Church of England

Martyn Percy: Justin Welby “is preparing the ground for a complete volte-face on human sexuality”

Here follows Martyn Percy’s response to Adrian Hilton’s second letter on ‘Renewal & Reform’ and the ministry and leadership of Justin Welby. It was a simultaneous exchange with Hilton’s third letter to Percy, and brings this dialogue to an end.

Dear Adrian,

I am grateful for the care and concern you have taken with your previous two letters. I think we have a lot of common ground between us, and we clearly share some perceptions about the state of the Church of England and its current leadership. There is much to admire; even as there is much to question and critique.

So perhaps I can begin this epistle by saying that I do value the courage and directness of the Archbishops – both of them, indeed. They exhibit a very real freshness, and they radiate clarity. I am not surprised that the media like such character in both men, and that this fans a certain kind of populism. This, of itself, may not be a bad thing. But as the maxim goes, there are no bad foods; only bad diets. It is a question of balance, I think. It always is for Anglicans.

++Justin’s directness and clarity is borne out of a certain kind of courage. We saw shades of this with ++George Carey and his unequivocal advocacy of women priests. Other contenders for the See of St. Augustine in the early 1990s might have been more circumspect about ordaining women to the priesthood. ++George saw the need, read the signs of the times, and seized the moment. It was brave and decisive. The Church of England will always be grateful to him for this. He did not dither. He took action.

++Justin has done something similar with women bishops. There are slight differences in tone, however. ++George Carey made sure there were robust theological arguments in place for changes. ++Justin, in contrast, seems rather uninterested in such grounding. He also operates in a rather less collegial style than ++George.  ++Justin seems to be able to skilfully utilise a small-but-effective armoury of politicking weaponry to push his reforms through – he is clearly an able communicator and tactical politician. But because of this there is less buy-in from the wider church, and more alienation created by his changes and reforms. He seems to send quite intentional signals out to the wider church that this rather insistent and intimidating modus operandi is just fine: ‘the ends justify the means’. Indeed, John Spence, and other faithful lieutenants, do seem proudly to parrot this as a legitimising mantra.

That said, I am quietly confident that ++Justin is softening up the hard edges of conservative evangelicalism, and is preparing the ground for a complete volte-face on human sexuality. I applaud this, of course. I can also see that the best way to keep most of the church together on this issue is for an evangelical archbishop to declare a personal change of heart, and to move the polity to something more progressive from than point. A ‘liberal’ archbishop would be castigated for this, and never forgiven, in a way that an evangelical bishop can’t be. Because they can plausibly assume the mantle of a convert to a cause within the evangelical worldview – and in a way a liberal cannot appeal.

The changes can only be a few years off, in my view. ++Justin knows that the Church of England can have no real public or media credibility as a plausible body – so can’t do mission, and can’t recruit new clergy easily – if it carries on discriminating against LGBTQ Christians. The Church of England has to change. And ++Justin is clearly a change-agent.

We hear a lot about leadership these days, and the kinds of formation that takes a person and enables them to serve and inspire others. I like the current adverts for the Royal Navy: “I was born in Bolton, raised in Manchester, but made in the Royal Navy.” Leaders, it seems, are made, not born. And that is why education matters. As one former President of the USA said recently, “The presidency doesn’t change who you are – it reveals who you are.” Character matters.  Erratic and self-regarding individuals will produce the fruits of their character in the offices and roles they inhabit. There is a lot to be said for leaders being – in the deepest sense of the word – ‘good’ people. Because, goodness me, we need goodness in our institutions and organisations.

But this is where I circle back to my earlier concerns. In a report on an earlier phase of ++Justin’s ministry – long before he began at Canterbury – a review of some of his work and areas of responsibility concluded that his staff, though highly motivated and dedicated, lacked good oversight and good management to enable them to develop and flourish. They had been made to work hard, and were glad to do so; but they were also often left to flounder. Concern was expressed about staff being put into positions of responsibility who ‘lacked gravitas’, who were still quite inexperienced, and so overly dependent on ++Justin’s leadership. At the same time, ++Justin was absent far too often to provide those same staff with appropriate mentoring.

The review went on to highlight the “lack of a Christian work ethos permeating the (ministry)” and the paucity of relationships with the immediate and wider church networks that were supposed to be supporting and hosting the work. Lack of processes, the absence of clear strategies that were commonly owned and carefully worked through, with gaps in transparency and accountability, were also highlighted as weaknesses. The report hints at excessive pragmatism, and a lack of underlying theology to help shape the ministry.

I’m afraid this all sounds slightly familiar. Under ++Justin, there is plenty of assertion and action, and some admirable pragmatism too. But the lack of reflection and collegiality – evident in the ‘Reform & Renewal’ agenda – is prefigured in this much earlier report. The same problems were evident in the ill-considered and overly-hasty judgment on Bishop George Bell. This was a case so chronically mishandled that it now requires a separate review to discern and weigh the evidence, in order for justice to be done. Act in haste, repent at leisure? Or, to paraphrase an earlier comment, becoming Archbishop doesn’t make you a leader. It merely reveals the kind of leader you already are.

In writing this, Adrian, I want to end by saying that I recognise and affirm the good that comes from any archiepiscopacy. ++Justin has courage, and is clear and direct. For some issues in the Church of England, this is precisely what is needed. But for others, it is not. And the question over the medium and long-term period of his archiepiscopacy will continue to hover on the balance of this. If he were able to spend more time in conscious collegial reflection – including drawing more widely on sources and interlocutors for his deliberations and decisions – I truly believe that the Church of England could flourish. That said, it is still far too early to say what ++Justin’s legacy will be. The signs, for the moment, seem to point in multiple, contrary directions.

Thank you for engaging in this correspondence. I know we will both continue to pray for the church, and for its leaders. And that we shall all seek to build up the body of Christ in this age, and in the ages to come.

Yours, as ever,

Martyn