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The Archbishop of Canterbury is the chief bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, the see that churches must be in communion with in order to be a part of the Anglican Communion.
The current archbishop is Rowan Williams. He is the 104th in a line that goes back more than 1400 years to St Augustine of Canterbury, who founded the oldest see in England in the year 597.
From the time of St Augustine until the 16th century, the Archbishops of Canterbury were in full communion with the See of Rome and thus received the pallium. During the English Reformation the church broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, at first temporarily and later more permanently. Since then they have been outside of the succession of the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy and have led the independent national church.
In the Middle Ages there was considerable variation in the nomination of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops. At various times the choice was made by the canons of Canterbury Cathedral, the King of England, or the Pope. Since the English Reformation, the Church of England has been more explicitly a state church and the choice is legally that of the British crown; today it is made in the name of the Sovereign by the Prime Minister, from a shortlist of two selected by an ad hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission.
Present roles and status
Today the archbishop fills four main roles:
- He is the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, which covers the east of the County of Kent. Founded in 597, it is the oldest see in the English church.
- He is the metropolitan archbishop of the Province of Canterbury, which covers the southern two-thirds of England.
- As Primate of All England, he is the senior primate and chief religious figure of the Church of England (the British sovereign is the "Supreme governor" of the church). Along with his colleague the Archbishop of York he chairs the General Synod and sits or chairs many of the church's important boards and committees; power in the church is not highly centralised, however, so the two archbishops can often lead only through persuasion. The Archbishop of Canterbury plays a central part in national ceremonies such as coronations; thanks to his high public profile, his opinions are often in demand by the news media.
- As spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop, although without legal authority outside England, is recognised by convention as primus inter pares (first among equals) of all Anglican primates worldwide. Since 1867 he has convened more or less decennial meetings of worldwide Anglican bishops, the Lambeth Conferences.
In respect of the last two of these functions, he has an important ecumenical and interfaith role, speaking on behalf of Anglicans in England and worldwide.
The Archbishop's main residence is Lambeth Palace in the London Borough of Lambeth. He also has lodgings in the Old Palace, Canterbury, located beside Canterbury Cathedral, where The Chair of St. Augustine sits.
As holder of one of the "five great sees" (the others being York, London, Durham and Winchester), the Archbishop of Canterbury is ex officio one of the Lords Spiritual of the House of Lords. He is one of the highest-ranking men in England and the highest ranking non-royal in the United Kingdom's order of precedence.
Since Henry VIII broke with Rome, the Archbishops of Canterbury have been selected by the English (British since the Act of Union in 1707) monarch. Today the choice is made in the name of the Sovereign by the prime minister, from a shortlist of two selected by an ad-hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission. Since the twentieth century, the appointment of Archbishops of Canterbury conventionally alternates between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals.
The current archbishop, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Douglas Williams, is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. He was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 27 February 2003. As archbishop he signs himself as + Rowan Cantuar. Immediately prior to his appointment to Canterbury he was the Bishop of Monmouth in Wales. Whilst at Monmouth he was later, for a shorter period, also the Archbishop of Wales.