What kind of leader is Justin Welby?

81xzPwnckFLOne of the books I read over the summer was Andrew Atherstone’s fascinating biography of Justin Welby. It is a considerably expanded version of  the short book which Atherstone wrote immediately after it was announced that Welby would be Archbishop.

The first thing which strikes you in opening the book is the thoroughness of the research. Atherstone has clearly done his homework on Welby’s earlier life, citing letters and other correspondence, and interviews with people who knew the family. (This is not an authorised biography, so there is no material from Welby himself.) But the recent additions to the book are based on talks that Welby has done at a number of conferences, and Atherstone has clearly listened to them all carefully. Overall it is most impressive.

As a biography, the book tends to focus on factual material rather than giving either personal evaluation, or offering much reflection on the interconnection between different aspects of Welby’s ministry. But I was left with a number of strong impressions.

The first is the extent to which Welby is well-connected with the establishment. His mother was personal secretary to Winston Churchill, and her family history connections meant that Welby ‘is a scion of Britain’s political, military and educational establishment’ (p 1). With his own education at Eton and Cambridge, Welby at one level made these connections his own, and coming to faith at Cambridge meant that he also connected with that strand of public school evangelicalism shared with Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, and his peers. It is all a sobering reminder that, even in the 21st century, both politics in Britain and church leadership in the Church of England are dominated by a small, interconnected elite. (It was recently noted that 25% of bishops in the C of E trained at Cuddesdson, mainly because diocesans are mostly appointed from the pool of suffragans, and suffragans until recently were appointed, without any consistency of process, by the existing diocesans.)

In making some radical changes to the organisation at Lambeth Palace, Welby has appointed a team of seven advisors—six of which he appointed himself, and only one of which was appointed by advertised process. It might well be that the Church is under the leadership of a benign oligarchy, but an oligarchy it appears to remain.

The second impression the book gives is the flavour of Welby’s own spiritual and theological tradition. The first half of the book is dominated by what might be called Welby’s ‘unreconstructed’ conservative evangelical convictions, which in some ways appear to have remained unchanged from his Cambridge days. Many (including myself) will find this quite refreshing; it is wonderful to have someone in leadership in the Church who does not repeat the mantra ‘Evangelicalism has contributed to my thinking’ or ‘I am grateful for the past influence of the evangelical heritage’. Instead, we have someone in Lambeth who is happy to call himself evangelical without crossing his fingers behind his back!

But it did occur to me that many in the Church will find this discouraging, even alarming—until, in the section on his move to Coventry, Welby not only engages with and embraces global Anglican perspectives, but also discovers the enrichment of the spirituality of other traditions. What Atherstone does not explore at all is how Welby has integrated these different theological perspectives, if indeed he has. The impression is given that they sit side by side, without too much difficulty, though not necessarily with much explicit integration. This has allowed Welby to relate to different traditions without insisting that they need to change radically, which I think has led to a surprising establishment of trust.

The third impression from the book is that many of the roles that Welby has had up till now have functioned as places of formation and growth for him at least as much as they have been places of success or triumph. I was fascinated to see that he went to quite a traditional, middle-of-the-road Anglican church as an incumbent, and although he did see growth there, it was relatively modest. His time with Andrew White in Coventry was one of startling drama and some success internationally, but in many ways the period ended on a note of failure, as the goals for the Centre for Reconciliation were re-thought and the financial support dried up. It was another surprise for Welby to end up on the staff of a Cathedral (in Liverpool), given his own theological background, and yet it was another place of learning. It is clear from his time so far in Canterbury how much each of these experiences has shaped him.

