The next Archbishop of Canterbury


Universe Column May 2002

By David Alton

Pentecost stirred up memories of Pope John Paul’s great visit to England twenty years ago. No-one who was present in Liverpool as he travelled along Hope Street, between the city’s two cathedrals, could ever forget the raw emotions of that day. For Anglicans and Catholics it represented a mile- stone in ecumenical relations.

One day earlier I had been in Canterbury as one of the political representatives who witnessed the Pope’s historic entry into Beckett’s cathedral – where he was embraced by two Anglican Archbishops, Robert Runcie and Michael Ramsay. Neither in Liverpool nor in Canterbury was there starry eyed naivety about the significant road blocks in the way of Christian unity but there was a sense that relationships were being profoundly altered.

During the two decades that have followed differences have opened up over issues such as feminism and bioethics, and there has been a movement of Anglican clergy and lay people into the Catholic church. But the relationship manifested in 1981 has prevented us from regressing into earlier hostilities. The late Cardinal Basil Hume and Dr. George Carey (who has been consistently underrated) deserve our thanks and praise for the sensitive way in which they dealt with these issues. Cardinal Murphy-Connor puts it well when he says that “affective relationships lead to effective relationships.”

It is precisely because Catholics care about their relationship with Anglicans that they go on searching for common ground and keenly watch the direction in which the Church of England proceeds. Any decline in the standing of the established Church affects us all.

The choice of the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be crucial to how Catholic-Anglican relationships prosper in the future.

Both Britain and the Anglican Church need a prophetic voice able to clearly annunciate the Gospel in a hostile and confused world. Catholics will be hoping for a prophet who is orthodox in his beliefs and able to communicate and engage our secular society. Choosing an Archbishop because of his views on issues of internal church politics would be a fatal error. It would be the worst sort of naval gazing.

Equally catastrophic would be the choice of an Archbishop willing to embrace very passing fad or to appease every interest group.

Bishops, like the rest of us, may want to opt for a quiet life. On crucial issues such as divorce, abortion or embryo experimentation they may simply prefer to say the things society wants to hear. What we need are bishops who are prepared to challenge us, to speak into the void, metaphorically laying down their lives for their flocks.

The Church of England is blessed in having such good men in its ranks. The present Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones is one such; Christopher Herbert, the Bishop of St. Albans is another.

 

In Canterbury in 1982 Catholics and Anglicans began to see each other through new eyes. The choice of that city’s new Archbishop will have considerable ramifications on how those relationships prosper.