Ten years ago this week Justin Welby was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. Ten turbulent years for the Church of England over which he presides, and ten turbulent years for the Archbishop personally.
During this decade we have learnt about him personally, the circumstances of his childhood, his parentage, his family life. We have learnt about some of the pain he and his wife, Caroline, have experienced as parents, along with the huge joy they share with their children. The Archbishop and Mrs Welby often work and travel together, supporting each other in his ministry, and sharing their faith in the open and informal manner in which they feel the most comfortable.
While much focus has been on the more difficult parts of the Archbishop’s life, less attention has been paid to his wider family, which on his mother’s side, is extremely grand indeed. To most of us, being educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, would be a rare experience. To be an Archbishop, rarer still. However, as far as the Archbishop’s wider family is concerned, stuffed as it is with imperial governors, public school headmasters, peers of the realm, deans of cathedrals and bishops, his being the Archbishop of Canterbury is not necessarily an exceptional achievement. There can be little doubt that his background and upbringing has given him a rare breadth of experience.
Before priestly ministry he spent some time in business and following ordination he has enjoyed a relatively swift rise to the top. The Church he inherited from his brilliant, beloved but frequently not well understood predecessor, Rowan Williams, was firmly established on a downward trajectory in terms of practising members and serious attention paid to its views. This was not Williams’ fault but nothing he was able to do arrested the sense of inevitable decline. To this challenge Welby was clearly ready to respond with energy and purpose.
Much criticism and lampooning goes with being the Archbishop of Canterbury. To survive you have to have a very thick skin, a very resilient nature, and a forgiving heart. It is apparent that sometimes the criticism demoralises the Archbishop and this has, as he has spoken about, affected his health in various ways. If resilience is witnessed in the ability to carry on despite the suffering endured then Welby is resilient. He is certainly personally brave.
The Church of England over which the Archbishop presides bears little to the church I grew up in. No longer united by a commonly used prayer book, splintered into self-identifying “traditions”, fractured by who will accept whose ministry, a pick your own approach to which Bishop you are willing to recognise as a Bishop – leaving Bishops as more beacons of division than points of unity, a deeply entrenched and bitter row about who should and should not be able to marry in a church, and a sense of an increasingly desperate fight for survival. The Church of England is no longer one Church with an approach to and a relationship with the nation but a series of churches each fighting for a chunk of the market in a sort of Darwinian approach to ministry which sees frequent demands from parish clergy for regular updates of events delivered and numbers in the pews. The successful are rewarded with strong backing. The weak are allowed to wither away. Many fine parish priests do much needed and unsung good work, but too few are appreciated in the way they should be.
In 2001, Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, conducted a review of the See of Canterbury, the Archbishop’s diocese. Among many recommendations he suggested that Archbishops of Canterbury should focus on their leadership role in the Anglican Communion and let the number two Archbishop, the Archbishop of York focus on the domestic church across England. This Rowan Williams, and then Justin Welby have proceeded to do. Indeed Archbishop Justin places much emphasis on this part of his job and devoted much time to it. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Anglican Communion might be (the subject for another time) it must surely be time to revisit this emphasis. With the numbers attending church across England continuing to decline – there is no compelling independent evidence to suggest there is growth overall in the numbers attending church – it must surely be right for the country’s senior Christian leader to devote much more of their time and energy to addressing the mission at home?
Like all positions of very senior public responsibility being Archbishop of Canterbury must at times be lonely, frustrating and wearing. Church of England clergy and Bishops are not renowned for always being kind and thoughtful to or about each other let alone their Archbishop. Whilst the church does a huge amount of good work in communities across the land much of its senior leadership is increasingly defensive, taking questions as challenge, comment as criticism, lacking the intellectual confidence to debate ideas, and finding much of modern communications too uncomfortable to engage with with ease. The priest Giles Fraser, who has perhaps enjoyed more than his fair-share of forgiveness and patience from his fellow clergy, marked the Archbishop’s decade in office with an article demonstrating that it is easier to criticise than praise the Archbishop.
Even the Archbishop’s own bit of the church, the HTB-ers, for whom he has done much and from whom he might have expected considerable public support have often been notable for their silence when the Archbishop could have done with a public word of support and encouragement. From Bishop Graham Tomlin, whom the Archbishop has done so much to personally promote and who he has just installed at Lambeth Palace in a specially created role, came a less than supportive tweet (since deleted) criticising the timing of the debate on marriage in the General Synod. The Archbishop might have hoped for more? For a part of the church which bangs on about the importance of leadership they might reflect that real leadership is not something you talk about it is something you do by standing up and being counted. Talk alone is cheap.
The Archbishop’s establishment of the Centre for Cultural Witness, run by Graham Tomlin, based at Lambeth Palace is perhaps the most telling commentary of all on the last ten years. On its own website it says: “Our aim is to make Christian faith better understood in public…” In that half a sentence you have perhaps the most damning verdict on the effectiveness of the Church of England’s leadership in recent times and its persistent refusal, common to so much of the evangelical approach that the Archbishop adopts and which he favours, is to refuse to speak to the unique insight and appeal of the institution that he himself heads. Maybe it is for this reason that he does not often attract consistent and reliable support from other parts of the church for his initiatives and projects. It will be for history to judge, and it is not a criticism of what he has done as Archbishop, but there can be little doubt that the entrenchment of institutionalised division in the Church of England is greater today than at any time since the Elizabethan Settlement. How the church can work in this way going forward is going to be one of its great tests.
Even in this era of social media and fast-paced news cycles the Church moves, as befits an ancient organisation, in its deliberations and practices at a very different pace to the rest of society. On his immediate ‘to-do’ list the Archbishop has the rare responsibility of a Coronation to preside over. For much else however the dynamics and trajectory of the rest of his time in office have been set. Views will vary passionately about the success of Justin Welby’s policies, initiatives and actions as Archbishop. His judgements will be scrutinised and debated. The successes and failures of his determination to put so much effort into certain things will not be apparent for, maybe, years to come.
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In the BBC documentary Vatican The Hidden World, Cardinal Angelo Comastri talks about the pressures on then Pope Benedict. He quotes a priest of the Italian church saying: “There will come a time when leadership almost resembles a crucifixion.” Ten years on, Justin Welby still exudes energy, warmth and a very human approach to being Archbishop. He continues to faithfully and prayerfully do his best in what is without question one of the most difficult jobs in the country.Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at email@example.com
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