IMG_2655 - Version 2This leads to the fourth thing that impressed itself on me—Welby’s style of leadership. There are a number of a paradoxes here. On the one hand, Welby’s theological tradition would not give importance to structures of institutional leadership in the same way that Rowan William’s anglo-catholicism would, where orders of ministry and offices are seen to have spiritual authority in themselves. Evangelicalism has general been much more sceptical about such power structures. However, it does value strong, even authoritarian leadership as part of what is sometimes (mockingly) called ‘muscular Christianity’. Sandy Millar, the previous vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton, combined a warm, personal style with an authoritarian, perhaps even autocratic, style of leadership, and it is clear that Nicky Gumbel continues this tradition. One of the marks of Welby’s first year in office has been a direct and decisive approach, which has ruffled not a few feathers at Lambeth Palace. As Atherstone highlights, the legacy of his training and formation in the oil industry has been a focus on issues of strategic importance and a clear commitment to prioritisation. This has led to a pro-active (rather than reactive) approach to invitations; whilst this has disappointed some, it has meant he has visited provinces in the Anglican Communion that Rowan Williams never once travelled to, and has enabled the fostering of better relationships. And he has overseen the appointment of the first evangelical as diocesan bishop of Europe, largely because a commitment to numerical growth was high on the list of qualities sought. (Canterbury and London have a large say in the appointment of the Bishop of Europe, which does not follow the usual Crown Nomination processes.)

Alongside all this, Welby exhibits a remarkable sense of humility and a genuine self-deference. This arises in part from his own honest opinion of himself; when invited to write a letter to his 14-year-old self, he started like this:

Dear Justin, You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry—it does not measure who you are.

It offers a small window into someone who has genuinely wrestled with issues of achievement and self-esteem, who is very aware of inner struggles but who has managed not to allow these to hobble him. And it means he is able to speak his mind on an issue—and apologise if he has got it wrong, which is both refreshing and endearing. Alongside this is Welby’s theological conviction about collegiality. So, paradoxically, he talks honestly about how insignificant his own role is, and how limited the opportunities he has to influence things, whilst all the time he has been intervening and resolving issues (such as women’s ordination as bishops) which his predecessor, for all his theological insight, was unable to resolve.

The fascinating question is how all these things will come together to address the debate of the moment, the Church’s approach to same-sex marriage. Welby’s public statements have attracted criticism from all quarters (whose wouldn’t?) and some appear to think that he has not resolved the tension between his evangelical convictions about the matter in its own terms, and his desire to be a reconciler. I am not quite so convinced that these things are in tension in the way that is often portrayed. Welby’s desire for reconciliation has mostly focussed on the way in which disagreement has been handled, but it has not necessarily determined the truth of the different positions. He has certainly avoided the double bind of Rowan Williams, who upset evangelicals with his personal view, liberals with his official view, and just about everyone else with the idea that these two could coexist in one person. Welby appears to have a more integrated understanding of how his personal convictions play out in his role as leader.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about him is his overriding conviction that he needs to speak about Jesus on every possible occasion. All through the book, he comes over as someone, whatever position he is within the hierarchy, whose first commitment is to be a faithful witness to Jesus and invite others to become the same. Isn’t this the most important thing we need in Canterbury?

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25 thoughts on “What kind of leader is Justin Welby?”

  1. It is truly refreshing to have him at the helm. He has shown an immense astuteness when dealing with the press and they are not sure how to handle him. But his wonderful desire to present Jesus on every occasion will mean that soon or later he will have to offend and become the focus of intense criticism. And there will be those within the Church who will use it for their own ends. It is vital that he is the focus of prayer and support now rather than when this happens.

    • Tim, thanks. Yes, I agree. I think he has begun to do that—he upset various people both with comments about Church investment and Wonga, and on standing by the graves of Sudanese Christians.

      He does not seem particularly cowed by the prospect of a bad response…?

      • No, he’s not, which is really encouraging because it shows he’s not afraid of being criticised. But I think the public view of Wonga was such that there was a degree of sympathy with him and, frankly, I don’t think the media care much about Sudan and the ignorance was leading more towards apathy. He will do great things, I truly believe it – and eventually will (maybe literally) turn over some tables in the temples of today.

  2. “However, [evangelicalism] does value strong, even authoritarian leadership as part of what is sometimes (mockingly) called ‘muscular Christianity’.”

    Little surprise, since a creed premised on authority will attract type A personalities. The congregationalist distrust of human authority is a welcome counter-tradition.

    Really interesting breakdown of the biography, Ian. I hope Welby’s theology has moved on from the simplistic certainties we have in our late teens. There are hopeful signs: in addition to embracing aspects of other traditions, he realizes how bad the church’s institutional discrimination against LGB people makes it look, and he may yet make the crucial leap from viewing it an issue of PR and tone to a problem with the teaching itself.

