As widely trailed, the Bishop of Durham has been announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and the appointment has been widely welcomed, with just a few voices muttering that he is an old Etonian. The quality of the man chosen to fill this post matters to all of us, of other faiths and of none. He will be the official spiritual voice of the nation, for the CofE is the established church, with a voice in the Lords and a pulpit from which to give guidance and comment. His first announcements seemed admirably clear and modest. I made a point of following the speeches of the outgoing Archbishop and have to say that I found no illumination at all, save that he, reportedly, did not object to the accommodation of Sharia law within English law. By way of contrast, all the speakers at the second reading on October 19th of Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill pointed out how some aspects of Sharia law and procedure offend against the most basic human and equality rights principles of English law. By all accounts, the Archbishop had difficulty in dealing with divisive issues relating to the Church and the conduct of the nation.
Over the past few years in the religious world there has been no rival to the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, for intellectual power coupled with clarity of exposition in his public pronouncements. He has been a respected and influential figure in the secular/religious debates and, as the Catholic Herald said, jokingly, it was a pity he couldn’t be the next Archbishop! His retirement date has been known for years and as yet the selection committee has not come up with the name of a successor. It took 9 months or so to identify the next Archbishop, but years have elapsed without agreement on the successor to Lord Sacks. Is this an important appointment for the nation too? It depends on the quality of the man. Undoubtedly Lord Sacks’ eloquence has added prestige to the post. Like the Archbishop, the incoming Chief Rabbi will have to deal with a reduced community, with growing minorities within the minority, with the position of women in the religion, with the question of gay marriage, and international relations. He (of course) will be the leader of mainstream Jewry, that is the United Synagogue, here and in the Commonwealth. But he will not be recognised as leader by the very orthodox, or by the various shades of reform Judaism. Like the Archbishop, he will have to deal with a fragmented community with heterogeneous views on the important issues of the day. Indeed the establishment of the post of Chief Rabbi in the late 19th century is said to have been modelled on the Archbishopric. Believers or not, we could all do with some good men attempting to give moral guidance in these troubled times. It’s rather like being Director General of the BBC . . .