Justin Welby: a leader ‘for such a time as this…’

Justin Welby BBCThree 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.

Justin Welby Kirsty YoungIn 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:

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17 thoughts on “Justin Welby: a leader ‘for such a time as this…’”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. I am reflecting hard on the place of the ‘affective’. Really interesting comment. My only negative is in your attempt to compare what you find to be Welby’s unembarrassed evangelical faith with what you claim to be Libby Lane’s unwillingness to do the same. I do not think you make your case all here. All she says is she does not like ‘labels’. Does Welby either? Do you? Are you really saying Libby Lane would not publicly own what you quote Welby saying on Desert Island Discs about his faith in Christ? His declaration of Christian faith at this point does not require the label evangelical at all so why do you seek to claim it here? (yes, that is where his roots are but he is well known for his spiritual breadth, including contemplative Benedictine). More importantly, all the evidence of Lane’s ministry is that she proclaims Christ clearly and leads people to faith in him.

    • The role of the affective in public ethical discourse is, I think, really striking. I had an interesting discussion with some ethicists on this recently.

      In relation to Libby Lane, three points I think. First, I am not in the business of evaluating anyone’s ministry. I know nothing about Libby Lane, so I am not in a position to comment even if I wished to.

      Secondly, I think it is striking that Libby, like many other before her, appears to have moved away from identifying herself as ‘evangelical’—notwithstanding the limits of all labels. I don’t recall Justin ever using the now-standard phrase ‘I valued by evangelical roots, but I have learnt from the breadth of the C of E and don’t like labels’, which is the usual way of saying ‘I am not an evangelical any more.’ [As I comment above, I am always curious where the limits of that breadth lie.] I too have learned from the breadth of the C of E—but I am happy to be called an evangelical, and I am interested why some people are not.

      Thirdly, the kind of language Justin used in both DID and TFTD can be directly traced to his evangelical conversion and nurture in a way quite distinctive from many other bishops. In my review of his biography, http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/what-kind-of-leader-is-justin-welby/ I call this an ‘unreconstructed evangelicalism.’

      I think his continued inhabiting of this tradition has helped him take some controversial and decisive actions.

  2. Ian,

    I’m not sure what purpose is served by this ‘Welby: a man of our times’ posting.

    Even if unintentional, the tone of the piece is decidedly sycophantic. As ever, the hope of CofE redemption is in a leader who enjoys the favour of power elites.

    This notion is best typified by your following:
    ‘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.’

    All of this is angstroms apart from the Christian calling that St. Paul described in this way:

    ‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ (1 Cor. 1:26,27)

    Welby may indeed improve the political fortunes of the CofE: delivering the dream of successive PR masterstrokes with enough personal tragedy to remind us (yet again) of his every-man emotional vulnerability.

    What’s missing here is the offence of the gospel: the inadvertent arousal of public rejection and hostility provoked by its uncompromising demand for repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ

    • What purpose is served by this post? Two things. First, noting the dynamic in our current culture and effective ways to engage with this. Second, trying to explain why Welby has made such a significant and unexpected impact when most church leaders are signally failing.

      It’s interesting that Paul says ‘Not many of you..’ rather than ‘None of you…’. Paul himself takes advantage of his own status as a Roman citizen as well as his learning and standing within his mission strategy, and God used Moses’ position in Pharoah’s household and Esther’s position in court to deliver his people. So it appears God is not beneath using people of influence.

      Most commentators have noted Welby’s outspoken criticism of industry, banking and aspects of Government policy—see the Spectator article. But it hasn’t been possible to brush these critiques off with either ‘You don’t understand’ or ‘Politics of envy.’

      So I don’t really think your criticisms of Welby or the post stand.

      • Ian,

        My point wasn’t that God doesn’t use people of influence (Joseph of Arimathea, Sergius Paulus, Emperor Constantine are all notable examples). It was that their influence was an instrument, but not key to being successfully used by Him, nor should it be touted as such (as your posting suggests).

        You mention St. Paul and Moses as important biblical examples of how God uses worldly influence.