    • Thanks. I don’t think I would go with identifying ‘certainties’ with ‘simplistic’—but there is something of that communicated in the book. Interestingly one of the reviewers on Amazon thinks that this is due to Atherstone’s bias or wishful thinking, but I am not so sure.

      I think he does, in fact, have a clear view on ‘the issue’ itself…but has not found the right place to articulate that yet.

      • On the ethics of gay relationships, in his 2013 speech to the Evangelical Alliance, Welby said, “I’m not going to jump one way or the other until my mind is clear about this.” Recently, he’s refused to state his own position when asked.

        If he does believe that homosexuality is a sin in all circumstances, the crucial thing will be whether he also believes that his personal opinion ought to be imposed on the entire Church of England, many of whose members aren’t evangelicals, and therefore don’t share Welby’s understanding of the Bible and its authority.

        The marks of a great leader are the ability to build consensus from diversity, and a willingness to set aside their own opinions where necessary.

        • You need to put that in context I think. He wasn’t saying that he didn’t have a view about what Scripture says, as Etienne’s comment below I think confirms.

          What he was hesitant about was proposing a resolution to the church’s current dilemma, where we have people of very different views, allowed by past (bad) practice, and few apparent points of contact.

  3. Sorry for ignorance of the book – I’ve not got round to it yet – but does it deal much with Welby as the first ‘Charismatic’ ABC?

    I ask because in a Church where Runcie-types often consider evangelicals unAnglican, and Stottite conservative evangelicals are sceptical about whether Anglo-Catholics are even Christians, the Charismatics *seem* to be able to walk a via media (whilst not necessarily being trusted by either side).

    I saw Welby asked in an interview if he prayed in tongues, but I’ve seen little further thought/analysis.

    • That’s really interesting observation, David. It does not make much of this theologically (and Atherstone himself is not a charismatic) but it does make it clear that he is very at home in the New Wine and HTB contexts, which in itself is quite striking.

      One of the most moving images in the book is of Welby kneeling and allowing children to pray for him at one of these conferences.

      As I comment in my next post, the Spirit not only works to bring unity, but also is at work brining discernment, even judgement, in the NT.

  4. Justin Welby is against equal marriage. He said so in the Lords.

    But now he’s saying he needs to think about it and please don’t bother him with questions until he’s made up his mind.

    How long will that take, I wonder? A year? Two? A decade? And in the meantime do gays have to hold their tongues while he employs bald-faced delaying tactics in the hope that we’ll just go away?

    Because that’s what this semblance of thinking it over is all about: an attempt to buy time and let tempers cool and quietly put a lid on the whole debate.

    If that’s an example of Welby’s leadership style, he isn’t going to be an effective archbishop of Canterbury for very long. In what version of cloud cuckoo land does he live? Can he seriously believe that all he has to do is say he’ll think about it and the gays will be so grateful they’ll immediately go and sit meekly in the pews and wait for him to pronounce on our fate from on high? If we do, the wait will be a very long one because there will never be a pronouncement. He wants to string us along by persuading us that change is possible, but only on his timescale, which basically means never.

    Won’t work, I’m afraid. Why should we wait for him?

    • Is the ‘we’ here people who think the church should change, or who think the church has it right, shouldn’t change, and should close down the discussion…?!

      The fact that you and James B appear to have opposite opinions about Welby on this matter is very interesting!

      • I think myself and Etienne have the same opinion: we both agree that Welby opposes equal marriage (although, bizarrely, Welby said the new law was “great,” which a church PR guy hurriedly clarified to mean “it’s great that legislatures can pass laws”!).

        In the speech to EA, Welby appeared to say that he hadn’t made up his mind about the wider ethics of gay relationships. He may have meant something different. As he keeps refusing to state his position when interviewed, we can’t say for sure.

    • Redefining marriage is not “equal marriage” so please stop endlessly repeating that advertising slogan.
      It is as false as “things go better with coke”…
      Equal marriage means a husband and wife respecting each other equally.
      Marriage means a union between a man and a woman.
      That is what marriage is.
      Calling other relationships marriage is not “equal” it is just confused, dishonest and an open door to child abuse.

