welby hospital chaplain covid climate

Care in a covid climate: in defence of Justin Welby

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has been secretly volunteering as a chaplain at St Thomas’s Hospital during the coronavirus lockdown, the Telegraph has learned.” The Telegraph learned this when the rest of the world learned it; or at least when readers of the Times learned it, for it was revealed in a letter to the Editor the day before:

Welby visit hospital chaplain

The revelation that the Archbishop of Canterbury had been walking down Lambeth Palace Rd to St Thomas’ Hospital rather irked one Church of England priest, who got in touch to highlight “this utter hypocrisy”. His expository email could have formed a cogent guest blogpost which could have been headed something like ‘Archbishop Hypocrite preaches one thing and does another’, but although that would undoubtedly have fed the dozen-or-so that who occupy the chat threads, it would have left thousands of readers a little dissatisfied, if not somewhat puzzled to know why pastoral care and compassion for the sick and dying might be considered “utter hypocrisy”. So it might help to publish the priest’s email in full and respond to it – in the sincere hope of enlightening, if not quite placating or satisfying the Archbishop’s more critical constituency:

Your Grace,

The Archbishop of Canterbury rightly insisted that it was the duty of each of us to support the government action in the face of this unprecedented pandemic. This included closing churches for public worship to limit gatherings and flatten the curve. Both Archbishops then wrote a letter to their clergy – which I hasten to add appeared in the media and on social networking platforms before appearing in the inbox of any cleric – that informed the clergy that they should no longer enter the church buildings, even alone, for the purpose of praying and streaming acts of worship.

Understandably there was suitable outrage from many. Clergy had been designated by government legislation as key workers, people expressly permitted to go to their places of work, and in the guidelines had made clear that live streaming or recording an act of worship, alone, in church was entirely permissible. The instruction from the Archbishops (as using the word ‘MUST’ shows) went over and above the scientific and government guidance.

Archbishop Justin led by example – no longer using either of the two chapels in Lambeth Palace that he can reach internally, instead he chose to broadcast messages and services from his kitchen, staircase and library. After Fr Marcus Walker of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London questioned the legality of such instruction, voicing his concerns on social media that the Archbishop may have over-reached, a BBC interview confirmed that it has “only ever been guidance” and was in no way binding.

On 8th April, a message appeared in video form on the Church of England YouTube page. Gone was the homely background of his private quarters: he stood alone in a meeting room at Lambeth Palace, whiteboard behind him, and gave his reasons why the churches must be closed. No one was arguing with that. He then gave a reason why he was giving ‘guidance’ that clergy must also stay at home – to set an example, to be seen to do the right thing, to stand shoulder to shoulder with those that were unable to receive the Eucharist. This, he said, was the best way to be “with our flock, that we are not some super special category that can do what we like”.

So it was surprising when a letter appeared in The Times (11th May) defending the Archbishop from a critical article written about his decision over the closure of churches. The lady writing speaks of his comfort and warmth as he visited her terminally ill husband in hospital.

So a cleric entering their church alone is a health risk, and yet the Archbishop can go and make a hospital visit to a cancer ward where treatment causes lack of immunity for one?

Of course we have chaplains working in hospitals, who are all properly trained and equipped with protective masks. But if we need to be seen to be doing the right thing, and we already have chaplains in place, why did the Archbishop need to leave his home, walk down the road, and enter St Thomas’s Hospital? The letter says he was with the chaplain when he visited. Pastoral needs could have been met just as well by the chaplain on duty – unless the Archbishop is some super special category?

It is also fair to say that the Church asked for volunteers to help at St Bart’s Trust, to support the full time chaplains. However the qualification guidance was clear:

• You will need to be healthy and under the age of 60
• Not be supporting someone who is vulnerable in your home
• Full PPE necessary for each environment will be provided by the hospital

Justin Welby is 64 years old.

There is something deeply troubling about an Archbishop who over-reaches in his legal responsibility, has to back-peddle and then issue ‘guidance’, who sticks to it rigidly when it comes to his own home broadcasts, and yet, when no one is looking, pops to the hospital down the road to offer pastoral support – even though he didn’t need to, even though it was not his role, even though he’s not qualified in terms of his age.

Stay at Home, protect the NHS, save lives.

Bishops, Priests and Ministers are not a super special category that can do what they like.

Except when they are the Archbishop.


Perhaps ‘irked’ doesn’t quite capture the tone of this: the priest is clearly irate, if not exasperated. Setting aside the Archbishops’ (for it was both) decision to restrict access to church building even to the clergy, which has been roundly (and rightly) criticised from all quarters; and setting aside, too, the quibble of the Archbishop of Canterbury being disqualified from coronavirus chaplaincy by virtue of his age (Moses was 80 years old when God called him to his greatest task; and the Archbishop might not even be aware of an arbitrary age restriction communicated by an area dean), it is worth reading the Telegraph article in full, because it reveals:

Last week, the Archbishop is thought to have prayed with the family of a critically-ill six week old baby, who wasn’t being treated for coronavirus.

He also prayed with a female patient suffering with severe symptoms of the disease in intensive care.

On another occasion, a patient who he was praying with recognised him and called their relatives so he could pray with them on the telephone.

Justin Welby lost a baby daughter – Johanna – at the age of just seven months, and that leaves a wound that never really heals: “You live with this gap, as Caroline and I did more than 30 years ago when our eldest daughter died”, he told Child Bereavement UK in 2015.

A source explained to the Telegraph why the Archbishop visits St Thomas’ Hospital to pray with the sick and dying: “He gets a lot of solace from doing it. Just being able to physically see people and pray with them during lockdown…”

Perhaps Justin Welby gets rather more solace from looking, listening and learning as a hospital chaplain than he does from archbishoping and doing academic theology. Perhaps caring for the sick and dying is his preferred way of expressing ordinary theology; his way of keeping in touch with reality. Certainly, his personal experience qualifies him to sit alongside people who are struggling to find meaning and make sense of life and death. Perhaps he is looking to find what theological wisdom is ‘out there’, being forged through experiences that he may never know or share, and yet wants to know and share.

Perhaps Justin Welby’s empirical anchorage is the best way of doing theology; of being a faithful disciple; of witnessing to justice, peace and healing in the world. Isn’t it better to weep with those who weep than to quibble over regulations and cavil with arbitrary restrictions? Isn’t it more desirable to give the benefit of doubt rather than to judge hastily and incorrectly? Isn’t it more excellent to sit and love rather than to ask if something is a genuine case of love?