        St. Paul said of his Jewish pedigree: ‘If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

        ‘But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.’ (Phil. 3:3 – 9)

        Even when St.Paul relied on his Roman status, it was to extricate himself from immediate trouble, only to find himself in more. He was brought to face charges before Caesar (to whom he appealed as a citizen), placed under house arrest and eventually executed. So much for influence.

        We read in Hebrews: ‘By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.’ In other words, while it may have made him a national figure, Moses disowned his worldly status.

        You state that your piece is ‘noting the dynamic in our culture and effective ways to engage with this.’

        With all due respect, the opinions expressed through the Spectator and FT are more representative of the elitist intelligentsia than the general public, or is that the point? That, due to top-down influence, we need to keep the former on side.

        If that’s the case, the inability to quell the upsurge of UKIP at the polls is partly due to this mistaken notion of enduring top-down influence. Conventional wisdom starts with the Establishment setting the boundaries of acceptable debate and representation and the rest of society is meant to follow. That worked when the Establishment owned and controlled the major organs of mass communication. The internet era has changed all of that. Teflon-coated reputations are destroyed by leaked e-mails at the click of a button. The ephemeral and viral are the rulers of vacillating public sentiment.

        So, it all depends on what you mean by ‘engage effectively’. Some critics might say that Jesus’ repeated parables warning against covetousness (especially the Dishonest Steward) involved the ‘Politics of Envy’. The fact that he forwent most worldly comforts by choice blunted such thoughtless accusations.

        His exorcisms attracted the criticism that he expelled evil spirits by their prince.

        If people are bent on a particular mindset and you challenge them to change, they will become enraged: ‘Say we not well that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’; ‘this is a hard saying, who can hear it?’; ‘Away with this fellow, he’s not fit to live’.

        The jury’s out right now on whether Welby can embrace the offence of the gospel as the early church did. If his concept of mutual flourishing is truly eudaimonia, we shall see the cross of Christ supplanted by an extrapolation of Greek philosophy.

    • I should add that on one key point I agree with you: I don’t accept the ‘Bash Camps’ strategy of seeking to convert ‘influential’ people with the idea that this will lead to the renewal of faith. I agree with your suggestion that this, as a mission strategy, is elitist and unbiblical.

      But that doesn’t stop people of influence being used by God.

  3. ‘a leader ‘for such a time as this…’?

    Not sure he has earned any leadership points when it comes to leading the way on gay marriage.

    • I guess that depends on which way you think he should be leading, doesn’t it? What would you like to have seen him done by now (apart from first resolve, and quickly, what almost everyone thought was the completely insoluble issue of women bishops…)?

      • recently he was asked on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs about his view on gay marriage. The leader of the Church of England would not give his view as ‘the Church was debating it’. It is hard to imagine St Paul being coy about homsexual acts which accidong to your own Grove booklet are seen by the biblical writers as seriously sinful.

    • No, not at all. He has previously made his position very clear, for example in the debate with Adrian Daffern at Coventry Cathedral, which is related in his biography that I reviewed.

      I have not doubt that he was also influential behind the recent bishops’ statements, which I support.

      On DID, he was refusing to made an ad hoc and brief statement, given that a process of review is in process. I think that was wise and good leadership. The last thing we need in debate is more sound bites, and a sound bite is all that would have been allowed in this context.

  4. This is not a question of ‘sound bites’ but of leadership. For a Christian leader to fail to speak out (at all!) about what you yourself have noted the Bible designates as “serious sin”, ie homosexual acts, is quite bizarre, though some might say typically Anglican.

    Imagine if our society were one day to accept consenting incestuous unions between adults, or loving sexual relationships with animals (bestiality). Imagine further that large sections of the Anglican Church thought such unions acceptable, natural and holy. What is a Christian leader’s duty in such a time? When asked if sex with a horse was acceptable would he refuse to say? Would he cite ongoing ‘reviews’?

    The episcopal responsibility at such a time is clear.

    • There is a pivotal sentence in the College of Bishops statement on Pilling that provides the future framework for the proposed facilitated conversations in the Church of England. It is this: ‘These conversations should set the discussion of sexuality within the wider context of human flourishing.’

