Three things continually strike me about the nature of contemporary culture and its discourse. They are quite distinctive, and in many ways contradictory—or at least in tension with one another. But they are clearly present, and they are each things that make culture inhospitable to the Church of England.
The first is the rapidity of change. Every week there is a new record for numbers of Twitter followers (or tweets), YouTube views, film audiences and the like—which are not much more than signs of a culture in the early years of a new paradigm. But, we are told, the one unchanging certainty is change. For institutions to survive and grow, they are going to need to be adaptable and change. Tesco is struggling because it became locked into a paradigm from five years ago—and it hasn’t moved on! That looks like very bad news for an institution like the Church of England, which has taken 40 years to finally settle its position on women in ministry. The speed of change here has not gone unnoticed:
THE Church of England has managed to appoint a female bishop within half a century of humans setting foot on another world. The church’s progress was hailed as awe-inspiring, while thousands of dizzy Anglicans grabbed onto bannisters and the backs of chairs. A Church spokesman said: “We’re very proud that we achieved this before teleportation became a reality.
The second feature of contemporary life is the concentration of power and influence into a smaller and smaller elite, in politics, business and the media. This is, in part, because in the context of an economic free market, more power and wealth tend to accumulate to those who already have some of it; the so-called ‘level playing field’ is actually raked steeply uphill, and those already high up the slope are able to keep those lower down in their place. The same is true in politics. Whilst we have a cabinet drawn from a very narrow social circle, many of whom have known each other for years, Labour appears to have drawn up the drawbridge from the shop floor and all its politicians are now ‘professionals’. This, again, is bad news for the Church of England; where once its leadership was intertwined with the wider leadership in ‘the Establishment’, it has become more and more distant ever since the publication of Faith in the City, which set Church against Government in a particularly sharp way.
The third feature of our culture stands in tension with both of these: the power and importance of emotion. At a trivial level, this means that it is compulsory for celebrities and other leaders in society to be able to ’emote’; to fail to do so demonstrates heartlessness. At a more serious level, it means that the affective dominates ethical debate. If someone feels strongly on an issue, particularly if they are a ‘victim’, then their case is unarguable, even in controversial and complex ethical issues. It is noticeable how, in much public discussion, humanity divides very neatly into victims and villains; the former have no culpability, and the latter have no excuse.
In part this is a reaction against a previous age when individuals and their feelings did not register sufficiently. In part (I suspect) it is a response to living in a technological and unforgiving culture (if you can’t use the internet to claim benefits, that’s your own fault). In part it is a sign of the need to respond to the immediate, rather than engage in the hard work of patient thinking. But it is curious that, in a culture where suffering is much reduced compared with how it has been, or still is in other parts of the world, it presents a much greater problem. Suffering is an affront to our autonomy and ability to determine our lives. So it provides an obstacle to belief in God here when it does not do so in cultures that experience much greater hardships. And the last thing people want to hear, in the face of suffering, is an institution spouting dogma.
Given these features of society, and the challenge they present to the Church, why has Justin Welby made such an impact in such a short time? Be in no doubt that he has; as the Financial Times comments this week (behind the paywall):
It is all the more remarkable therefore that nearly two years after he was appointed the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Church of England, is becoming an increasingly respected moral voice. An energetic and plain-speaking figure who spent most of his early adult life as an oil industry executive, he is righty gaining in appeal not only among Anglicans but also with people outside the Christian faith….
Britain is today living in an age of career politicians who seem reluctant to leave their comfort zones. By contrast, Archbishop Welby is a refreshing example of a spiritual leader who is connected to the real world. It would be no bad thing if the British public heard more from him in 2015.
Or listen to the Spectator from last month:
His political skill has been to place himself in a position in which both main parties believe him to be on their side. At a time when no politician is able to give leadership on moral issues, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with the intelligence and judgment needed to exert proper power and influence. Once again, Lambeth Palace has become worth listening to.
It seems to me that the present Archbishop, in the life he has lived and the way he expresses himself, connects almost uniquely with these three features of culture—as shown in his recent actions and his appearance on Desert Island Discs on Sunday, and in his Thought for the Day yesterday morning.
In relation to change, Welby has shown himself ready to take decisive action to address key issues wherever he can. He has spoken from the beginning of how little real power he has—he is not CEO of the Church, nor line manager of the bishops—but this appears to have made him all the more determined to act, decisively and with speed, in areas where he does have influence. He showed this in the appointment of the new Bishop in Europe, and most dramatically in resolving and then implementing the decision on women bishops. Who would have dreamt, when the measure failed in Synod in 2012, that the first woman bishop would be announced within 18 months?
