How Is the Archbishop of Canterbury Chosen?
The Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed by the Crown that is to say by the sovereign acting upon the advice of the Prime Minister. He is then elected by the chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, who represent the clergy of the diocese. After this election has been confirmed by legal representatives of the diocese, he is consecrated as archbishop, and pays homage to the sovereign for the possessions of his province. Finally the new archbishop is enthroned in the cathedral.
As the Primate of the Church of England, the archbishop of Canterbury takes precedence over all the nobility, except those of royal blood. It is he who places the crown on the sovereign’s head at the coronation. The province of Canterbury has three dioceses, each administered by a bishop. The amount of authority that the Archbishop has over his bishops is not clearly defined, but experts in church law maintain that he must accept their majority decision.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. The current archbishop is Justin Welby. His enthronement took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013. Welby is the 105th in a line which goes back more than 1400 years to Augustine of Canterbury, the “Apostle to the English”, sent from Rome in the year 597. Welby succeeded Rowan Williams.
From the time of Augustine in the 6th until the 16th century, the Archbishops of Canterbury were in full communion with the See of Rome and they usually received the pallium. During the English Reformation the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Middle Ages there was considerable variation in the methods of nomination of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops. At various times the choice was made by the canons of Canterbury Cathedral, the Pope, or the King of England. Since the English Reformation, the Church of England has been more explicitly a state church and the choice is legally that of the Crown; today it is made by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, who receives a shortlist of two names from an ad hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission.
Today the archbishop fills four main roles:
- He is the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, which covers the eastern parts of the County of Kent. Founded in 597, it is the oldest see in the English church.
- He is the metropolitan archbishop of the Province of Canterbury, which covers the southern two-thirds of England.
- He is the senior primate and chief religious figure of the Church of England (the British sovereign is the supreme governor of the church). Along with his colleague the Archbishop of York he chairs the General Synod and sits on or chairs many of the church’s important boards and committees; power in the church is not highly centralised, however, so the two archbishops can often lead only through persuasion. The Archbishop of Canterbury plays a central part in national ceremonies such as coronations; due to his high public profile, his opinions are often in demand by the news media.
- As spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop, although without legal authority outside England, is recognised by convention as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) of all Anglican primates worldwide. Since 1867 he has convened more or less decennial meetings of worldwide Anglican bishops, the Lambeth Conferences.
In the last two of these functions he has an important ecumenical and interfaith role, speaking on behalf of Anglicans in England and worldwide.
The archbishop’s main residence is Lambeth Palace in the London Borough of Lambeth. He also has lodgings in the Old Palace, Canterbury, located beside Canterbury Cathedral, where the Chair of St Augustine sits.
As holder of one of the “five great sees” (the others being York, London, Durham and Winchester), the Archbishop of Canterbury is ex officio one of the Lords Spiritual of the House of Lords. He is one of the highest-ranking men in England and the highest ranking non-royal in the United Kingdom’s order of precedence.