Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is going; by the end of the year he will be presiding over a Cambridge College. The newspapers in Britain are full of reflections on his achievements and failures, and putting their fingers to the wind to sense its direction for the next archbishop. Who will he be? Will he be a liberal or a conservative? Almost certainly a conservative. There are very few liberals left in the English Church. When Rowan Williams was appointed, I believed, following on the heels of possibly the most conservative archbishop of the last forty or fifty years — George Carey — that Williams would usher in an era of liberal good sense. I was wrong. I once saw a cartoon of the consecration of a bishop. The man (well, it was always men in those days) was lying anesthetized on a table in the operating room, surrounded by the consecrating bishops (at least three), the archbishop of the province triumphantly removing the candidate’s backbone! Sometimes it has seemed to me that Rowan Williams was the victim of the same mad surgery.
Perhaps that’s a little unfair, since, after all, the weight of responsibility and administrative duties soon overcome the initial enthusiasm of a new bishop. Perhaps he’ll manage a little excitement for the first year or so, but soon he will be dragged back to political reality by the fact that he (or occasionally she) now presides over an organisation that is divided along practically every possible axis of opinion or belief, and that he (or she) is responsible for maintaining not only the unity of his (or her) own diocese, but maintaining the unity of that diocese with the rest of the church. As a consequence, even women bishops, in my experience, who, if the scriptures be taken literally, should have no authority over men, tend to be conservative in their theology and in their understanding of their episcopal role.
Of course, the episcopal role is an interesting one in itself. In the Roman Church bishops are simply stand-ins for the pope. They represent the pope’s universal jurisdiction, and are, in that sense, his vicars in the same way in which popes claim to be vicars of Christ. In the Anglican Church, while subject to the democratic ways of synods, bishops are, to a significant extent, absolute rulers. (I should qualify that, since bishops in the Church of England are not elected, but appointed by the government, in a complex appointments process.) Once elected they serve, so to speak, at God’s pleasure, not at the pleasure of the forum that elects them (at least until they are required to retire). They are — or at least they were traditionally called — “Fathers in God”. (I have to admit that I do not know what a woman bishop is called in this regard, in the few Anglican provinces which have them.) It is, arguably, an unsuitable mode of government for the twenty-first century. Yet it is the spiritual authority of the bishop, handed down, in unbroken succession, so the theory goes, from the hands of the apostles themselves, whose preservation is considered crucial for the spiritual authority of the church itself, and its ministers. In the Anglican Church this authority is shared equally by the bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of the Anglican Communion, but he terms himself only the first amongst equals, and has no authority, though enormous respect, outside his own diocese and province.
That brief introduction to the episcopal structure of the Anglican Communion is not strictly necessary, but it does explain why bishops tend to speak in tones of unquestioned authority. Cathedrals are bishops’ churches, and they are called cathedrals because they contain the bishop’s cathedra or chair (from the Greek ‘kathedra’ or ‘seat’), and bishops speak, therefore, ex cathedra, from the chair, with special authority. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, while often not making himself entirely clear, has that gift of authoritative speech, so when he speaks, people take notice, especially when he speaks in the House of Lords, and that day, the day they defeated Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill, the bishops were there in force.