Giles Frasier thinks aloud about archbishops, unity and why the kind of unity that Rowan Williams sought was not the kind of unity that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion needs.
The Latin word “pontifex” literally means bridge-builder. It was first used as a description for pre-Christian Roman religious leaders whose job was to maintain and impose unity. But it was a role that became increasingly politicised, with the emperor himself eventually adopting the title Pontifex Maximus. Later, it became a term attached to the pope himself. And it’s now widely used in the Church of England to describe the main purpose of a bishop. A bishops holds the ring, he keeps the church together.
Unity sounds like a warm and fuzzy word – a word not unconnected with the Christian ideal of reconciliation. But as the history of the term suggests, it is impossible for unity not to end up as something deeply political. And this is especially the case in the Church of England and the wider Anglican communion. Rowan Williams sought above all to be a pontifex. But the divide proved too great to span. And the attempt at bringing people together took a considerable personal toll on the archbishop himself.
But even worse than this, the pontifex ideal is precisely why Church of England bishops never seem to say anything. They are just too concerned about upsetting those parts of the church that might disagree. So bishops speak in code, or in some roundabout mealy-mouthed way that makes them seem like company men rather than passionate advocates of the Gospel. Which is why the pontifex ideal ought to be given much less emphasis in the job description for the next archbishop of Canterbury. His much more pressing task is to speak clearly out of the Christian tradition in a way that will resonate with those who no longer think that religious belief has anything left to offer. No doubt, it is a job that is more impossible than that of the England football manager, for equally unrealistic expectations attached to it. But the one thing the new man has to do is to speak clearly and engagingly. And one of the first thing he needs to do is to make sure that I won’t have to use so many gender-specific pronouns when it comes to writing about his successor.
The link includes a podcast which is well worth listening to.