Dr. George Leornard Carey, 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury

The Office and Role of the Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr. George Leonard Carey is the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, enthroned on 19th April 1991.

The first Archbishop was St. Augustine, who arrived in England in 597 with instructions from Pope Gregory for the island of Britain. It should become Christian, being organised into two provinces around London in the south and York in the north. One way and another, Canterbury rather than London became the base for the southern province. The church had a single organisation covering most of the country centuries before Britain ceased to be divided into several kingdoms. By the twelfth century, however, there was much more cohesion in the state and it became important for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be near the King's court when it was at Whitehall in London. (The royal palace was on the spot where the main Ministry of Defence building now stands between the street called Whitehall and the river.) It was also important to put some distance between the Archbishop and the monks of Canterbury, who were getting wealthy and dictatorial and were starting to order the Archbishop about.

In 1197 the Manor of Lambeth in London was granted to the then Archbishop in exchange for some land in Kent. The deeds for the exchange of the land still exist and are in the Lambeth Palace Library. Lambeth Palace is where he lives and works during the week. The Archbishop lives in a small flat in the Palace. There is a chapel and a library, and the rest of the buildings are largely taken up with offices and staff accommodation. The Palace is the south bank of the Thames almost opposite the Houses of Parliament. The part most easily visible from outside is a Tudor red brick Tower with a large entrance gate and a small postern door. Cardinal Mortan built the tower in 1486 and lived in it.

The Elements of Office

Diocesan Bishop

London has its own bishop with St. Paul's as his cathedral. The Archbishop looks after the diocese of Canterbury in Kent. As he must be away from the diocese a great deal he has two bishops to assist him, the Bishop of Maidstone and the Bishop of Dover. Although he does not run the diocese when he is not there it keeps him in touch with the usual round of church life -putting a new vicar into a village parish, confirming children and adults, visiting schools, encouraging the clergy and ordaining new deacons and priests.

Primate of All England

The heads of all Anglican Provinces are called Primates. As well as doing confirmations and ordinations, the Archbishop also consecrates new bishops. He is a president of the General Synod, the Church of England's governing body; he chairs the House of Bishops and the Crown Appointments Commission. The General Synod provides the main forum in which the clergy and the lay members of the church can debate issues of church policy. If the General Synod decides to proceed with a motion, it will put forward legislation which will have to pass through Parliament. The Archbishop can make his views known in Synod and in Parliament, but does not dictate policy.

Chaplain to the Nation

This is exemplified at a coronation, when it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who crowns the king or queen. The Archbishop sits in the House of Lords, as do the Archbishop of York and 24 of the diocesan bishops. They are not aligned with any political party but do take an active part in debates and, where appropriate, vote on legislation. All this reflects the fact that the Archbishopric of Canterbury is an older institution than the monarchy. Indeed, in the order of precedence in Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury follows immediately after the monarch. The office of Prime Minister and even of Lord Chancellor do not have anything like the soon antiquity

The Archbishop is expected to voice the joys or sorrows of the nation, for example after a great tragedy, in time of war, or when there is a moment of national rejoicing. It is a question of giving expression to the mood or emotion of the country. The Archbishop is constantly under pressure to speak out on a wide variety of issues and in this media-dominated age that is something which has to be handled very carefully. The task is always to consider God's purpose.

Leader of the Anglican Communion around the world

The Archbishop does not rule the world's 70 million Anglicans and is not an Anglican Pope, but he is expected to maintain the unity of the communion through the bonds of affection and shared belief which draw people together. Once every ten years the Archbishop invites all the Anglican bishops to a Lambeth Conference. The next one is in 1998 and the days are long gone when they all fit into the Palace at Lambeth. Nowadays it takes over the whole of the campus of the University of Kent at Canterbury. The Archbishop also more frequently meets the senior Archbishops of the communion and, perhaps most important of all, travels around the world on pastoral and teaching visits.

Finally, there is a separate patriarchal role, which derives from the Archbishop's leadership of the worldwide communion. As an obvious and identifiable spokesman for and representative of Anglicanism he has an international ecumenical role. This involves him in widespread international ecumenical correspondence, contacts and occasional visits to representatives of other world Christian communions.


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Complied in part from information supplied by :

The Anglican Communion Office, London, UK
Director of Communications - Canon James M Rosenthal
Tel: [44] (0)171 620-1110 Fax: [44] (0)171 620-1070

and other local sources in the Anglican Communion.

1997 David J. Wilson.