Welby tells politicians: "seek to do right" (no coded political message)


The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby preached earlier this week at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, at a service to pray God’s blessing upon the new Parliament. It was attended by MPs, peers and parliamentary staff, but it was aimed principally at those who lead and legislate. You can read the sermon courtesy of Lambeth Palace, or listen to it courtesy of Westminster Abbey.

The Archbishop took as his texts the prophet Jeremiah 29: 10-14, and the Gospel of John 13:1-14. His essential theme was moral vision and God’s judgment, and he walked a judicious political via media, making sure that his arms were stretched both to the left and to the right:

There are the Members of the House of Commons. I felt especially for them for the emotional impact of the hard work that is required for an election campaign, and I have family who have fought campaigns – almost invariably losing them, to be honest – on both sides; I need to stress that.

..We have to seek to do right, but we can trust in the providence and salvation of God for the future. That is the promise made to the people of Judah, and thus they were to settle down amongst their enemies; to make the best of their situation, to bless the communities in which they lived, and look to the moment of their redemption.

There is no coded political message in this, but there is a very un-coded theological one: God can be trusted, but we must do our part. And I know that is the belief and desire of the vast majority here today.

No coded political message indeed, but perhaps a slight injection of wry humour: Justin Welby has well-developed political antennae which are more than attuned to the motives of meddlesome journalists who lift a word or a phrase from its context and broadcast to the world a warped meaning or a message that was never there. This sermon is neither critical of the political right nor pitiful of the left: it is an exhortation for words to be observed, promises kept and assurances honoured:

..So pragmatism does not really work. Yet all politics is in the end about delivery, not merely policy. Stating policies is the easy bit; making them happen is the deepest of skills.

Pragmatism in the sense of short cuts to avoid difficulty is not a good solution. It had taken Judah to defeat and exile. But pragmatism in the sense of being practical and down to earth – of making sure that delivery happens – is essential.

And for those who berate the Archbishop for never mentioning Jesus:

In the reading from John 13 we see the greatest moment of holy pragmatism in history. The Son of God Himself, Jesus – knowing confidently who He is, what He is intended for, and that God can be trusted – sets aside His pride and washes the feet of His disciples.

The truest leadership is about service. And note that He even washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, knowing as He does that this is the man who will betray Him to torture and agony within twenty-four hours.

This truly is holy pragmatism. It is the pragmatism of love without limit, of unconditional love that reaches with generous, almost absurd grace to every person.

No coded message there, either. But an exhortation for politicians to serve with humility; to heal; to love; to fulfil a divine moral vision; to pursue righteousness government.

The nation in which we live, which we love and serve, has within it at all levels a moral vision and hope. Its potential in a world of darkness to be a force for light and hope is limitless. We recognise often its own past mistakes, trust in God for the future, and serve with humility, knowing that it is God who glorifies.

Justin Welby is not politically meddlesome: he hooks political consciences with a clasp of love and pricks them with needles of light. Like Israel in the sixth century BC, our society had been corrupted by materialism: it is plagued by injustice and the poor are still with us. It is the fault of no politician: the problem is the human heart and social condition. Of politicians the Archbishop says: “..almost everyone I meet seeks to do what is right, to make just decisions, and to serve their country with integrity. Views to the contrary are mere descents into cynicism.”

And they are, for those who govern seek to do what is right, even if that right may be profoundly wrong to others.

Yet the best intentions can lead to the wrong conclusions. First, Jeremiah says, we reap the consequences of our actions – and thus those actions must be based in a moral vision and in an ideal that is founded on eternal values that do not change.

But neither does human nature, which is sinful, selfish, materialistic, lustful and myopic. And that leads us to the single flaw in this righteous exhortation. By calling for “integrity without partiality in government” Justin Welby moves us to the New Jerusalem of political perfection; to the time when Christ will reign and the government will be upon His shoulder. Partiality is the essence of democracy: debate is its lifeblood and philosophical sparring its soul. The flourishing of the whole community is not achieved by the absence of bias or the abolition of partisanship: what government on earth liberates the poor or administers justice where conceptions of poverty may not be considered or notions of justice fiercely debated?

Party politics is intrinsically partial, and the moral inclination of Parliament is toward expressing that partiality openly, honestly and with conviction. The greatest problem with democracy is caused by cross-party conformity to immutable progressive truths which are seen to be possessing of integrity but which transgress the mores and traditions of the governed. The concurrence of natural authority with the established order of society demands the means by which cynicism may be mitigated, and that includes partiality, for we are, by nature, inclined toward the defense of our family, tribe and nation. If there is to be no partiality in government, how may government function? How may its action be effective?

It is axiomatic that it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time. Resentment of injured right lays hold at an instinctual level. But one man’s right is another man’s wrong. There is no coded political message in this, but there is a very un-coded theological one: God can be trusted, but we must do our part. And that part will be partial, for now we see through a glass, darkly. And we are free.

