation is very different:  appointment, especially in the ecclesial sphere, means the process by which someone enters into a position.  This can be by a person appointing someone, as in its American sense, or it can be by election by a committee, or by a number of different processes.  It can also be a multi-stage process, with different levels having different yet still substantial roles in the appointment.

That word "appointment" does not mean what I think you think it means.
You can see this in the news coverage and documents produced in in 2003 and 2004 surrounding Gene Robinson's election as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The Windsor Report, the document produced in 2004 and which addressed the question, referred to the "appointment" of Bishop Robinson, whereas Americans almost entirely referred to the "election" of Gene Robinson.  Often those who noted the word "appointment" in the Windsor Report and other documentation would howl that such persons did not understand the polity of the Episcopal Church: it was inconceivable! that they could understand the Episcopal Church's process.  While that may be the case in other matters, probably not in this case -- in its English sense, and especially an ecclesial sense, the word in the Windsor Report was perfectly appropriate; in that understanding, one can be appointed by a process of election.

On the whole question of choosing bishops, a brief background on the medieval church is important here.  While we may often myopically think that the Pope has appointed bishops in the church since just after the Last Supper, the reality is the manner by which persons became bishops is a complex and often convoluted process in the Middle Ages.

COD often begins a course in medieval history with the so-called "Investiture Controversy", a struggle over who had the right and authority to invest bishops with the signs of their office in the early medieval period.  As part of this discussion, first-year seminarians are often horrified if not contemptuous that lords and kings appointed most bishops in their domains, and see the investiture controversy as some kind of proto-church state separation debate.  COD always asks the question:  what's wrong with the Lord appointing a bishop in the year 1027?  Students usually look at COD like he had just farted in class when he asks this question -- Good God, what could possibly be good about a nobleman appointing a bishop?  Look at it from the Lord's point of view: often the Lord knew who the best qualified person would be, not some bishop somewhere else or some pope.  Given the fact clergy were often the only literate people and the church the only body that kept any kind of records, high ranking clergy often had to serve important roles in managing local affairs, and so it was important they would be someone the local lord knew.  Further, how could you ask a society which had no understanding of representative decision making, no institutional capacity, to elect a bishop?  It was as good a system as any at the time.

The processes got more complicated in the later medieval period.  Without going into terrific detail, by the late medieval period, most offices in the church, from bishop to chaplain of the weaver's guild, had a right of appointment.  Somebody or someone or some group was responsible for choosing someone to fill that office.  It could be the entity that created the office:  the weaver's guild would choose its own chaplain.  It could be the local Lord; while foreign to us moderns, to them it would have been ridiculous that the Lord who paid for, built, and kept up the chapel in the village adjoining his castle should not have the right to appoint the priest.  Some cathedral chapters had the right to elect their bishop.  Where it gets complicated is that these rights of appointment could be bought or sold -- let's say Lord Swithin finds himself down on his luck, he could sell the right of appointment to the church that his grandfather built for some quick cash -- maybe even the church could raise the money, buy the right of appointment themselves, and thus be able to choose their own priest.  Likewise, as nation states formed, monarchs would often negotiate treaties governing rights of appointment of bishops.  The king and queen of Spain, for instance, gained control over the Church there, including appointing bishops and church officials, that was in many ways akin to Henry VIII's in England, and didn't split with Rome to get it.

This is complicated during the English Reformation when the monarch is first proclaimed Supreme Head, later Supreme Governor, of the Church of England.

Which brings us to the current situation: this week the Crown Nominations Committee met to consider nominees for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  COD will not go into the shortlisting debates or try to handicap the field, because he doesn't need to.  Just like he picked 109 "yes" votes for approval of same sex blessings in the House of Bishops (111 was the actual) and just like he called Gay Jennings for President of the House of Deputies seconds after Bonnie Anderson announced her retirement, COD doesn't need to handicap the field because it will either be Justin Welby or Christopher Cocksworth, unless it's someone else (all predictions guaranteed or your money back!).  And COD will not get too worked up over no name coming out of this meeting -- by all means let them take their time.  Instead, COD wants to comment on something else.  He finds it rather odd that many Americans seem to view the processes other provinces of the Communion use to choose their bishops with disdain or contempt -- that somehow we are the only democratic entity in the entirety of the Communion, and that anti-democratic and hierarchical systems choose bishops elsewhere.  This is nonsense, and nonsense for several reasons.

1)  Many provinces do have representative bodies elect bishops that include lay persons and representatives from the diocese in question.  It's not that the Episcopal Church is the only entity that has representation of all orders of ministry, nor that it is the only province that elects bishops.

2)  The Crown Nominations Committee is fairly representative:  it contains members from the diocese which has a vacancy, episcopal members, and members chosen from the General Synod of the Church of England --  in a sense, it is a representative microcosm, combining the local and national in a kind of selection and confirmation process all in one.  It's not our system, no, but it's also not one person somewhere choosing a bishop.  Who are we to somehow deem our definition of representative is the only one that's valid?

3)  It's also nonsense because what makes our system so great that we should sneer at that of others?  The national canons, after all, provide no directions for how dioceses should choose a bishop, since the 1789 Constitution which established the Episcopal Church this has been solely up to the dioceses.  Dioceses could draw lots.  Throw darts at a dartboard.  We could use the Sorting Hat.  Our process developed over time, was not handed down from on high, and, frankly, probably does not do a better job than drawing lots in determining who should be a bishop.  Our process can takes years.  It relies on people self-consciously to "run" for bishop while at the same time acting like they're not because we want some ambition but not too much.  It involves a lot of people in at fairly compressed time frame (when the candidates actually meet their electors) to have to make a choice on individuals they may barely know. Is there any wonder some dioceses have been in dysfunctional or codependent messes with their bishop?  Do we ever ask why our system does such a terrible job electing women and people of color?  There are people who become bishops in other provinces, through their systems of appointment, who quite likely would never make it through our system of election -- do you think an American version of N.T. Wright would ever run or get elected anywhere?

So blessings on the CNC as it continues its important work; it's not the system COD would have devised, but it's got it's plusses and minuses like any system.   COD will later opine on the absurdity of choosing somebody for a global communion who must be a subject of the monarch of one of the 44 members churches, but that's another post for another time.


  1. Spot on, COD. Except that an archdeacon is more like a canon to the ordinary (a deanery head in England is an area dean).

    It always cracks me up that Americans think we are the only place that allows lay people to vote, or that our "open" system of elections guarantees the best results. There are downsides with each method, and ours has plenty.

    As I wrote on Facebook yesterday, I think the New Zealanders have a pretty good system for choosing bishops.

  2. That's why I said "like". Yes, an archdeacon is more like a canon to the ordinary -- however, there is only one canon to the ordinary in an Episcopal diocese while there can be multiple archdeacons; I chose the area dean analogy because of the geographic oversight that's part of both offices. See, I do think this stuff through.

  3. Thank you for a great explanation of the process and some of the history behind it. You broke it down so even I, a humble layperson, could understand it.

    To be serious, though, truly, thanks. I am going to forward this link to others in my parish so they also have the benefit of a solid, clear explanation of what in the world in going on in the UK!

  4. I don't know if this is a helpful addition, as we try to understand just what may have gone wrong on the CNC:

  5. It's also that these bishops are connected to the state; there is no separation of church and state there and some of them will sit in the national legislature, something we Americans feel is deeply wrong and unfair, since only Church of England bishops get to automatically do this, which is a privilege-something else we feel is deeply wrong where religion is concerned.


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