  5. There’s a great comment at the end of the article below (under Trackbacks), which we would all do well to heed:

    Justin Welby is going to keep surprising people. Many have commented to me personally that they’re “not too excited” about him or that they see him as a simple transitional figure, someone to hold the reins while the Church looks for a more permanent and dynamic replacement. They think they’ve got Welby all figured out, that he’s just some kind of management type. I think this is dead wrong, and I’m really excited to see what the future holds. And, hopefully, actions like the founding of the Community of St. Anselm will wake people up to the archbishop’s real priorities.

  6. What Ian Paul and Justin Welby don’t understand is that they cannot just “close down the discussion”. The days when straight white alpha males and their simpering admirers controlled what the rest of us can talk about and even think are long gone.

    Mr Paul, you don’t have the power to close down any kind of discussion, except here in the autocratic little kingdom of your private blog where you can give your sense of entitlement free rein.

    I think Welby is at least smart enough to realize that the world won’t bend the knee to his dictates. I think it’s clear enough that he’d love to close down this discussion and order us all to accept that historic bigotry still has a place into today’s Church. But he realizes what would happen if he did. So his response is to pretend to be “making up his mind”.

    Delaying tactics can only ever be a temporary solution however. Groups like Changing Attitude are piling on the pressure and while it’s clear that Welby is (for a churchman) quite a talented manipulator and politician, he’s certainly no pope-like and immovable behemoth whose opposition to change can delay things for a generation or more. He just doesn’t have the moral authority or the charisma to force the Church to accept his judgment as final.

    There’s a parallel going on in British politics at the moment. Scotland is considering breaking away from the union and support for independence is gaining ground. If Scotland votes “no” in a few days time, the independence movement won’t say “oh OK, fair enough, we lost so now we’re ardent unionists”. They’ll keep on pushing and pushing until one day they get what they want. Scotland will be an independent country, maybe not this time round, but soon enough. Any Canadians reading this will know what I mean. Québec is still a part of Canada, but who knows for how long? Apparently they call it the “neverendem referendum” over there. The independence issue is a permanent fixture of Canadian politics just like it’s now a permanent fixture of British politics (for as long as there is a Britain, of course). The argument is here to stay until the side arguing for it carries the day. That’s the nature of this kind of debate.

    Perhaps someone should tell Justin Welby that whatever delaying tactics he employs, equality within the Church will happen. I suspect he knows this and all this shilly-shallying about is really just an attempt to give conservatives the chance of coming to terms with their defeat over women bishops before they’re hit by another body blow. That’s a favorable interpretation that I’m not sure Welby’s actions merit, but let’s see how things pan out, shall we? Time will tell.

    • If I was interested in ‘closing down the discussion’, why would I be open to discussing it here?

      If I was autocratic, why would I allow your comments? (And it is Dr Paul, btw…)

      The main thing which is closing down discussion is people saying ‘There’s no point in talking about it—we will have it our way regardless of what other people think or say.’

      One point you ignore, which is vital: which tradition continues to grow within the Church?

  7. “Dr”, is it? Well if “Dr” it is, then “Dr” it shall be. Far be it from me to deny a man the title he feels is his due. I should have remembered how sensitive you British are about these things. Or perhaps I should say “how sensitive you English are about these things”. After all, Hyacinth Bucket is most definitely not a Scot.

    As an excuse for my lack of savoir vivre, all I can say is that here in France, the use of honorifics outside a very narrow circle of professional confrères is normally avoided. It’s seen as pompous and self-important. But of course every culture reacts differently to this kind of thing.

    And now, regarding your refutation of the charge of autocracy, if I’m wrong and you submitted all those comments of mine that you’ve deleted, partially or otherwise, to some kind of blog comment committee for review, then perhaps the charge isn’t deserved.

    Quite who elects such a committee and gives it the power to censor and censure, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an hereditary thing. Her Majesty’s Yeomen of the Interweb, or something similar? Do they include Scottish representatives, I wonder? Will they be rendered inoperative after the referendum and their stranglehold on free speech loosened by the chaos that follows independence?

