Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did an extraordinary thing – he brought prayer to the heart of London. You would not know it if you rely on the mainstream media – newspapers, TV or radio – for your information because none of them covered the event in Trafalgar Square, but sure enough thousands of people joined the Archbishop to hear the Bible read and to share time in prayer. With him was the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and a host of other religious leaders from many Christian groups.
Ordinary Christian worship has become so remote from most people’s lives that it can be quite startling to see a large group of people gathered in peaceful prayer.
Six years in to his time as Archbishop Justin Welby cuts an energetic figure. At 63 with up to six more years to go in the Church of England’s top job he needs all the energy he can muster. The job is long on responsibility and short on public appreciation.
The gathering last Sunday was to mark Pentecost, a significant religious festival and an occasion of especial significance to the part of the church from which the Archbishop comes – the evangelical group. The Archbishop has spent a significant amount of time, money and energy in raising its profile in the church and beyond. To that end, he has enlisted the support of a large number of church leaders, including the Pope. This is no small achievement. Corralling any group of church leaders to agree on the importance of anything is always a great challenge. So here Justin Welby has shown significant and effective leadership.
Such a visible success is sorely needed. Numbers attending church continue to decline, as do those seeking church marriages, baptisms and funerals. The church and its leaders struggle to find an effective and influential voice in the public arena. With British politics in sustained turmoil and political leaders struggling to bring coherence to their policy prescriptions the Established church and its leader have been notably, and lamentably, absent from the national discussion. Things may well become more difficult still and there is time for the Archbishop to step in to help the nation to navigate its way forward. It is not easy to be an Archbishop of Canterbury at any time, and maybe particularly so at this time, but yesterday Justin Welby could look out on a Trafalgar Square packed with pilgrims and know he had achieved something rather remarkable.