welby sabbatical
Church of England

Sabbatical problematical: give the Archbishop a break, for God’s sake

“Unlike the archbishop, Jesus could not retire to cultivate his personal spirituality because he was perpetually besieged by desperate people”, writes Karen Armstrong in the Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free‘, objecting rather sourly to Justin Welby’s decision to take a three-month sabbatical next summer. Her protest is not only lazy; it is ignorant and graceless, not least because if you’re going to compare the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Son of God, you need at least to get Jesus right.

Scripture tells us that Christ regularly withdrew from the crowds in search of solitude and silence (at one point for 40 days and 40 nights [Mk 1:12]), often leaving desperate people to become even more desperate. Everyone was looking for Jesus, but he withdrew and concealed himself for his own sake: ‘And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid‘ (7:24).

Karen Armstrong acknowledges that previous archbishops Rowan Williams and George Carey took sabbaticals of similar length while they were in office, but “neither was during a time of acute national crisis”, she insists. “So in choosing summer 2021 for his absence, Justin Welby seems to be saying that his personal wellbeing is paramount and that the anxiety, suffering, fear and grief of a country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis is, at best, a secondary concern.”

Wasn’t Israel in AD30 experiencing what might be termed “a time of acute national crisis”? Hostile occupation, punitive taxation, religious tension, sectarianism, terrorism, banditry, zealotry, poverty and oppression all sounds a bit like something of a national crisis, doesn’t it? This crisis gave rise to an apocalyptic expectation; the yearning for a saviour, a liberator, a messiah who would deliver them from torment and misery. Such a socio-economic context might have been slightly more challenging than that caused by Covid-19, but still Jesus occasionally chose to put “his personal wellbeing” above the “anxiety, suffering, fear and grief of a country”. Indeed, the more people made demands of him, the more frequently he seemed to withdraw for “spiritual renewal”.

And she continues her homily with rambling around Locke and the Buddha, but her principal focus is Justin Welby, who, being “engaged with religion”, is apparently not permitted to take a sabbatical – even next summer, when, by all accounts, the Covid crisis will be over, and we shall be blessed with a degree (or two) of normality.

Tim Stanley in the Telegraph also takes a rather jaundiced view of the Archbishop’s sabbatical. He is fairer, more eloquent (and far better theologically informed) than Karen Armstrong, but tells us that his (and the Church’s) time is short, “so I must be blunt”. And terse he is.

Like an ex-smoker nagging those half-wits who persist with corrupting the air, this former Anglican pokes citrus-tipped needles into the eyes of the Church of England which, he says, only manages to spread the Good News “quietly and thinly”, of which the Archbishop’s sabbatical is somehow symbolic. “There is no terminus except institutional death”, he prophesies, because “much of the Church of England has been on sabbatical for 50 years”.

If one’s view of the Established Church is refracted by the (political, ‘progressive’) interventions of the Bishops, then the life and promise of Anglican ecclesiology and presence will indeed be found wanting, and the gates of hell will be seen (and believed) to be prevailing. Some in the hierarchy (those who tend to make the news) have apparently been on a decades-long missional sabbatical (or at least pursuing a model of mission which Tim Stanley might consider more consonant with social work than soul-saving), but that lens of apprehension fails to see the lifeblood and ensoulment that the Church of England gifts to every community.

It is in and through the parishes that CofE clergy and laity serve together to bring spiritual comfort and social succour to those who don’t read the Telegraph. Millions of children are also educated in thousands of Church of England schools – a fact which is rarely commented on except by the National Secular Society who want them all abolished. And then there’s the loyal network of chaplains who labour day and night in the fruitful vineyards of education, health, prisons, the military, emergency services, courts and government, where they faithfully serve the needs of those who might otherwise be detached from the congregational life of churches.

This is the ‘hidden’ Church of England working ‘quietly’ for the common good, but by no means ‘thinly’: the work of God is sometimes semi-invisible, but it is still crucial ministry and essential mission through action rather than word; by support, kindness and compassion rather than preaching. It is there for those who have eyes. Those who have left the communion (or who have never communed) tend to avert their gaze from this pre-evangelism, proclaiming that it is all so theologically insignificant, spiritually inconsequential, and pathetically salvifically inadequate.

To be fair to Tim Stanley, he does wish Justin Welby well on his sabbatical: “So, my very best wishes to the Archbishop, and I hope he returns with a fresh sense of zeal.” But one senses a bland courtesy, not least because all that has preceded conveys no hope that the Archbishop will return with anything other than more “namby-pamby hand-wringing”, hastening the death of the Church of England, if Parliament doesn’t euthanise it first.

Why are they all so hard on him? An archbishop on sabbatical isn’t taking a holiday; he is doing a different kind of work – the missio dei, for God’s sake. So instead of tearing shreds off the man, consider that he is imperfect and knows it; and that sometimes he struggles with mental health problems and gets thing wrong, and he knows it. And the best way for an archbishop to be more perfect and to get more things right is to discover greater humility and unreserved obedience to God; to walk more in God’s presence and seek His holiness; to be more conscious of his own sin and weakness and the need of God’s mercy; to meditate upon the inner attitudes of the Disciples, to pray ceaselessly, and to seek purity of heart.

For some, this is only really possible if one withdraws to a lonely place away from the hubbub and demands of the crowd, like Jesus needed to. The Archbishop’s sabbatical may have been announced a little insensitively, but it is a sane, humane and sacramental undertaking. If you want him to grow and respond better to God, pray that he might come to know a freedom of heart in which he can obey the Holy Spirit and understand His vision.