    I certainly hope so.

    Maybe I’m dreaming though. Maybe such a pictureskew body doesn’t really exist and the censor was actually you: His Grace The Right Infallible Dr Ian Paul, KG, KCVO, CBE, etc (my apologies if I’ve missed anything out, but your Wikipedia entry is rather sketchy: no postnominal initials, no biography, no name even … so I’m really just guessing and hope I haven’t deprived you of any cherished rights or privileges). If the censor really was you, then I think the charge of autocracy stands.

    Of course it’s your blog so you can run it any way you like. But the way you do run it reflects on your credibility. Take Miracle Man over at God and Politics In The (Apparently Doomed) UK, for example. (I hesitate to cite his name because for all I know he may be a duke or a marquis or even a “Dr” and be horribly offended if I refer to him as plain old “Mr”). As far as I’m aware, he rarely if ever censors comment, no matter how non-academic and non-Christian the tone. To me that speaks of open-mindedness and credibility. Censorship does not. But this is (yet another) point on which we will probably never agree.

    There is however one point on which agreement may be possible. I think you’re right that the conservative viewpoint does seem to be growing in the Church. Whether that’s real growth or simply the same number of conservatives making a lot more noise than usual remains to be seen. If they are taking over the Church then it seems strange that a Synod elected by processes that favor their cause should vote for something that many of them didn’t want: women bishops. Is the fact that liberal causes seem to pass, albeit with some difficulty, in an electoral body heavily weighted towards the conservative end of the spectrum an indication of growing conservative power? Or does it mean that conservatives aren’t quite as conservative as they used to be and that tomorrow they may even be quite liberal when compared with today?

    So perhaps all this conservative growth won’t give you quite the power you’re counting on. As always, time will tell.

    In the meantime, Welby is clearly conservative enough to be an obstacle in the way of greater acceptance of LGBT rights. My hope is that his reign will be brief.

    • Ah yes, it’s all flooding back to me now. Ten uncomprehending years in that sooty metropolis you call a capital where you hardly ever meet an Englishman, and when you do, no matter how good your English may be, you can never understand what he really wants from you.

      I remember that phrase, “pots and kettles”. I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised to see it still being used. I thought Noo Labour and the right-on Libcons would have banned it years ago for its racist overtones. If I remember correctly, its meaning has something to do with accusing someone of something you’re guilty of yourself.

      In the context of my comments, I’m not sure how that can applies to me. I would certainly like the Church to institute equal marriage, however this does not entail ramming my beliefs down anyone else’s throat. I don’t ask the Church to ban straight marriage. Nor do I require anyone who doesn’t want to marry someone of their own gender to do so. All I ask is for the Church to respect personal freedom and conscience. We should all have the freedom to reject same sex marriage for ourselves. To reject it for others is the act of an autocrat.

      • Etienne, you well know that I am happy to host different viewpoints, provided they contribute positively to the discussion.

        I am quite willing and ready to delete comments which are either insulting or just a rant.

  8. Is it your opinion that it’s the Evangelical wing only where growth is being seen?
    Just interested…I used to think this was the case, till I went to Cuddesdon, where the discourse was all about growth in liberal catholic churches. ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ found that churchmanship was not a determining factor in church growth – only the desire to/plan to grow.
    Enjoyed your post.

    • Hi Claire! No, I don’t think that the evangelical wing is the only place where growth is seen, nor that evangelical churches all grow. There is lots of evidence of that local to me!

      I used to be a Healthy Churches consultant, and used that very good, simple and now overlooked framework with a number of mixed deaneries.

      But I do think that, in our culture, the main place where growth is happening is amongst those churches which are discovering spiritual and theological renewal, and most of those are evangelical. In London, the HTB network is clearly the engine for growth in the diocese.

      I would also add that ‘liberal’ now bears little relation to ‘liberal’ of the 1960s and 70s. It has been redefined to be much more ‘evangelical’. Williams was not a liberal in the mould of Runcie, who in one interview could think of nothing to say in answer to the question ‘What does the cross mean to you?’ I think the recovery of Trinitarian theology has much to do with that.


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