JUST ABOUT MANAGING
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.