Monday, 3 April 2017

Stephen Bates writes about Justin Welby

This article first appeared in The Tablet on 16 March. It is reproduced here with permission.


by Stephen Bates

A week after the election of Pope Francis four years ago, the Anglicans installed Justin Welby as their new spiritual leader. His crisp, business-like approach contrasted with that of his predecessor, Rowan Williams, but recent events suggest there may be limits to its effectiveness

Four years ago this month, both the Catholic and Anglican churches put into office leaders very different in style and character from their predecessors. In Pope Francis, the conclave of cardinals got more than they bargained for: a zealous, humane figure seemingly bent on giving Catholicism a thorough shake. But what of Justin Welby, enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury a week after Francis’ election – a managerial, evangelical figure chosen to replace the deeply spiritual, intellectual Rowan Williams?

Under Welby there seems to have been a distinct tightening up of the CofE’s traditionally meandering managerial style. Where Williams agonisingly sought compromise and delay, Welby seeks decisions. (It somehow seems appropriate that while everyone called Rowan by his first name, many use the current archbishop’s surname.) The decisiveness is not always welcome, but it is a change.

As is well known, Welby, 61, had a career before ordination. The first Etonian to become Archbishop of Canterbury for 150 years, he read history and law at Cambridge and was an executive in the oil industry until becoming ordained in his mid-thirties. He had only two years’ experience as a bishop before being elevated to Canterbury, though he had previously served as dean of Liverpool.

The crisp business style is notable, according to those who have observed him at close hand. Christina Rees was a lay member of the Archbishops’ Council – the Church’s executive – working with four archbishops until she stepped down last year. “I think of him as Action Man,” she says. “He is very brisk, businesslike and a quick study. At his first meeting, someone was rambling on in traditional Anglican style and the archbishop started looking at his watch. When the man finished, he just said: ‘That was six minutes, let’s keep comments down to 90 seconds.’ I’d never seen an archbishop calling someone out for waffling before. It was quite brutal.”

The brusqueness can verge into bad temper, others say. One bishop remarked: “I haven’t been spoken to like that since I was at school.” He is impatient of challenge or contradiction and can be short with those who do not keep up or amuse him intellectually.

Welby’s strengths include public relations savviness – never shown to better advantage than when it was revealed last year that his father was not the man who had brought him up but a diplomat with whom his mother had had a brief affair. His assured handling turned a potential embarrassment into a story of personal redemptive faith, and strengthened his reputation. “He has done a world of good for the Church’s public image,” says Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone, whose pugnacious brand of conservative evangelicalism was often a thorn in the flesh of Williams. “He is joyful in the faith and a reconciling presence.”

Welby is impressive speaking in small groups, showing genuine interest and empathy, though his preaching style is bland and often mundane, rather than inspirational and challenging. One vicar told me how he had gone to a Lenten talk and heard the old trope about a crucifix ornament “with a little man on it”: “We’ve all used that one, but not pretended it had happened to us personally. I thought it was weird and dishonest.”

The businesslike approach was seen early in the way the consecration of women bishops was hustled through shortly after Welby’s elevation: a decision that had caused anguished debate for years was finally accomplished and followed by something close to a rush by dioceses to be among the first to make the move. Welby, unlike some evangelicals, is comfortable with women’s ordination – a fact of Anglican life almost since he was ordained priest in 1993 – and his two chaplains at Lambeth have both been women.

But what had appeared to be a done deal, universally accepted, was called into question by the appointment of Philip North, from the Church’s High Anglo-Catholic wing, to be diocesan bishop of Sheffield. North, although widely respected, is a council member of the quaintly named Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, a title commonly shortened to “The Society”, composed of clergy and parishes that do not accept women’s ordination. It has even taken to issuing membership cards to indicate their freedom from the taint of female clergy’s touch.

North would have inherited a diocese where nearly a third of the clergy are women and following a welter of criticism he decided last week to stand down, prompting a new outburst of internecine squabbling. This has left the question unresolved whether a bishop who will not ordain women whose orders are accepted by the rest of the Church can fulfil the traditional episcopal purpose of being a focus for diocesan unity. Thirteen years ago Rowan Williams retreated – disastrously for his reputation – from the appointment of Jeffrey John, an avowedly gay cleric, as Bishop of Reading in the face of evangelical protests on precisely the grounds that he could not be a focus for unity.

The North appointment was not Welby’s decision but that of the Crown Nominations Commission. But on the still divisive gay issue Welby is “on a journey”, as they say, and that is what caused his first setback last month. At the General Synod, a bishops’ report that both Welby and Archbishop John Sentamu of York had strongly supported advocating no change in the Church’s stance on the blessing of gay partnerships or the conducting of gay marriages, was narrowly rejected. Although the report was almost unanimously backed by the bishops, and less decisively by the laity, it narrowly failed by seven votes to obtain the assent of the synod’s clergy members.

