The Church of England is a tortoise compared to Rome’s hare

There are many ways of comparing denominations. There are so many differences of style, liturgy, customs and even doctrine. But such comparisons are always subjective. One man’s heresy is another man’s cornerstone.

But recent events involving the leadership of the Church of England and the Church of Rome, overlapping as they have, provide us with an objective quantifiable comparison – the speed at which things get done.

On the 16 March 2012, Rowan Williams announced he was to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury and primus inter pares of the worldwide Anglican Communion. 290 days later, on 31 December 2012, he was gone.

On the 11 February 2013, Benedict XVI announces he was to step down as Bishop of Rome and Pontiff of the worldwide Catholic Church. 17 days later, on 28th February 2013, he was gone.

The Church of England finally fixed the membership of its selection panel, the Crown Nominations Commission, on 18 May 2012, some 63 days after Archbishop Rowan made his announcement. It met for the first time five days later (68 days after the announcement), on 23 May 2012.

The Roman Catholic Church was at somewhat of a disadvantage here. A Pope hadn’t stood down since 1415 – and I don’t mean just after lunch – whereas Archbishops of Canterbury tend to retire quite frequently.

But rather than a lengthy wait, the membership of its selection panel, the Cardinal-Electors, was fixed on 27 February 2013, a day before Pope Benedict stepped down; and they met for the first time on 12 March 2013 – 13 days after the membership was fixed and just 29 days after Pope Benedict’s shock announcement.

As for the decision making itself, we don’t know exactly when the Crown Nominations Commission decided the post would go to the then-Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby. Ruth Gledhill reported in The Times on 1 October 2012 that Welby was the commission’s first choice.

What we do know is that is that the official announcement of Archbishop Justin’s appointment (“the best kept secret since the last Cabinet re-shuffle”) took place on 9th November 2012: some 238 days since Archbishop Rowan’s announcement; and 170 days since its selection body first met (and over a month since Ruth Gledhill’s Times report).

We do know when the Cardinal-Electors chose Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be Pope Francis, because the white smoke poured out of the Sistine Chapel chimney at 7.06pm Italian time. That’s just 25 hours and 47 minutes since the doors to the Sistine Chapel closed following the Extra Omnes proclamation.

And the announcement came just over an hour later, at 8.12pm Rome time; some 30 days since Pope Benedict’s announcement and just 26-and-a-half hours since they began their meeting.

Of course, an announcement is one thing; there are formalities to conclude.

When Pope Francis appeared on a balcony and addressed the crowds in St Peter’s Square, he had completed all the formalities and was the Pope – just an hour or so after he was chosen.

When Bishop Justin appeared in the Lambeth Palace press conference in November, a lengthy and complex process had to be completed. It is part symbolic and part legal; and great efforts are made to ensure it is also part spiritual.

The first thing that had to happen was an election: this took place on 10 January 2013 when the College of Canons of Canterbury Cathedral gathered at the Queen’s command to vote for her sole candidate. Woe betide anybody who didn’t turn up, or who voted contrary to the Queen’s command or who objected to the election – such people would be declared contumacious.

But even the election wasn’t the end of the matter. A special ecclesiastical court – Her Majesty’s Commission – had to be convened to hear evidence that Justin Welby was who he said he was, that the election had been called by Her Majesty, that election had been legally conducted, and that Justin Welby had been elected.

This Confirmation of Election took place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on 4 February 2013. It is here that the formalities were completed and Justin Welby became the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope Francis succeeded Pope Benedict on 13th March 2013: 30 days after Pope Benedict announced he was retiring and 13 days after the retirement took effect.

Archbishop Justin succeeded Archbishop Rowan on 4 February 2013 – 325 days since Archbishop Rowan announced he was retiring and 35 days after the retirement took effect.

But such appointments aren’t concluded behind closed doors.  They are moments of great celebration and joy, marked by lavish services of enthronement, when the new bishops (of Rome and Canterbury) take their cathedras – or seats – in their cathedral churches.

Guess who’s first?

Pope Francis will be installed in St Peter’s, Rome this coming Tuesday, 19 March 2013. It will be a major international gathering attended by church leaders, royalty, heads of state and government from around the world and requires a complex and detailed security operation.  It will be broadcast live around the world on television and radio stations across the globe.

This major event will take place just 36 days after Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to retire.

Archbishop Justin will be installed in Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury this coming Thursday, 21 March 2013. It will be a major national gathering, attended by church leaders from around the world; and royalty, political and civil leaders from across the UK. It requires a less complex and detailed security operation. It will be broadcast across the UK on BBC Two and Radio Four (Long Wave only).

This major event will take place 370 days – more than a year – after Archbishop Rowan announced his intention to retire.

This blog post isn’t intended as an attack on the Church of England, or on any of its processes and it certainly isn’t an attack on the decision made to appoint Archbishop Justin.

I’ve met the last three Archbishops of Canterbury. All of them have been very different from each other; but all of them have been good. I’ve already met Justin Welby and have had the opportunity to interview him. I’m excited about what’s in store. I think he will prove to be an inspired choice.

BUT: should it really take more than a year for the Church of England to appoint its chief pastor?  While the symbolism of the appointment process is important, does it really need to be dragged out over several months?

I’m not arguing against symbolism. I like symbolism. And nobody can argue that this past month in Rome has been without symbolism.

Clearly, the two posts are very different; as are the two churches, denominations, ecclesial communities, or whatever you want to call them; but when it comes to comparing them, the Church of England is most definitely a tortoise compared to Rome’s hare.

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