It is a good job that the Crown Nominations Commission chooses its two favoured candidates for Archbishop of Canterbury in secret and without the pageantry involved when the cardinals choose a new Pope. Otherwise, there would be some extremely unhappy reporters stationed on a pavement somewhere, waiting in exasperation for a puff of white smoke. Last week, the Commission failed after three days to make its choice of the two names which it must put forward to the Prime Minister, and it has warned that weeks may pass before it does make a decision.
Despite the delay, there is a growing expectation that the job will go to Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham. The early favourite, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, seems to be fading. For anyone who has followed party leadership elections over the past few years, this was highly predictable — and potentially profitable for punters. Earlier this year, Sentamu was 11/8 favourite and Welby a 9/1 outsider, odds which have reversed in recent weeks.
As with the battles over party leadership, the Crown Nominations Commission appears to have coalesced around the candidate who has been around for the shortest time and had the chance to make the fewest enemies. Justin Welby, who has been a bishop for just a year, is the equivalent of Ed Miliband in 2010, David Cameron in 2005, Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and William Hague in 1997. Dr Sentamu, on the other hand, has suffered from the frontrunner’s curse. He is the candidate who has attracted the whispers and against whom compromise candidates have been pitched.
It would be a poor outcome, though, if he were to be excluded. There is no senior churchman better able to communicate with believers and non-believers in Britain, and no other candidate who would be capable of holding together the wider Anglican church. To appoint him would show that the Church is serious about being a worldwide influence rather than retreating into becoming a theological debating society. Like it or not, the biggest headache for the new incumbent in Canterbury will be the gulf between English liberals and African conservatives in attitudes towards homosexuality, marriage and the priesthood. At the next Lambeth Conference in 2018, that gulf has the potential to become a fatal schism.
Questions have been raised as to whether Dr Sentamu has the diplomatic skills required to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but his position on gay marriage is one of impeccable compromise. He argues that while it is right that civil partnerships between homosexual couples should have equal standing in the law he does not believe that it is within the remit of the state to redefine marriage. Therein lies an argument which promotes equality yet also respects religious belief, and also draws a line beyond which the state should not interfere.
Knowing where that line should be is an essential qualification for an Archbishop of Canterbury who, as leader of an established church, wields influence as a public figure well beyond his pulpit. Unfortunately, such is the orthodoxy of the liberal-left on gay marriage that Dr Sentamu has made enemies by expressing what is a well-reasoned and balanced opinion. Following a Daily Telegraph interview in January, in which he divulged his thoughts on gay marriage, he even received a small number of racist emails, revealing what he is up against from the ‘liberal’ side of the debate. It is impossible to reconcile the two sides of this argument, but Dr Sentamu is better qualified than anyone in the church to do so.
Rowan Williams has not shied away from political debate, but his contributions have been those of a liberal don with deep disdain for a general audience. Dr Sentamu could not be a greater contrast. His is a voice as happy echoing around York Minster as it is in the Sun — a newspaper for which he -happily writes, while also letting it be known that it is not his favourite newspaper. A Ugandan by birth, Dr Sentamu has more influence than any other British public figure on African attitudes towards Robert Mugabe — whose brutal regime caused Dr Sentamu to cut up his clerical collar in protest.
Dr Sentamu is far from a conservative pinup. He has spoken eloquently about excessive boardroom pay, and is very much a social campaigner. But when he delves into any debate, he never fails to be interesting and — unlike the woolly Dr Williams — he can express interesting ideas clearly. His language is more direct, more relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
The Church of England is not short of trendy vicars keen to take their message to unlikely places. But, unlike many of them, John Sentamu doesn’t have the air of trying too hard to be liked. He is a natural communicator whose leadership the Church would be poorer without.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012