Church of England's controversial new leader

In a secret selection process, yesterday Tony Blair named the Anglican church head.

An angry cry, with a sidelong glance: "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The courtiers nodded, and four rode away to do the unspoken will of King Henry II: the murder of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Nine hundred years later, the relationship between church and state is as tangled as ever in Britain. Murder is no longer on the menu, of course, but the process of choosing the next leader of the Anglican Church – and the choice itself announced yesterday – are the same volatile mix of high politics, low intrigue, and spiritual longing.

The newest holder of Beckett's once-dangerous post is Rowan Williams, an outspoken liberal who supports gay clergy, woman priests, and has called the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan "morally tainted."

In October, he will take over as the spiritual leader of the 70 millions Anglicans worldwide, when the current archbishop, George Carey, steps down.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, praised Dr. Williams as "a theologian of distinction, a man of deep spirituality, and a gifted communicator."

Williams, the married father of two, is also a poet, philosopher, and a linguist. And Williams has not shied away from controversial positions.

He has called any US-led invasion of Iraq "immoral and illegal." Yesterday he softened his stance to say that he would support only a UN-sanctioned invasion of Iraq.

He also criticized the consumer society generally, and specifically the Walt Disney Corp., child talent shows, and violent computer games for corrupting the young and making them prematurely sexually aware.

He recently said that he would give his blessing to Prince Charles marrying his longtime companion Camilla Parker Bowles in the church.

"I have to learn how to speak of God in this very public position in the middle of a culture ... a nation [that] even hungers for the spiritual – which is generally skeptical of Christianity and the church," said Williams yesterday.

The selection machinery that produces the Anglican leader is a convoluted process involving civil servants, secret panels, party politics, and that mysterious essence at the heart of British nationhood: the royal prerogative.

The Church of England is perhaps unique in having its spiritual leader chosen by the head of the secular government. Prime Minister Tony Blair made his decision after a panel of bishops, lay members, and civil servants winnowed a secret list of nominees down to two finalists. Blair's pick will be rubber-stamped by the nominal head of the church, Queen Elizabeth II.

The unfolding of this ancient spectacle in the 21st century has provoked an outpouring of criticism in some quarters – including the church itself. Even as the search for Dr. Carey's successor began gathering steam earlier this year, a senior Anglican bishop denounced the very notion of a state-established religion, and said the church should break its ties with the monarchy, which he called a doomed institution not likely to last out the new century.

Bishop Mark Santer of Birmingham said the church should "secure a position that is not so mixed up with the power of the crown" and give up its seats in the House of Lords – including his own.

In remarks to Anglican leaders, quoted in The Guardian, Bishop Santer pointed to his working-class diocese as a model for a new, independent church, one "not weighed down by the symbols and monuments of faded power," and "the rags of ancient privilege."

Williams, too, has publicly supported breaking ties with the state.

Still, for some here, the selection process is an example of what's right about Britain and the British system, which has knocked along for centuries without a written constitution, with often cumbersome procedures and vaguely defined relations between centers of power – but somehow seems to muddle through.

"As with many things in British life, the selection process looks terrible on paper, but it actually works out very well in practice," says Keith Ward, an Anglican priest and theology professor at Christ Church, Oxford.

"It's actually better not done by the church – it's more inclusive, less political, and keeps the church from being drawn into divisive inner intrigues. The process saves the church from itself."

But for months, the British press has been filled with "whispering campaigns" against the likely candidates, launched by factions within the church and the political establishment trying to knock out rivals and put their man forward. And beyond the unseemly backstairs gossip, more serious constitutional questions are raised.

"The selection process is a perfect example of the unchecked power of the executive," says Jonathan Freedland, liberal columnist and author of the best-selling book, "Bring Home the Revolution," a plea to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic in Britain.

"British prime ministers have the monarchial power, the royal prerogative, tied up with purple string and handed to them," says Mr. Freedland.

"This gives them enormous power of patronage – unmatched anywhere in the Western democratic world. Even the American president must have his most important appointees approved by Congress. The fact that Blair can make a choice like this shows the power of the crown privilege."

"The whole edifice accounts for the unelected power at the heart of our constitution," Freedland insists. "If we begin to expose any aspect of this edifice to the light, if we, as the saying goes, 'let daylight in upon magic,' then the whole structure could begin to crumble."

But for many the uproar over the selection is so much "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Weekly attendance has fallen below the 1 million mark for the Church of England – less than half the number of Britons who attend mosques each week.

"I don't think it matters very much to either the Church of England or to British life in general who the Archbishop of Canterbury is," says David Butler, a Nuffield College professor and author of several influential studies of British politics.

"The established church is there, one knows it exists," Butler says. "But I don't think it looms very large in the allocation of power in this country, in determining where money is spent or in the direction of public policy. "

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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