      The phrasing was no doubt influenced by Archbishop Justin Welby’s inaugural address in which he stated: ‘by mission I mean two things. First, it is the conscious engagement of churches at local, diocesan, provincial, national and global levels with the challenges and issues that diminish flourishing of the human race…there is the love of Christ that constrains us, that drives us forward, and that, when allowed to reign and rule in our individual lives and in the lives of societies and communities, transforms structures and practices and permits human flourishing’

      As most here know, the quest for human flourishing or eudaimonia is a central aspect of Aristotle’s world view and Hellenistic philosophy. Strange that it now finds more resonance than blessedness makarioi: a state that, in the beatitudes, contradicts our immediate sense of well-being and meaning because suffering loss (of family affection, social acceptance and even life itself) in pursuit of what is eternally right has teleological purpose. ‘If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him’ (2 Tim. 2:12)

      Yet, while conservative theologians would argue that human flourishing is not the goal of the gospel, Anglican tradition, as seen in particular the Elizabethan settlement, has often embraced this idea. Though Catholics lost much ground after Mary’s death, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity permitted the liturgy of the church to accommodate some of their sincerely-held beliefs.

      In Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing, we read: ‘Alison Webster (2002) in her theological commentary on wellbeing suggests that the distinctive thing that Christian spirituality has to offer is structures of meaning for the bad things that happen in life so that they too may be incorporated into a personal quest for wellbeing’

      Admittedly, the College of Bishops has closed the door (for now) on any revision to theology of marriage. However, there is a clear and unequivocal intention spearheaded by Welby to develop structures of meaning, i.e. Institutions, that reverse the detriments to well-being, whether personal debt (via Credit Unions), or the effects of homophobia (via Civil Partnerships).

      The facilitated discussion of sexuality will not prioritise any debate over whether to favour the order imposed by a majority, or freedom of minority conscience as the means of furthering human flourishing (at least no more than the Elizabethan Settlement did). What it will try to agree on is what human flourishing looks like as it relates to all sexualities, rather than delve into dogmatic prescriptions about different forms of sexual expression. It will allow for all sexual orientations to develop such institutional alternatives and hybrids as will provide meaning for them within the church. No doubt, revisionists are taking great heart from this.

      Of course, as with the Elizabethan Settlement, a substantial number of clergy (and people like you and me) will find these innovations unconscionable, despite assurances that the Christian theology of marriage remains intact. It may even result in another Great Ejectment.

      For conservatives, it might still be worth looking into what it would take to revive that nearby derelict non-conformist chapel. As they say, the writing is on the wall and it’s a lot clearer than old graffiti.

    • Paul W,

      There’s an irony of denouncing the unrestrained immorality of homosexual acts, only to lose moral restraint in unleashing sarcasm about my post being illiterate. Whatever your opinion, you don’t speak for everyone.

      I’ve sought to avoid resorting to my position without careful reasoning, especially when it relates to the character of an Archbishop. If careful reasoning spares Welby of false accusation, I’m happy to sacrifice brevity.

      That said, here are my 5 key points in everyday English.

      1. The context of facilitated discussions is human flourishing as stated in the Pastoral Statement. This concept is a cornerstone of CofE policy and encouraged by Abp Welby.

      2. The concept (derived from Greek philosophy) appears benign, but it’s a self-fulfilment version of the prosperity gospel. Instead of peddling that faith should ensure material abundance, it peddles a spiritual entitlement to self-fulfilment on human terms, rather than God’s.

      3. On that basis, the human flourishing approach doesn’t focus on whether homosexual acts are scripturally right or wrong. It focuses on the notion that if all people, regardless of orientation, are entitled to a meaningful sexually satisfying relationship of their choosing, then what can the Church do to support and celebrate that.

      4. The likely outcome of facilitated conversations will not be a change to the church’s teaching on marriage. It will be to support the creation of parallel institutions (structures of meaning) for celebrating ‘permanent, faithful and stable’ homosexual relationships.

      5. Homosexual acts are still wrong.

      There! We at least agree on that last point, but another’s prose is still fair game for an insult, isn’t it…brother.


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