Clearing the Two-thirds Hurdle
  • Monday, October 1, 2012

By John Martin

How deep is the deadlock as the Crown Nominations Commission continues to work toward recommending a successor for the Archbishop of Canterbury? What looked like a fairly uncomplicated process — the Commission choosing a name and an alternate for Prime Minister David Cameron to place before Queen Elizabeth II for her approval — has stalled. Some headlines are even saying a decision could be “months” away, with the succession still undecided when Rowan Williams leaves office at the end of the year.

Speculation is rife. Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for The Times, believes the commission has settled on Justin Welby (Durham) but is undecided between John Sentamu (Archbishop of York) and Graham James (Norwich) as the second name to be sent to the Prime Minister. Earlier Jonathan Wynne Jones of the Sunday Telegraph tweeted that the commission had “ruled out” Richard Chartres (London) and there had been “strong opposition” to Sentamu.

Without doubt members of the commission are sworn to offer “no comment” to media questions, but Gledhill is a streetwise reporter who “called” the Rowan Williams appointment correctly ahead of official announcements. She will have contacted several members of the commission and one or two of the less experienced could have delivered a vital cue revealing the chosen name.

If there is substance to the tweet signalling “strong opposition” to Sentamu, it suggests the Archbishop of York is not amongst the “also rans.” It probably means a section of the commission or perhaps just one member made anti-Sentamu views known in a forceful manner. Sentamu’s stance on sexuality could be one possible reason; lack of popularity among some commission members may be another.

There are suggestions that the six Canterbury representatives voting in solidarity could block a particular candidate or even stall the entire process. Chartres is rumoured to have told friends he is out of the reckoning. While he recently signalled willingness to ordain women as priests and take part in consecrating women as bishops, his earlier stance could still be held against him, particularly by Canterbury representatives. They include Clare Edwards, canon pastor at Canterbury Cathedral, who is influential in the campaign for women in the episcopate.

Further, in a close vote the role of Barry Morgan (the Archbishop of Wales, representing the primates of the Communion) would be crucial, either in supporting or blocking a candidate.

The electoral process has proved to be more complex than many expected. Writing on the Fulcrum website, London theologian Andrew Goddard says that in a close contest a 16-member commission could be hard put to achieve the required two-thirds majority.

“The vote takes place by successive secret ballots with the bottom candidate being eliminated. Crucially, however, a candidate needs to get 2/3 of the vote so it is quite possible to reduce the list to two candidates and face an impasse. A simple majority (9-7) is not sufficient,” he writes.

“If six members are unwilling to vote for a candidate, members keep voting until a candidate has 11 votes and if that does not happen then deadlock has been reached.” Then in order to obtain a second name voting begins all over again (without the elected candidate and with the possibility that six members could stall the process).

It’s not entirely clear what would happen in the event of an insoluble deadlock. The most extreme scenario would be dissolution of the CNC and an appointment of new members. It may call upon the mediation skills of Cameron to sort something out. In 1987 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher provided the only known example of overturning a church nomination when she preferred Mark Santer to James Thompson as Bishop of Birmingham. This kind of intervention is unlikely. There are rumblings, however, that leaving such an important decision to a small group meeting in secret is arcane and an open election would be preferable. But that is an unlikely future prospect, not a present reality.

Meanwhile, being an acknowledged candidate for Canterbury has thrust the Bishop of Durham into the media spotlight. He is related to a former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Richard Austen “Rab” Butler, and as a Cambridge undergraduate signed up as a Christian Union member, which positions him among evangelicals. He left a £100,000 annual salary with Enterprise Oil to enter the ministry and his previous church posts include being co-director for the International Ministry Centre at Coventry Cathedral, succeeding the colourful “Vicar of Baghdad,” Andrew White.

In 1991 the Church of England skipped a generation which included options such as Richard Harries (Oxford) and the former test cricketer David Sheppard (Liverpool) and instead plucked a little-known bishop from the west of England to succeed Robert Runcie. George Carey had less than three years experience as a diocesan. Should Welby emerge as Archbishop of Canterbury he will have spent less than half that time as Bishop of Durham.

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