Even if learnt in industry, Welby’s practice of decisive action and speaking appears to be instinctive, rather than deliberative, as his comments last year on Wonga illustrate. As a PR stunt it clearly misfired, since the C of E was indirectly invested in the company. But Welby’s comments were clearly well intended, and taken as such, and Wonga and other payday lenders are facing a serious cut in their profits as an (indirect) result. His response to complaints about the Green report on senior leadership in the Church are pretty uncompromising. ‘We are in a time of change’ and, whilst criticisms might be listened to, it is clear that this, along with the accompanying measures put in place, is going ahead. All this is in marked contrast to the approach of his predecessor.
In relation to economic and political establishment, it is very clear that he is ‘one of us’. Education at Eton and Cambridge, and a career in the oil industry, means that he does not have to prove himself when speaking to those in power.
Welby’s has been a serious voice on banking matters — one which has been lacking in Parliament. Bankers are not evil, he said of his highly successful time serving on the banking commission, they just made a classic and unsophisticated error of borrowing short and lending long. Few in the City could argue with the analysis, yet no one in government has really appreciated this and come up with a credible plan to stop the same thing happening all over again.
Last but not least, Welby engages directly with the affective, and roots his own responses of compassion in his own experiences of pain and loss. Despite the fact that the BBC headlines the gay issue, much response to his appearance on Desert Island Discs has focussed on revelations of an unhappy childhood and the loss of the Welby’s first child in a car accident.
The Archbishop spoke with emotion about the death of Johanna, who was seven months old when she was killed in 1983. His wife Caroline was in the passenger seat, being driven through Paris, while Johanna was on the back seat in a carrycot…“It’s just the constant reminder of the uncertainty in life. The only certainty in this life is Christ – everything else is contention.”
Kirsty Young, the presenter, remarked how for many people tragedy was the moment they think “if there was a God he wouldn’t let this happen”. The Archbishop, who went on to have five other children with his wife, replied: “Yes that’s absolutely true – and you find that a huge number of people say, ‘That was the moment where I found God.’?” (Telegraph)
In a candid and emotional interview on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Justin Welby reveals how he was forced to wander the streets alone while his father was in bed.
The Archbishop, whose parents divorced when he was three, said: ‘I did think this was a pretty bad day. I think I went out once or twice but, you know, everything was closed. I didn’t know really what to do with myself. I suspect I watched telly a bit and sort of scrounged around the fridge for something to eat. A sandwich? I can’t remember. But it was a grim day.’ (Mail)
Nothing conjures up this extraordinary combination of emotion and establishment than the image of Welby, as a boy, crying with Winston Churchill.
I remember a very, very old man and he cried. I don’t know why and because he cried, I cried, and we sat and had tea. I have talked to my mother about it since and she said, ‘Well he cried quite a lot.’
Amongst all this, one thing that many commentators struggle to make sense of is Welby’s undiminished evangelical spirituality. Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport, like many before her ‘doesn’t like labels’ and appreciates the ‘breadth of the Church of England’. (No-one asks if that includes using the Roman Missal or joining the Sea of Faith network, though perhaps some indication of what is to come is hinted at in the comment that her appointment ‘will open doors to more than just women‘). By striking contrast, Justin Welby is happy to own his evangelical identity. The ending of his Thought for the Day must count as the most direct appeal and challenge recorded there by anyone, let alone a bishop or archbishop:
For me, in all the busyness of Christmas there is one essential: that I gaze again at the reality of Jesus, God himself, in human and helpless form, who comes to rule and reign in this world, not by force but by love, and that seeing Him, I give Him His rightful place in my life.
So here we have, in the Archbishop of Canterbury, someone ready to take decisive action in a time of change, a person connected with the Establishment as it is now configured, and yet someone who manifestly feels and demonstrates compassion out of his own woundedness. He can, it seems, identify with ordinary people, but refuses to accept that things have to be the way they are, and so promises change. If that sounds like good news, Justin Welby would be the first to admit that this is the result of his own encounter with Christ.
When we do [get involved] we have to do it with both the passion of Christ and a deep sense of humility at our own failure and weakness. I cannot speak to people without being aware of my own sin, my own failure and of the failure of the Church. We have to be realistic about the failures of the Church, but also confident in the love and the light and the truth of Christ.
Or, as he tweeted yesterday:
#ChristmasMeans that in Jesus, God has given us the most precious gifts of all: forgiveness and hope.
— Justin Welby (@JustinWelby) December 23, 2014
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