The report itself was the Church’s latest attempt to reconcile deeply divergent and antagonistic views on gays, and a number of bishops have claimed privately that they were coerced by Welby into supporting it despite their reservations. “His style is a transactional relationship: you support this and I’ll give you something else,” said one.

Canon Chris Chivers, principal of Westcott House theological college in Cambridge, says: “I think the bishops now realise they were played. It is his first major rebuff: he miscalculated – you can herd the bishops into line, but the clergy are less easily controlled.”

After the vote, Welby and Sentamu issued a statement promising a rethink producing “radical inclusion” but, essentially, same-sex marriage has been kicked into touch at least until after the 2020 Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops. For now, Welby has managed to keep the worldwide communion show on the road and to head off any boycott of the conference, but it is an uneasy truce, achieved by bland words and sleight of hand – and Third World conservatives are suspicious. Welby has extensive experience of Africa, where some of the most intransigent bishops come from, but mutterings remain. His whistlestop consultation tour before a primates’ meeting last year did not go down particularly well, being regarded as an exercise in neo-colonialism by those determined to look for slights.

At home, other critics suggest Welby has shown a lack of interest in grassroots, rural Anglicanism, coming as he does from the suburban evangelical strand popularised by Holy Trinity Brompton, originator of the Alpha course. Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, the leading sociologist of religion, says: “Rural parishes are among the most successful but he has neglected them in favour of the city churches. The average church attender is an older woman and yet the initiatives have all been towards recruiting and encouraging younger, urban people and Alpha-type churches.”

Others suggest that the problem is a lack of theological depth at the heart of the Church’s episcopacy. “They are like a bench of Labradors,” one suffragan told me. “Perfectly nice, gentle creatures but you want a bit of variety in the breed.”

Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, has emerged as one of Welby’s critics. He accuses the archbishop of short-term pragmatism and not being reflective enough. Welby himself admits that he is not a professional theologian and some suggest that it shows in his recently published first book Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace, a series of Lenten reflections. Percy says: “He has got an instinctive grasp of what needs to be done but pragmatic fixes have their limits. If you don’t do the theology you can’t move forward, you just go round in circles.”

On the other hand, Chivers says: “There is something very middle-England about him which appeals to the core constituency of Anglicans. They don’t do theology much either. That makes him ideal.”

Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 2:47pm BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Church of England

Rather like the Chesterbelloc, we now seem to have a new ecclesiastical monster, the Woodpercy, that lumbers after the Archbishop of Canterbury at every opportunity, but never quite catches him. Perhaps he is not the one going round in circles after all.

Posted by: Robin Ward on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 4:06pm BST

Good article. The only thing that would improve it would be setting it to music. Gilbert and Sullivan come to mind.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 4:15pm BST

Last journalism with a collection of comments from the usual suspects - Woodhead, Bates and Percy. The rest is mostly gossip or total nonsense.

Posted by: Simon Butler on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 5:38pm BST

Interesting article. Unless we do some real theology the articles 'for now,'will be the best we can do in terms of any longer term peace let alone flourishing. The church cannot be managed to a place of peace and flourishing.

Posted by: Andrew Lightbown on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 5:45pm BST

"After the vote, Welby and Sentamu issued a statement promising a rethink producing “radical inclusion” but, essentially, same-sex marriage has been kicked into touch at least until after the 2020 Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops."

If Welby was serious about expecting same sex marriage to wait until after 2020, he needed the paper from the House of Bishops to genuinely build upon the Shared Conversations, not ignore them. We have learned that patience gets us nothing, so I suspect patience is off the agenda.

I think people have wised up to Welby's delaying tactics.

Posted by: Kate on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 8:05pm BST

Is it theology that is lacking?

Or strategic thinking, that looks beyond the obstacle of today?

Posted by: Jeremy on Monday, 3 April 2017 at 10:29pm BST

"It somehow seems appropriate that while everyone called Rowan by his first name, many use the current archbishop's surname"
Rowan was unusual in being universally known by his Christian name. In my life time, pre-Rowan, all other ABCs have been known by their surnames - Fisher, Ramsey, Coggan, Runcie and Carey.
"That was six minutes, let's keep comments down to 90 seconds"
One bishop remarked on Justin Welby's alleged "bad temper" "I haven't been spoken to like that since I was at school."
Perhaps the Archbishop Justin Welby most resembles is Geoffrey Fisher who was, of course, a Headmaster. Not only a Headmaster but also quite managerial in style. His greatest contribution was the reform of Canon Law. What an opportunity was missed when Fisher succeeded William Temple. What a different Church of England it would have been had George Bell been the war-time successor.
A Suffragan bishop's observation on the Bench - "They are like a bunch of Labradors...Perfectly nice, gentle creatures but you want a bit of variety in the breed". Stephen Bates' article seems to suggest that there are, in fact, too many poodles - willing to roll over and let Welby tickle their tummies. What a great shame that the rottweiler of Christ Church supported by others in his pack succeeded in preventing a true greyhound from going to Sheffield.

