Archbishop York Sentamu - retirement woman
Church of England

Why a woman may be the next Archbishop of York, but not of Canterbury

His Grace The Most Rev’d and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu, Lord Archbishop of York, has announced that he will retire from his post on 7th June 2020, three days before his 71st birthday. He said: “I have decided to announce my retirement now in order to provide the Church of England with the widest possible time frame to pray, discern with wisdom and insight and put in place a timetable for my successor and to consider fully the work they will be called to do in service to the national church, the Northern Province and the Diocese of York.”

Having been granted special dispensation to serve beyond the mandatory episcopal retirement age, he added: “I am deeply grateful to Her Majesty The Queen for graciously allowing me to continue as Archbishop of York until June 2020 in order to enable me to complete the work to which I have been called.”

Her Majesty will most probably be rather relieved to have extended Dr Sentamu’s duties beyond the age of 70, for the simple reason that it permits her to complete the work to which she has been called. And this is no small matter in the race to succeed Dr Sentamu, for Her Majesty will be very mindful indeed that, should the time be ripe for a woman to assume an archiepiscopal role in the Church of England, it can only be to the Province of York, not Canterbury – for two principal reasons.

Firstly, the See of Canterbury has historically been the focal point of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, and that focus is one of unity. The occupant of the Throne of St Augustine is not a focus, but the focus. The Lambeth Conference 1978 expressed it as Anglican unity being “personally grounded in the loyal relationship of each of the Churches to the Archbishop of Canterbury who is freely recognised as the focus of unity”. Canterbury is the primatial see; its occupant enjoys primacy, and so in its incarnational consecration it must manifest a credible witness to the Christian world and represent continuity, serving as a window into catholicity. To appoint a woman to the position at this moment in time, while the question of women bishops presents so many theological, ecclesiological and ontological questions and concerns, would cause such a breach in communion that it would precipitate a worldwide schism. This isn’t, of course, to suggest that a woman may not possess the personal spirituality, pastoral ability or great teaching capacity to perform such a role: it is simply that, ontologically and missiologically, the Anglican Communion is simply not in a place to recognise that a woman could articulate the mind of the Communion – especially in areas of controversy – since she would herself be a focus of controversy.

The second reason the Queen would not wish to see a woman translated to the See of Canterbury – or, rather, would prefer to see a woman translated in 2020 to the see of York – is rather more personal and requires a little exposition. The appointment of John Sentamu in 2005 was a powerful symbol of racial equality in English ecclesial jurisdiction: his visual presence has done much to circumvent residual ethnic partialities and helped to dispel the deep prejudices of preceding decades. If any racists remained in England, they would find no nourishment in her church. This has been achieved under the intellectual and moral asceticism of the Queen: as Supreme Governor, she has embodied the character and spirit of the age without ever giving public expression to her theological views or political arguments. She has simply appointed and blessed; nurtured, cured and cared. This has been her royal vocation: a black man in York and a white man in Canterbury have represented equality, parity, integration and reconciliation. It is accomplished.

But the Queen’s service to the nation continues in the mitigation of prejudice and discrimination: her mission remains one of peace, reconciliation and justice, and this extends to sex equality. Her reign has seen the first female Prime Minister, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, the first female priest and bishop in the Church of England, the first female diocesan bishop in the House of Lords, the first female Bishop of London, the first female Lord Chancellor, the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the first female Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, the first female Master of the Queen’s Music, and so on. It therefore makes a degree of sense to commit affirmatively to the contemporary quest for ongoing ecclesial equality: a woman in York and man in Canterbury would have powerful symbolic value.

But if it is to be, it must be that way round, and the Queen knows it. For if a woman is not translated to York, the pressure will be considerable for a woman to be translated to Canterbury when Justin Welby retires (otherwise we are likely to have two white [heterosexual] men occupying both Provincial Metropolitan sees, representing no visible social diversity at all). And the Queen will be mindful of her great age, and even more mindful that it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who will crown her heir. The Archbishop of Canterbury will presides at the Coronation of the next Monarch, for this is the theology of Establishment. There can therefore be no question surrounding his Holy Orders; no doubt at all of his possessing the means of grace to anoint the Monarch with holy oil and administer the sacraments, for such uncertainty would cause confusion and doubt about the legitimacy of the divine consecration.

The Church of England may accommodate the ‘theology of taint’ in the appointment of bishops (that is, bishops who have previously ordained women as priests recuse themselves from the laying on of hands during the ordinations of those who do not recognise women bishops); but it is inconceivable that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth would entertain such taint in the Service of Coronation. The Queen would simply not wish King Charles III (or King George VII or whatever regnal name he chooses) to have the Coronation Oath administered by an archbishop of Canterbury whose authority to do so would be in doubt; whose very qualification to preside over the Eucharist would be questioned not only by a sizeable constituency of the church over which he will reign as Supreme Governor, but also by other heads of Commonwealth countries and primates of the Anglican Communion.

It is one thing to go on challenging theologies of sex and gender equality; of questioning ecclesiology, continuing reformation and traditions of authority. It is quite another to undermine the Anglican theory of kingship, its divine anointing or its indefeasable hereditary right, by placing a stumbling block before those who uphold the supreme authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the legitimate role of the laity as embodied in the Sovereign and Parliament. If the time has come for a female archbishop in the Church of England (and it must be said that this remains a point of considerable controversy), it is for these reasons that it must be Ebor rather than Cantuar. This may represent an unacceptable via media for some, but it would constitute a consecratory imperative for all.