A reflection on Justin Welby’s first five years as Archbishop of Canterbury

BY Mark Fox   /  16 February 2018

On the 21st March Justin Welby will mark the fifth anniversary of his enthronement as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a significant moment for both him and the Church of England. Justin Welby has certainly brought energy, dynamism to the job, but aspects of his tenure have not gone well. Now is a good time to look back and consider.

On the face of it of course, Justin Welby is a text-book Archbishop of Canterbury, Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, a stint in business and then a swift rise up the ecclesiastical ranks. With his wife, Caroline, he has built a strong family, effective partnership, and generous ministry. They shared sadness with the loss of a child, an event they speak about movingly and bravely.

The Archbishop has also spoken about the events of his early home life. This too takes courage.

From the moment he was appointed, Justin Welby brought a willingness to engage in the public arena. He followed the widely respected and much loved Rowan Williams, whose intellect is beyond question, but whose ability to communicate in the media has often been questioned. Welby has never made any pretence about being an academic, but he can, and does, communicate well.

He is good with people and knows how to work a room. He radiates an impatience for doing, and expects to see results. He is restless in his pursuit of renewal. There is talk of a temper (he would not be the first Archbishop to have a temper, Geoffrey Fisher was famous for his) but if it exists it has never been on public display. Archbishops are only human beings after all.

He is not afraid to make decisions and is willing to use his office to push through the changes he wants. The speed at which women have been appointed Bishops testifies to that. The enormous amount of money the church is investing in projects he supports is another. His establishment of a permanent praying community at Lambeth Palace is a huge success, and it is a powerful presence at the heart of the national church. His robustness in dealing with the issues of historic abuse has been clear. There is much to respect and admire.

Other things, however, cause concern. The handling of the Bishop George Bell case is one. The concentration on the Anglican Communion at the expense of the Church at home is another. The apparent reluctance to talk more about the unique role and ministry of the Church of England in the life of the nation, and which distinguishes it from other Christian churches, is perplexing. The relentless focus on youth, driven by an overwhelming concern about declining numbers attending churches, at the expense of the larger picture can seem unbalanced. A sense that Lambeth Palace, where the Archbishop and his staff are based, views questions as criticism, rather than as attempts to engage is discouraging. His weariness with the national media is increasingly evident. As an ex-businessman, Justin Welby is comfortable with business techniques, many of which he has introduced to the church. It is not obvious the changes will have the desired effect.

On the 8 March the Archbishop is publishing a book ‘Reimagining Britain: Foundations of Hope’. In it he examines the state of modern Britain and challenges the country to think about what it is and how it might be. As his  two predecessors William Temple (with his challenge over the creation of a welfare state) and Robert Runcie (with the Faith and the City Report) Justin Welby is also seeking to provoke the nation into reflecting on what is happening across the country and how it should improve. This is a noble and worthwhile endeavour.

To succeed, however the Archbishop needs to move on from his attachment to talking about non-specific “Christianness”, and to discover the unique and glorious offering the Church of England has to offer.

Mark Fox is a priest in the Church of England