There is a throne in Canterbury Cathedral called the Chair of St Augustine.
It is the chair on which the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be seated when he begins his ministry. Named after the first Archbishop of Canterbury, it conveys the authority and responsibilities of the role to the new Archbishop and the Anglican Church. It is an ancient throne, one of oldest in existence, and when the new Archbishop is seated upon it, the Church of England will have a new leader.
I first became aware of its power some years ago when I was part of a small group who went to talk to Rowan Williams about the mess the church has got itself into on sexuality. We met in the Archbishop in Lambeth Palace. We met him in the hope that we could persuade him to be more proactive in promoting a new spirit of openness. We met him hoping to re-awaken those things which he knew to be true about the gift of God at work in people of the same sex who love each other.
We should have been pushing at an open door. Rowan Williams had gone on the record many times before he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in support of greater openness, acceptance and inclusion.
But as our conversation developed, it became clear that no such commitment would be forthcoming. Time and time again, he referred to his role as the present occupant of the Chair of St Augustine. He talked of the weight of history and responsibility which the occupant of that Chair carries. He talked about the need to preserve what he had been given – what had been entrusted to him. He talked about his role as Archbishop in terms of being a guardian. He told us that what he thought (as an individual) was irrelevant because his job as Archbishop was to hold together the great responsibility which the occupant of the Seat of St Augustine is given.
Our hearts sank. We had hoped to meet with an anointed leader for the future - instead we found a guardian of the past. We had met someone who had been called to leadership because of his great gifts – but then neutered by the power of the institution which had called him – the power behind the throne.
I have seen it before…
I saw it at work among the Church Commissioners when fighting to preserve affordable social housing in the Octavia Hill Estates which they owned and managed. When I met them as individuals, I met thoughtful genuine Christians keen to listen and engage. But when I met them as an institution, entrusted only with maximising profits, a very different persona emerged. The power of the institution had overtaken them – they had become ‘institutionalised’ – only able to act in the way which was expected of them, putting money first and people second.
I have also experienced the corrupting power of the institution at first hand - the subtle pressure to behave in a particular way contrary to personal conviction. I experienced it when I was a member of the OICCU Exec – the committee which ran the Oxford University Christian Union. I was asked to take on the role of Outreach Secretary – to encourage and enable evangelism. I came full of hope for what we might be able to do together – with fresh ideas, hopes and expectations, but I was naïve about the power of the institution.
Before we started our work, we were all taken away for the weekend by UCCF to be trained for the vital role we had been given. We were reminded that we were being entrusted with a weighty responsibility – the continuation of many years of faithful evangelical witness to the University. We were reminded of the tools we were to work with – the Bible and the Doctrinal Basis. We were told that if we did our job properly, we would ensure that the next generation of leaders in the UK were Evangelical Christians who would, in turn, ensure that we continued to be a Christian Country (what a pretentious heresy that was!) Our role was not to bring innovation or change – it was to continue the work of those who had been before and to defend OICCU against error and compromise.
And I have to say that I was taken in. The criteria for our decisions became not ‘what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28) It was to do what was expected of us.
I remember the moment when this dawned on me.
It was when we voted to revoke an invitation to one of the most gifted and fruitful evangelists in Oxford - Canon Michael Green – because he would not sign our Doctrinal Basis of Faith. His preaching had brought many hundreds of students in Oxford to faith in Christ. He went on to be Professor of Evangelism at Regents College Vancouver, and came back to lead the Archbishops Springboard for Evangelism. He wrote over 50 books on Christian apologetics and evangelism, but he wasn’t good enough to speak at our precious Christian Union because he would not conform himself to the expectations of our institution.
We had allowed ourselves to become institutionalised.
As the Crown Nominations Commission meets this week to decide who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be, I can honestly say that I don’t know who should be appointed. But unless it is someone who is strong enough to resist the power of the institution, I am also tempted to say that it doesn’t really matter.
What we need is an Archbishop who is courageous enough to lead us in the way of Christ.
Jesus was no defender of the institution. He refused to be boxed in, channelled or handled. His concern was to bring new life – not preserve old structures, and he would not be manipulated into meeting the expectations of others.
And that is the Archbishop I am praying for…