Analysis: new Archbishop's challenge

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

image captionBishop Welby's appointment seems to come as the Church is at a crossroads

When Dr Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury he said only a fool would think he could carry out the task well. Ten years on, the challenges of the Church of England's "impossible job" have if anything intensified.

Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Justin Welby, will take over a church divided about women bishops, and, even more potently, about sexuality.

In the last decade secularism has taken a deeper hold in England, starting to erode the influence of the established, state, church.

It has also become more assertive, no longer content to see the Church of England - or other religious institutions - exercise traditional privileges.

One current example of this is the campaign by secularist organisations to have an official representative at the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph.

And perhaps most threatening of all, the passing of 10 more years in which congregations have continued to age and dwindle have sapped the energy and resources of a church still committed to a presence in every corner of England.

Senior figures in the Church are quick to point to the continual crises that have threatened its integrity since its formation in the Reformation of the 16th Century, and before then when it was part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Church income

But Bishop Welby's appointment does seem to come with the Church at a cross-roads.

It is unarguable that it needs new congregations, especially of young people, that it needs money to pay for clergy and the upkeep of a vast estate of medieval buildings, and that it needs to show a sceptical world how the Christian message remains relevant and of value.

But deciding how that should be done, and having the sheer drive, influence and determination to make it happen will be critical, and no single person will bear the burden more directly than Bishop Welby.

Part of that burden will be instilling a new focus on the gritty business of raising money.

As clergy age and retire in greater numbers, they soak up the vast majority of the Church's income, and without money change is all the harder to bring about.

The Church has plenty of ideas for creating what it calls "fresh expressions" - new ways of providing the experience of church to a public.

There are café services, others that focus on discussion, services moved to midweek lunchtimes and evenings, and others based on music and reflection.

But the Church cannot afford to alienate the older, mostly female, congregations that form the mainstay of its active membership.

Most clergy believe the answer lies in what they call a "mixed economy", a variety of service styles and experiences at different times.

Bishop Welby, has described it as being like a tent in which the sides have been rolled up in sunny weather, providing different ways in.

"It should be a church that likes to say 'yes'" he says.

Spiritual growth

But where do the limits lie?

Research and polling have described a profound change in public attitudes to religion - increasingly suspicious of institutions and less willing to be given a prescribed set of doctrines.

It's not that belief in God has disappeared, and some academics insist that a sense of "spirituality" is increasing.

Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University says religious belief is changing rather than disappearing.

She has documented the growth in "holistic religious practices", and there has been renewed interest in Paganism.

People are willing to obey morals that make sense to them - the "moral relativism" deplored by some traditionalist Christians - and are also proving willing to compose a sense of the religion itself that makes sense to them.

From the Church's view there's a need to show how Anglicanism is the answer to their questions.

For that it needs a leader able to answer hard questions.

When Rowan Williams was presented to the public in October 2002, he said his ambition was to "recapture the imagination of the public for Christianity".

Dr Williams was skilled in addressing those questions, but few would claim that he succeeded in his aim.

His charisma, intellect and articulacy were wasted, partly because of an estrangement from the media that meant the public had too little opportunity to hear what he had to say about Christianity.

Bishop Welby will need to use the media to tackle public scepticism about Christianity from the basics upwards, something that Dr Williams touched on in a speech a few days ago.

Dr Williams was also wasted because of the Church's preoccupation with its divisions.

Much of his time was spent on the fraught process of creating women bishops, and patching up disputes about homosexuality, in the Church of England, and in the 38 autonomous churches that make up the Anglican Communion.


Over the last 10 years those divisions have become both more entrenched and more dangerously volatile.

Conservative Evangelicals have made it clear that they are ready to recruit bishops from overseas if they feel they are being thwarted by what they see as a liberal church leadership.

Meanwhile progressives are pushing with increased determination for the Church hierarchy to transform its spirited opposition to gay marriage into support.

Above all the new archbishop needs authority if he's to tame the rival factions.

Repeatedly the respect and loyalty that Dr Williams earned, was able to turn the tide of opinion.

Even so, Dr Williams was accused of a failure to lead, that is a failure to command, cajole and coerce Anglicans.

Bishop Welby will perhaps need a more ruthless streak.

It will also require organisation, perhaps more than the Church has managed up until now - informed spokespeople, bishops, clergy and lay people, ready and willing to speak on particular topics.

It might learn from the robust approach of political parties, and be ready with instant rebuttals when misjudged or misunderstood.

But many Anglicans see the Archbishop of Canterbury's greatest task as articulating the Christian message, speaking up for the poor and the marginalized.

They see the Church's leader as the conscience of the nation, and for that he will need to command respect, not just inside the Church, but in the country too.

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