The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was Kirsty Young’s castaway guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs today, and his narration of fascinating biographical anecdotes with intermittent spiritual reflection was as illuminating as his choice in music.
It was disappointing that he didn’t choose to be shipwrecked with the Book of Common Prayer (1662), in order that he might spend his marooned months reflecting on sound Christian theology and meditating on the precepts of God and the distinctness of Anglican identity (he chose Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is sure to pass away a few hours). But he spoke movingly about his emotionally turbulent upbringing, his alcoholic father, his loneliness as a child one Christmas while his father (“an aspiring Tory politician”) lay asleep and drunk in bed. The young Justin “scrounged around the fridge for something to eat,” he said. “It was a grim day.”
And he told us of the pain of his parents’ divorce when he was just three years old, the misery of living in poverty, and the time he cried with Winston Churchill: “I remember a very, very old man,” he said. “And he cried, I don’t know why. And because he cried, I cried. And then we sat and had tea.”
Archbishop Justin spoke about the nature of Divine love, the grace of God, the wonder of Jesus and the glories of the Church of England. “When the church is working it is the most mind-bogglingly, amazingly, extraordinarily beautiful community on earth. It heals, it transforms, it loves, and it changes society,” he enthused. He spoke about prayer, engaging with Jesus, enjoying His presence and the “pulling teeth” agony of having to select just eight pieces of music from the sublime repertoire of sacred music and transcendent classical greats.. from which he brought us:
‘In the Jungle’ (aka ‘Wimba Way’), which he says is a “family joke”. The Lion sleeps tonight? Not The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, one presumes. Then came Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’, which reminds him of childhood safety, security and idyl. And then Tavener’s glorious ‘God is with us’ – “It says everything: it’s breaking into the darkness,” the Archbishop said.
Then there was a South Sudanese song, because Africa had and continues to have an enormous impact on his life. They sing of “their faith, trust, and joy in God in the midst of absolute horror”. Matt and Beth Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ brought an injection of contemporary worship, followed by a piece which reminded him of the time he was invited to become Dean of Liverpool and he recalled hearing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’: it brings to his memory a “lively, humorous city” healing the wounds of Hillsborough. Then he chose the work commissioned from composer Michael Berkeley for his installation as Archbishop of Canterbury, based on the the Rule of St Benedict. And finally, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem – a passionately powerful piece exhorting pacifism with the poetry of Wilfred Owen – he says it’s his “favourite bit of music in the world”.
Archbishop Justin spoke movingly of the horrors of religious and ethnic conflict, and of standing before mass graves of unbearable suffering. His responsibilities weigh heavily on him, but his fortitude, patience and wisdom were observed by his Eton housemaster who clearly recognised something in the boy. He knew nothing but pain, but “it’s what happens in life… Norfolk was wonderful; London was usually a bit complicated.”
We learned that Eton Chapel had “not a lot” of impact on him, and Church “washed over” him as a child. He loved his time in Cambridge, where he met his wife, Caroline, and experienced a moment of conversion – “It just made sense, and it brought together all the things I’ve heard and experienced… Christ came into my life,” he said. And, voice breaking, he told us of the tragic loss of his daughter Johanna. He never tries to give answers to such imponderable traumas, except to point to the Cross. He imagines eternity with difficulty, except to say: “There is nothing that is not good in it.”
The Archbishop exhorted the virtues of honesty and humility, and repudiated ‘holier than thou’ judgmental piety. He spoke of the need for compassion in the context of personal failure and sin, and told us that he doesn’t feel up to the task of being Archbishop any more now than he did when he first wrote his application (which he was instructed to do). We glimpse his spirituality and glean his priorities. There is nothing more important to him than prayer and reading the Bible. “Evangelism,” he says, “is a church word for seeking to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with people.” His mission is to speak of God’s love, and to be confident in light and love of Christ.
His ‘luxury item’ was the complete boxed set of The West Wing.
How does the BBC report all this? Why, ‘gay marriage‘, of course.
Isn’t ‘Welby loves Wimba Way’ sufficiently captivating?