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Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, is one step closer to the Archbishopric of Canterbury after the College of Canons of his new cathedral formally elected him in a ceremony that dates from the Middle Ages.
The 35-member body met under the presidency of the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, the Very Rev. Robert Willis. But the outcome of the election was never in doubt since there was just one name on the ballot.
Although it is commonly said that the Queen appoints Church of England bishops, this is not strictly true. Instead, she causes a document known as a ‘conge d’elire’ to pass under the Great Seal of the Realm, which acts as a formal license empowering the College of Canons of the relevant cathedral to elect a new archbishop or bishop.
But there is a catch: the conge d’elire is always accompanied by ‘Letters Missive’ signed by the Queen recommending a candidate for election. Under legislation passed during the reign of Henry VIII, the College of Canons is obligated to elect the Crown’s nominee. If they failed to do so for whatever reason, the Queen would then go ahead and appoint her candidate directly. At one time the College of Canons would also have faced serious legal consequences, but those were abolished in 1967. It was a moot point, however, since the Crown’s preferred candidate has never been rejected (though there have been a number of cases where individual canons have lodged protest votes against the royal nominee).
The process of having representatives of the cathedral community elect the bishop was once a highly-controversial issue. At first, English monarchs insisted on investing bishops directly, but in 1107, St. Anselm convinced Henry I to allow cathedral chapters to elect their bishop. However, the monarch still dominated the process. The chapter was required to hold the election in the royal chapel with the king’s permission and in the presence of his ecclesiastical advisers. And after the election, the new bishop had to do homage to the king in exchange for the property of the diocese. A little more than a century later, King John established the procedure that is currently in use.
Now Bishop Welby’s election must be confirmed by a special commission consisting of the Archbishop of York and several senior bishops from the province of Canterbury. That ceremony is scheduled for February 4 in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Once those legal proceedings are over, he will finally be Archbishop of Canterbury, though his public ministry will not begin until after his formal enthronement on March 21.