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Tale of two churches: Pope appointed swiftly, but Anglicans take their time

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, second left, during his enthronement service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England, on March 21, 2013.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, second left, during his enthronement service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England, on March 21, 2013.Philip Toscano / AFP - Getty Images

News analysis

Two major churches installed new leaders this week. But while it took the Roman Catholic Church just a month to get a new pope, more than a year passed before the Anglicans inaugurated the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Catholics saw the new Pope Francis inaugurated at the Vatican on Tuesday — after Pope Benedict’s shock resignation on Feb. 11 — and two days later Justin Welby was installed as leader of some 85 million members of the Anglican Communion.

"It’s a very secretive process, a lot of people are involved, but it doesn’t usually take … long," papal historian Michael Walsh said, noting conclaves in the 20th century took no longer than three or four days.

Since the resignation of the last Anglican leader, it took nine months to find a new one and over a year to reach the day of Welby’s inauguration.

The procedure in choosing an Anglican leader — who presides over royal births, marriages, deaths and coronations and will most likely christen Prince William and Kate's baby this summer — is complicated, even though his powers over Anglicans are more limited than those of the pope over Catholics and he must retire by the age of 70.

Their equivalent of the papal conclave is the Crown Nominations Commission consisting of 16 people, who narrow down the list of candidates to two people.

Those names are then submitted to the British prime minister who chooses one and submits it to the monarch for the final approval.

While the decision to elect a pope rests solely with members of the Catholic Church, the selection of an Archbishop of Canterbury is a combined decision of the clergy and the British state.

The balance between to the two weighs heavily on the side of the state, since it chooses the chairperson of the nomination commission.

"I don’t think it is a lengthy procedure — after all, he is being elected for three roles: the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, leader of the Church of England and Bishop of Canterbury," Jan Butter, director of communications for the Anglican Communion, said.

He explained that the commission's task was complicated by having to choose from candidates who are not present in the discussions, unlike the conclave where every cardinal involved is a potential candidate.

"When a huge corporation hunts for a CEO, they take the right amount of time to make sure the right choice has been made," Butter emphasized "and that is what the CNC has done this time and always."

The duration does not seem to bother some Anglicans.

"There is less rush and more excitement," Tarsila Burity, a member of the church from Brazil currently attending college in the UK said, "knowing that the decision could affect so many people it’s worth the wait."

So much effort to award a significant ecclesiastical position, even though authority does not carry infallibility and the post is not for life.


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