Posted by: Father David on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 6:32am BST

Disregarding what I think of this article or even the esteemed Archbishop I don't think I would like articles like this written about me, whatever they said - good, bad, or indifferent.

Posted by: Adrian Judd on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 8:21am BST

Simon Butler,
your words would carry more weight if you would explain what is gossip and nonsense.
In the absence of genuine engagement with the points made, it's hard for ordinary readers like me to come to any other conclusion than that Woodhead, Percy and Bates are right. Because if they weren't, someone would explain why not.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 9:53am BST

"Unless we do some real theology the articles 'for now,'will be the best we can do in terms of any longer term peace let alone flourishing. The church cannot be managed to a place of peace and flourishing."

No women priests since the Church cannot ordain something against the written word of God. But in contrast Leviticus is swept aside and ministers (ministers, never priests) are free to marry at their discretion with marriage being defined by the State.

It is a compromise all wings would hate passionately.

Posted by: Kate on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 2:29pm BST

Being Archbishop of Canterbury must be a bed of nails at times. And Justin is a human being with a sincere faith. So we ought to be careful about avoiding invective and unreasonably personal attacks.

To date, the action that disappointed me most was the attempt after ACC-13 to claim that 'receiving' the Primates Statement actually meant 'agreeing' with it.

To me that was pure managerial 'spin'. And it resulted in a clarifying repudiation by key people who were there. It seemed to be an attempt to bounce 'fake news' about ACC-13, as a political ploy to placate sceptical Primates.

In my opinion, that was a mistaken and desperate action.

Nevertheless, as a person, Justin is a sincere Christian. We all make mistakes. We all get irascible sometimes. But there is doubtless loads of kindness, desire to serve God, prayerfulness, and honest, gentle walk with God.

We all live on the brink of mortality and oblivion. We bleed. We cry in private. I may not politically agree with Justin on some things, but I believe in his sincerity of faith and no doubt people close to him see the private human being rather than 'the leader' in the public glare.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 3:02pm BST

Tongue in cheek, me thinks Rome was fortunate in getting Francis. But many of his Curia would disagree.
We Anglicans got the short straw, but then perhaps the choice was all short straws.
Reading this column you have to have some sense of humour, or else you would be in despair.

Fr John Emlyn

Posted by: Fr John E Harris-White on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 3:56pm BST

Not a word about his understanding and actions regarding The Anglican Communion of which he is the Spiritual Leader.

Posted by: David Alvarez on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 4:31pm BST

Always a treat to read Steve Bates' writing on religion.

Posted by: Jim Naughton on Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 7:03pm BST

'Gossip and total nonsense' @Simon Butler? Je ne pense pas! Perhaps that is why Tim Thornton is going to Lambeth, to put a 'nice' spin on the graceless behaviour behind the scenes. What Stephen Bates failed to do was draw a distinction between the Pope's authority and Justin Welby's (i.e. Welby does not have any outside his own Diocese, although he continues to behave in a quasi Papal way). This probably accounts for the pattern of episcopal appointments in recent years, with the elimination of those who are likely to challenge him. Labradors indeed.

Posted by: Alan Mitchell on Wednesday, 5 April 2017 at 10:25am BST

Good mission is rooted in good theology. If you make a point of getting frustrated with theologians (as Justin Welby did during his training at Cranmer Hall) and falling back on skills learned in the boardroom, it is hardly surprising that the strategy is limited when it comes to leading the Church of England. I would also say that good preaching arises out of sustained theological reflection, which may explain why the Archbishop is deadly dull in the pulpit and rarely says anything fresh and original.

Posted by: Colin Graham on Wednesday, 5 April 2017 at 4:10pm BST

What exactly does this website have against labradors? Every single one I've ever met has been full of love!

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Wednesday, 5 April 2017 at 11:20pm BST

'What exactly does this website have against labradors? Every single one I've ever met has been full of love!'

Tim, labradors are great dogs - friendly, loyal to their bosses, trainable. But the HoB also needs:

border collies - to keep the flock together
huskies - able to pull a heavy load over a long distance in harsh conditions
newfoundlands to save the drowning, those going under
St. Bernards to bring home the lost
terriers to sniff out a rat
Alsatians to guard the household
can't think of a breed that's good at theology, but the basset hound at least looks as if it's engaging in profound thought

What the HoB definitely doesn't need is:
corgis - friendly only to their master
pekinese - disguise bad smells
any breed content to sit in a handbag and look ornamental

Posted by: Janet Fife on Saturday, 8 April 2017 at 8:44am BST
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