Thinking Anglicans

Archbishop who means business

With the kind permission of the editor we are republishing two articles from the current issue of The Tablet.

Here is the first.

Archbishop who means business
Christopher Lamb

Justin Welby’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury puts a man at the helm of the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion formed by deep faith, personal tragedy, Establishment Britain and the business world. It makes for a combination of strong pastoral and managerial skills

Despite his meteoric rise to be named last week as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, is not a man who takes himself too seriously. At his diocesan synod this month, he and his suffragan, Mark Bryant, opened their joint presidential address in the style of the British comedy duo, the Two Ronnies: Corbett and Barker. “So it’s a hello from me,” said Bishop Welby. “And it’s a hello from him,” Bishop Bryant replied amid much laughter.

Given the scale of the task facing the incoming archbishop, a self-deprecating sense of humour might be useful. But who is Justin Welby, the one hundred and fifth man to sit on the throne of St Augustine?

His family background is smart, Establishment, but with a touch of the maverick. His father, the late Gavin Welby, was a bootlegger who traded whisky during the days of Prohibition in the US and later became friendly with President John F. Kennedy. Eventually, to get around the law, he imported Communion wine.

Welby’s mother, Jane Portal, who is married to the Labour peer Lord Williams of Elvel (his parents divorced when Welby was a child) served as private secretary to Winston Churchill throughout his second term as Prime Minister. The archbishop-designate is close to his stepfather, whose own father was Norman Powell Williams, the eminent Anglo-Catholic theologian. His mother was also related to Lord (“Rab”) Butler, the Conservative politician and post-war education reformer; the new archbishop’s godfather was Rab’s son, the Conservative politician Sir Adam Butler, who died in 2008.

Now aged 56, Bishop Welby was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, before starting a career in the oil business. He has said he took a job at Elf Aquitaine, Paris, where he worked in the finance department for five years, because he could not find anything else. After Paris, Welby moved to Elf’s UK operation before becoming group treasurer at Enterprise Oil. Sir Graham Hearne, the former company chairman, who recruited him, remembers the future archbishop well: “He has a very quick mind and a very intelligent grasp of financial matters,” he told me. “We were far from a monastic company; we were engaged in oil and gas exploration and it was a demanding environment.”

Sir Graham recalled how disappointed he was when Welby told him he was leaving the firm. “I was very cross because I thought he had been poached, so I asked him, ‘Who’s poached you?’ He said: ‘Don’t worry; it’s the Lord.’ ” Sir Graham added: “When he left, I said to him, ‘One day, Justin Welby, you will become a bishop of the Church.’”

Married with five surviving children, Bishop Welby’s decision to offer himself for ordination did not happen overnight. His faith came alive at Cambridge, where he was a member of the Christian Union. A turning point came in France in 1983, when his seven-month-old daughter, Johanna, died in a car crash. “It was a very dark time for my wife, Caroline, and myself, but in a strange way it brought us closer to God,” he said of the incident later. Back in London, he started attending regularly at the charismatic evangelical church, Holy Trinity Brompton, in Kensington, home of the Alpha Course course.

He studied for ordination at St John’s College, Durham – a solidly evangelical institution – and, in 1992, was appointed a curate in Nuneaton, before moving on to become rector of St James’ Church, Southam, in Warwickshire. His rise up the ecclesiastical ranks has been breathtakingly swift. In 2002 he was appointed a canon at Coventry Cathedral, where he worked for five years leading its ministry of reconciliation around the world. He became Dean of Liverpool in 2007 and Bishop of Durham in 2011.

While his background is evangelical, Welby retains a deep interest in Catholic Social Teaching, particularly Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. In answer to a question from The Tablet at the press conference announcing his appointment, he said: “I have gained and learned so much from the Roman Catholic Church. I have learnt much from Catholic spirituality and from the glorious and – if I may say so to The Tablet – far too well-hidden structure of Catholic Social Teaching, which surprisingly few Catholics know about, let alone others.”

Afterwards he explained how he had first became aware of this body of church teaching through the International Association for Catholic Thought, based at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). In a lecture on finance last month in Zurich, Switzerland, he quoted Pope John Paul II’s definition of a company as “a community of persons in service” and argued that banks which demonstrate a “social purpose” might be rewarded with a lighter tax burden. What gives Welby credibility in this area is his business experience. Earlier this year he was appointed to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, investigating the scandal surrounding the fixing of the inter-bank Libor rate. After his appointment as archbishop, the London Evening Standard City diary remarked: “At last, a bishop who understands capitalism.”

But it is not just the Catholic Church’s social teaching that interests the future archbishop In his opening statement on being appointed to Canterbury, he paid tribute to “the riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality” and the “treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration”. His spiritual director is a Catholic monk, Fr Nicolas Buttet, founder of the Eucharistein Community in Switzerland; he reads extracts of the rule of St Benedict “most days”; and is an oblate of Elmore Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community in Berkshire.

He is also close to Chemin Neuf, a French Catholic community with an ecumenical mission rooted in Ignatian spirituality and founded as part of the Catholic charismatic renewal. As Dean of Liverpool, he oversaw the appointment of an Anglican deacon who had worked for Chemin Neuf.

Dominique Ferry, the community’s UK provincial, said of Welby’s relations with the Catholic Church: “He is someone who is open and looking for dialogue. It doesn’t mean he would endorse the position of the Catholic Church on things such as women bishops. But he won’t do it in a provocative way.”

Welby has made it clear he will vote in favour of women bishops when the issue comes to the General Synod next week. He is opposed to gay marriage although he has said he needs to “examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully”. While keen on Catholic Social Teaching and spirituality, it is less clear, however, how committed he is to Catholic ecclesiology. Will decisions about the strained Anglican Communion – divided over the question of homosexuality – come down to personal theological conviction or the desire to keep the Church together?

His predecessor, Rowan Williams, had been willing to put his own theological views on homosexual partnerships to one side for the sake of ecclesial unity. Bishop Welby says he wants “safe spaces” for the contentious issues to be discussed “honestly and in love” so that Christians may find a better way of disagreeing with each other. His skills in conflict resolution will be tested in this area.

Those who have worked with Welby praise his grasp of complex situations and ability to be a good manager. But is he a chief executive officer or a pastor? “He managed to do both,” said one church source. “He likes to get to the bottom of things, but in a spiritual way. He listens to people. He is not the sort of person to go round with three mobile phones.”

What is clear is that the archbishop does not accept the narrative that the Church is in terminal decline. In his short time as Bishop of Durham, he set out a strategy for growth in the diocese and has said that now is a time for “optimism” in the wider Church. All of this is grounded in a deep faith, no more evident than when he invoked the Holy Spirit during a prayer at the beginning of the press conference announcing his appointment. And that’s not a bad way for a new archbishop to start.

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Rod Gillis
Rod Gillis
11 years ago

Thanks so much for Christopher Lamb’s article on +Welby. What a delightful piece of news in this statement “I have learnt much from Catholic spirituality and from the glorious and – if I may say so to The Tablet – far too well-hidden structure of Catholic Social Teaching, which surprisingly few Catholics know about, let alone others.” Welby’s interest in Catholic Social teaching is intriguing–not because it reflects an interest in something “catholic” per se, as a “code word” as it were, but because it is a clue to a mind that has a capacity for the complexity of social… Read more »

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