May the next Archbishop of Canterbury be a true non-conformist

Rowan Williams is proving a hard act to follow. Ten years ago Dr Williams was the obvious choice as Archbishop of Canterbury but things are very different this time around. Ugandan-born John Sentanu has his supporters, but it seems that his conservative views don’t go down well with everyone on the appointment’s committee.

Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, seems to have ruled himself out because of his attitude towards female clergy and the current bishop of Durham is said to suffer from a lack of experience (which has led to the suggestion that an older man might be appointed in some sort of caretaker role).

I am a non-conformist and no fan of an established church, but as a Christian I have a genuine interest in the future of the Anglican Communion. And so I pray that whoever finally emerges as the Commission’s first choice will be God’s choice too, and that he will be given the wisdom and strength to become the kind of spiritual leader the church deserves and the nation needs. His will be no easy task as the Bishop of Norwich knows only too well. He told the BBC he was praying that he would not be chosen!

We can be sure of one thing though: whoever it is, he will not be able to please all the people all the time. But why should he? If he is to be true to his calling he should be expect to be controversial.

Dr Williams is convinced of that. Speaking at a recent lecture hosted by the Theos thinktank he readily admitted some of his comments had ruffled more than a few feathers but claimed that he was duty-bound to speak out.

"As is true for any Archbishop, you are here to say what you believe you have been given to say, to try to share a particular picture of what the world is like, what God is like," he said.

Sadly, there are those who have argued than his successor must be willing to “move with the times” but I sincerely hope he will see things very differently. That would be the most fundamental error of all. If he is going to give a lead, any future Archbishop needs to stand firm for the things the church has always held true, even though this will often upset and irritate a lot of people.

After all, Jesus was a non conformist. He constantly challenged the status quo and the Gospels show us that it was his unwillingness to “keep his mouth shut” that resulted in an establishment-led plot, a show trial and an act of judicial murder. The apostle Paul obviously expected every Christian to be a non conformist as we can see from his letter to the church in Rome. “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world,” he wrote, “but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (New Living Translation)

J B Phillips’ translation makes the point even more forcibly: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

And so I pray that any future Archbishop will heed the advice written by one of Anglicanism’s most famous sons, the late John Stott, who did much of his writing near my home in Pembrokeshire.

He summed it up in these words: “The two value systems (this world and God’s will) are incompatible, even in direct collision with one another. Whether we are thinking about the purpose of life or the meaning of life, how to measure greatness or how to respond to evil, about ambition, sex, honesty, money, community, religion or anything else, the two sets of standards diverge so completely that there is no possibility of compromise.

No wonder Karl Barth called Christian ethics "the great disturbance", so violently does it challenge, interrupt and upset the tranquil status quo” (Stott: The Message of Romans IVP).

I have good reason to pray then, that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be a true non-conformist.