Who'd want to be the Archbishop of Canterbury? The 'job' has always been one of the toughest in Christendom, particularly at the moment. News that up to 50 Anglican bishops from the USA, Australia and the Pacific region have petitioned the Vatican to enter the Roman Catholic Church as 'Anglican Rite' Catholics, along, presumably, with those of their flock who are prepared to swim the Tiber with them, is just about the most depressing news an Archbishop of Canterbury could receive after the last few years of one crisis after another.
First it was the consecration as bishop in the U.S. of a man living in an open homosexual relationship, then the approval of the blessing of same-sex unions in a Canadian diocese, followed by the snub of a considerable number of bishops from the new and third worlds who refused in protest to attend the Lambeth Conference last year (the periodical gathering of national church Primates and select bishops which sets the course for the worldwide Anglican communion). Instead, they held their own 'Global Anglican Futures' conference in Jerusalem instead, and it was more exciting and garnered more press coverage than Lambeth (pic below).
It seems that the much vaunted 'comprehensiveness' of the fabric of Anglicanism has finally been stretched as far as it can go and is now starting to fray, and rather quickly too. Who'd want to go down in history as the Archbishop of Canterbury and titular leader of the Anglican communion who presided over the dissolution of a world-wide commmunity of some 80 million members? (As with all communions in which state church arrangements exist or did once, the number of Anglicans in England is grossly overestimated, which would reduce the numbers officially deemed to belong to the Anglican communion by the tens of millions. But we'll leave all that aside for the moment).
The decision of the Blair government back in 2002 to recommend Rowan Williams to the Queen for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury instead of the other front-runner, the conservative Pakistani born Michael Nazir-Ali, is now looking like a fateful decision indeed. The reasoning was apparently that Williams' intellectual profile would help make Anglicanism attractive to educated sceptics, of whom there are many in England. But Williams came from the liberal Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, which has been in quite marked numerical and spiritual decline for decades now and is thus significantly failing to connect with either sceptics or ordinary people who may be alienated from the church, in England or elsewhere.
Nazir-Ali, on the other hand, while an English bishop, also represented a vital third-world Anglicanism strongly connected with the communion's historical roots but also looking forward to the challenges of the new century, especially in those parts of the world where Anglicans are now most numerous and practising their faith! (Nigeria alone has more Anglicans in church on a Sunday than England.) He also had support from both evangelicals (which is where numerical growth in Anglicanism has been seen since the 1950s) and conservative Anglo-Catholics in the Anglican communion, and thus would have been a figure around whom Anglicans could have united.
In contrast, Williams' pre-Canterbury public support for the ordination of active homosexuals put him off-side with conservatives of all styles of churchmanship from the beginning, and they have only lost further confidence in him as his handling of developments since has lacked resolution. Over the same period, Bishop Nazir-Ali has become the de facto spokesman for orthodox Anglicanism in Britain, where his clear and articulate pronouncements have stood in marked contrast to Archbishop Williams' studied ambiguity which few Britons seem to be able to make head or tail of.
No wonder he looks depressed at this press conference yesterday with the Roman Catholic Primate of England and Wales, Vincent Nichols, where the Pope's adjustment of the Canons of the Roman Church to permit the en bloc conversions was discussed. Just look at that body language...
Tony Blair has since moved on, from both the British Prime Ministership and the Anglican Church (he converted to Roman Catholicism after vacating Downing Street), and is positioning himself to be the first President of the European Community
Dr Nazir-Ali has also moved on. The self-described "evangelical and catholic" Anglican and cricket lover, who became the first non-white diocesan bishop in England in 1994, has since retired from his episcopal duties in order to focus on writing and evangelistic endeavours, and he is positively beaming as he is pictured here at a farewell function in his diocese in September...
And Rowan Williams still holds the poisoned chalice: he is Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ah, what might have been...
(Top picture, St Alphege, 953-1012, one of at least three Archbishops of Canterbury who have been murdered whilst in office.)