  • magnolia

    “And note that he even washes the feet of Judas, knowing as he does that this is the man who will betray Him…”

    Thanks for bringing us those words of the Archbishop. Very deep, challenging to us all – and particularly meaningful in the political arena!

  • Owl

    A pity that Dave doesn’t seem to be listening.

    “Yet all politics is in the end about delivery”
    Yes, but that requires stating what I want to do, and actually doing it.
    It requires being a servant of the people and listening to the will of the people, not manipulating the people.
    No, cast iron broad forehead listens to his master’s voice and the people have to do as they are told.

  • Inspector General

    Really? No coded political message!

    They might start listening to him for what he has to say again.

  • The Explorer

    ‘The Emperor’s Winding Sheet’ is about the Siege of Constantinople. A Turkish prisoner has information about enemy strength. He refuses to talk, but might do if the Byzantines pull out his fingernails. The Emperor demurs, for it is barbaric, but his advisers overrule him. The fingernails come out, and the prisoner divulges the information. (Not that it makes any difference in the end: the hopelessly-outnumbered Byzantines are doomed.)

    So is Christianity a handicap in politics? Or does ‘The Lord of the Rings’ have it right: the end does not justify the means? Use the weapon of the enemy, and you turn into the enemy?

  • Orwell Ian

    The nation in which we live, which we love and serve, has within it at all levels a moral vision and hope. Its potential in a world of darkness to be a force for light and hope is limitless.

    Can a multicultural society with competing agendas, lifestyles and values offer moral vision at any level?

    Will a socially engineered dystopia that repudiated morality while laying claim to it show any potential as a limitless force for light and hope?

  • Inspector General

    Just as well Welby didn’t press for greater government spending as Osborne wants a law prohibiting budgets that go into deficit. Could have done with that when Jonah Broon ran the show although one would have bet the cat he would have repealed it.

    • The Explorer

      You use your cat as gambling collateral? Is it a pedigree?

      • Inspector General

        It’s so inbred, it can hardly be described as a cat anymore. Always losing it in wagers, but it still comes home…

  • Shadrach Fire

    Welby’s message reflects the ambition I had for a group of MP’s that Integrity, particularly Biblical Integrity is the ‘Hall Mark’ of their standing. When we see MP’s behaving so much against all that has been considered good in the past and introducing evil for the sake of modernity, one despairs of anything good coming out of Westminster.

    Even those one thought could be relied upon, jump ship and sail the other way when their careers are affected. Hypocrites all.

    Does the term politician have to mean a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, a liar, cheat, hypocrite and mendacious?

    Welby is treading a very difficult path. I know him to have been a good Evangelical from HTB but as ABC he has to walk a tight rope between all the various factions not only in the CofE but in the secular world.

  • CliveM

    I notice this was almost completely unreported. Pity, still just goes to show as far as the AoC goes, the media are only interested if there is some sort of disagreement or controversy.

  • David

    I pity Archbishop Welby preaching to that motley crew.
    The valid exhortation, “Seek to do right”, is rendered meaningless in a context dominated by the relativism and multiculturalism promoted by the vast majority of our politicians. Many of their recent new laws are designed to ignore or even challenge Biblical precepts, and are therefore increasingly pushing the nation away from truth. There is no truth in them, bar very few.

  • not a machine

    Intregity matters , I note The archbishop of Canterbury thus far has considered the necessary shrewdness in a difficult political moment not just for the UK but for the EU.
    It is unfortunate that the church its self has had its problems let alone attempting to consider what happened in UK politics.
    Whilst some of us are concerned if an era of theology has misunderstood the times and theological need , and the church is having difficulty , I am sure that God , through prayer will provide what we need , when it is needed .As vexed as I am with some matters , I am no different in that ,I also need Gods discernment to live with integrity and we have to be patient and consider the aspects of service .

  • IanCad

    HG wrote:
    “And they are, for those who govern seek to do what is right, even if that right may be profoundly wrong to others.”
    So true! And within that sentence is a demand for moaners to engage their representatives. No use complaining that elected officials are all crooks. We have a duty to tell them our views, and, even change our own if pride should permit.

    • Martin


      They could, of course, read the Bible.

      Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 1 Cor 6:9

  • len

    “seek to do right” The question must be right by whom? In a secular dominated Europe (and far wider afield) what is right and and what is acceptable?.

    The answer to that is no one knows ‘what is right’ any more now that we have abandoned God`s moral and ethical foundation..So really’ anything goes’ because there isn`t accountability to any higher Power, Ok there`s the Law but the Law (as we all know is blind ) and if you get caught breaking the law then that’s just bad luck…
    Corruption is so rife today (as evidenced everywhere) that it has become’ accepted practice’ in many Countries….
    Without a Law Giver ‘(which God is) there can be no definitive human laws and no accountability as we are finding out to our cost……
    However God`s Divine Law is still in operation and if we break it we will feel the affects of doing so.

  • Martin

    Nothing then about the wickedness of the ‘equal’ marriage legislation or even an indication of what is truly right. What a wimp Welby is, treading that careful pathway that avoids upsetting people with the demands of Christ.