Here is the second of our articles republished from The Tablet with permission of the editor.
Enter the peacemaker
Jonathan Wynne Jones
Both conservative and liberal Anglicans have welcomed the appointment of Justin Welby. Can he really hold the two sides together when he starts to address the problems besetting the Communion?
Before Justin Welby had even been officially confirmed as Rowan Williams’ successor, African bishops were making it clear that he should not expect any honeymoon period in office. They sent messages of consternation rather than congratulation, warning that the Anglican Communion is “fractured”, in spiritual and institutional crisis, and suggesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury should be replaced as leader of the Anglican Communion by an elected chairman.
Given the scale of the task that awaits Welby when he arrives at Lambeth Palace, it was fitting that he was introduced to the world’s media with his sleeves rolled up. He inherits an Anglican Communion that has fallen apart over the issue of homosexuality and a Church of England similarly divided, not to mention struggling with dwindling congregations and a huge shortfall in pensions for its clergy. On the face of it, turning to someone who has been a bishop for little more than a year might seem like an act of desperation.
Yet the Crown Nominations Commission took a bold decision to look past his episcopal inexperience because they realised that if there is any bishop in the Church of England who has a chance of steering it away from the rocks, it is Justin Welby. His time at Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Reconciliation will have given him excellent preparation for trying to resolve the seemingly intractable differences between the Church’s warring factions, and his comparatively late ordination could well work in his favour.
As David Cameron noted after the appointment was finally announced: “Having someone who had a life outside the Church in business … will bring a great breath of fresh air to the Church of England.” While Rowan Williams devoted most of his formative years to academia, Welby spent much of his early career as an oil executive, and risking his life trying to settle disputes in Nigeria. It has given him an ability to communicate with the layman in a style that the outgoing archbishop has rarely possessed and that could prove crucial if the Church is to dispel its image as other-worldly and irrelevant.
The other marked difference between the two men has been the reaction to the announcement of their respective appointments. While news of Dr Williams’ promotion back in 2003 was met with rancour and division, there has been an outbreak of long-forgotten harmony ever since it was confirmed that Welby was succeeding him. Graham Kings, the Bishop of Sherborne, pointed in disbelief to the “amazing confluence” between voices as polarised as Canon Chris Sugden, a champion of conservatism, and the Revd Giles Fraser, the left-wing Guardian columnist and former canon chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Crucially, the Cambridge-educated bishop enjoys the trust of the African Churches, something Rowan Williams never had despite his best efforts to appease them. He has visited Nigeria, the centre of power in the Global South grouping of 23 provinces in the Anglican Communion, as many as 70 times, and is close to its primate, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh. His evangelical background and opposition to same-sex marriage is exactly what conservatives were hoping for.
Yet, rather incredibly, he also has the support of America’s Episcopal Church. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, said she was “delighted” at his appointment and Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop whose appointment in 2003 split the worldwide communion, described Welby as a man of the “twenty-first century”. If such comments are likely to have raised eyebrows among his friends in Africa, they will have been concerned further by his promise to “listen to the voice of the LGBT communities and examine his thinking”.
How Welby handles the divisions over homosexuality will be key to his chances of reuniting the Anglican Communion, and also to conveying a message to the public about what the Church represents. With the Church of England set to publish reviews of its stance on sexuality and same-sex partnerships early in the new year, he is likely to find himself having to clarify his thinking sooner than he might have hoped.
Liberals will have been encouraged by his declaration that he is “against the language of exclusion”, but to prove it he will have to follow his words with action. The smart, though admittedly risky, move would be to appoint a respected, openly gay cleric as bishop. Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, has already been mooted by some as a potential replacement for Welby in Durham amid a growing consensus that there is no justifiable reason barring him from being consecrated. Presenting a more tolerant, inclusive approach to the issue of homosexuality will be vital for reconnecting with society, particularly with the younger generation.
Even more important will be Welby’s ability to provide a compelling narrative for the Church that in recent years has been characterised by discord and exclusion. Presiding over the first women to be made bishops will certainly help, but it is his passion for social justice that could be the most effective witness to a country where many families are struggling to afford to put food on the table.
Suggesting that an Old Etonian should campaign on social welfare might seem rather contrary if it weren’t for the fact that it is clear that Welby, unlike some of his fellow alumni, genuinely cares. His time in Durham has had a real impact on him. He has used his seat in the House of Lords to hit out at the loan sharks exploiting vulnerable people in his diocese, and to express his concern at the high levels of unemployment in the region.
The day after being unveiled as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, he was present at the launch of a food-parcel scheme in Sunderland. It is clear that he’s left a significant mark on the diocese even though he’s only been there for a year. Faced with one of the worst deficits in the Church, he revolutionised the quota system of giving by redrawing the budget around what parishes decided they could afford to pay. Considering the Church of England’s pension hole is estimated to be around £500 million, such novel thinking, combined with his business background, will be invaluable.
It was symbolic that at his last diocesan synod earlier this month, Welby’s long-term programme of evangelism received unanimous backing. Here is a leader who is committed to trying to spread the Christian message and carries people with him, united behind his vision. Asked recently about his feelings on the future of the Church, he replied that he was “utterly optimistic”. With Justin Welby at the helm, churchgoers have every reason to share that optimism.