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The New Archbishop: A counter-cultural first among equals

by Matthew Groves, Res Publica

With the decision that Justin Welby is to be enthroned as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, it is worth reassessing the value of the role. This is one of the most historic offices of the land, along with that of Monarch and Lord Chancellor. The Archbishop precedes the Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister in order of precedence, but is this merely a historical anomaly? Does the Archbishop as the primus inter pares of the established church still have relevance in twenty-first century Britain?

This article argues that the office of Archbishop could not be more relevant today. It may help first to set out what the role of the Archbishop is, how he exercises his authority and thereby correct some misapprehensions to assess the utility of this ancient office

The Archbishop has a multi-faceted role. He is President of the worldwide Anglican Communion, first among the Bishops of the established Church of England as Primate of All England, Metropolitan Bishop of the Province of Canterbury (thirty dioceses) and diocesan Bishop of Canterbury. He sits by right as a Lord Spiritual in the legislature along with York, London, Durham and Winchester; the other twenty-one are there on the basis of seniority. The current Convenor of the Lords Spiritual is not however the Archbishop, but the Bishop of Leicester.

The authority the Archbishop exercises in these roles is not that of a chief executive – he is not a Prime Minister exercising the Royal Prerogative or a Pope with papal infallibility. The only two roles in which the Archbishop can exercise executive power are in the See of Canterbury, when he is acting as a diocesan bishop and as Metropolitan Bishop of the Province of Canterbury. In every other aspect of his office his authority rests on intangibles and concepts that are, it must be conceded, somewhat out of fashion.

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