archbishop welby headline times

Don’t judge an archbishop by a newspaper headline

This is a very poor headline from the Sunday Times, purposely written to exasperate Brexiteer Tories and bring comfort and joy to all sorts of Remainery types. But it is a world apart from the whole of Justin Welby’s meaning and intention, conveyed during a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He warned politicians (on all sides) to avoid using inflammatory language, which is wise and scriptural (Prov 15:1; Eph 4:29; Js 1:19f). His observation that the country has become “addicted to abusive and binary decisions” is true, and he is absolutely right to remind us that careless language is “extraordinarily dangerous” – whether from the mouth of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn (or Ian Blackford). But the headline reflects none of the Archbishop’s customary political balance, and gives no hint that his warning was aimed at politicians on all sides:

And there’s no mention at all in this headline of the extraordinary and inspirational work of the Anglican Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo  (which is actually why the Archbishop was speaking to the Sunday Times in the first place, so the interview is reproduced in its entirety):

Nothing can quite prepare you for the sights, sounds and smells of the Butembo ebola treatment centre in a muddy forest clearing at the equatorial heart of Africa. The stench of chlorine and chemicals hangs heavy in the air, as a new shift of doctors dresses up in white protective smocks, boots and masks.

A nurse picks up a felt-tip pen and writes the doctors’ names on their foreheads, so their patients know who is treating them. The sound of wailing children pierces the stifling heat. As we walk through the camp, masked men and women spray the soles of our feet with cleansing liquids every few yards. We must wash our hands often in vats of heavily chlorinated water.

Last Tuesday night, a family of six arrived at the centre, all suspected victims of the latest ebola outbreak to ravage this distant, desperate corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, not far from the Ugandan border.

In a cramped hut, with clear plastic sheeting their only cover from torrential rains, a girl aged no more than five, wearing a threadbare red dress, comforts her naked and confused little brother while their mother sleeps on a mattress behind them. They have just been tested for the deadly haemorrhagic fever that has so far claimed more than 2,000 lives since the latest epidemic started in August 2018.

The current outbreak marks the 10th time ebola has afflicted one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries. Armed militias fighting over the country’s mineral wealth have turned the eastern DR Congo into a battlefield. In some parts of the country, the treatment centres are known as “death camps”.

Into this nightmare of sickness, poverty and lethal violence, an unexpected visitor strode last week. “There is hope,” said Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as he watched a nurse cradling a 12-day-old baby boy who was separated from his infected mother at birth, “but there are bits that are pretty horrifying.”

Welby’s four-day visit to one of the global Anglican church’s most blighted communities began on Monday with what has become a sad but necessary form of greeting for visitors to the eastern Congo — instead of a handshake, which might pass on infection, greetings are exchanged by elbow bumps. Welby had decided that the best way to spread a message of hope and support to local Anglican networks was to show up himself.

He was treated to a rock star’s welcome, with brass bands at every airstrip and church he visited, and entire villages turning out to see him. If it seemed strangely at odds with the misery he was about to encounter, it was unquestionably thrilling for the Anglican faithful with little else to celebrate in a Francophone country that descended into chaos in its past incarnation as Zaire, under its late president, Mobutu Sese Seko. The DR Congo has remained riddled with corruption and turmoil ever since.

Welby’s visit got off to a spellbinding start at St Paul’s Cathedral in Virunga, Goma — a modest, tin-roofed structure at the end of a dirt track where a brass band and the local Mothers’ Union choir hailed his arrival with exuberant whooping and sung hallelujahs.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, the archbishop addressed the congregation in fluent French, acquired when he lived in Paris for five years, working for the Elf Aquitaine oil company. “I thought I’d come here to encourage you,” he told the ecstatic crowd. “But from the moment I arrived, I have realised that it’s all of you who encourage me.”

At another ebola centre in Beni, a short flight from Butembo, Welby encountered a group of survivors of the disease who are being trained as “ambassadors” to combat the widespread myths and lies about the virus that have spread through local communities and hampered the effort to persuade victims to seek early treatment. One survivor, Chris, told Welby he had been attending a church service when a violently shaking man was brought in by his family.

“They thought he was demonised, so we started laying hands on him,” Chris said. “Three days later he died. I ran to the hospital, tested positive for ebola and came straight here. I want to tell people it’s fine to pray for someone, but pray without putting your hands on them. We’re in the middle of an epidemic.”

Welby also heard from Régine, a 34-year-old woman pregnant with her third child. “People don’t understand, they think doctors who want to give them the vaccine are trying to kill them. I want people to know when they get sick, don’t fear, go to the doctor”.

Welby’s response was to offer selfies “so that you can show your friends and family there is nothing to be afraid of”. He prayed with the group of survivors, then posed for photos with each of them, placing his hands on their shoulders.

The outlook appeared bleak at a briefing in Goma from senior aid officials. Welby was told that the battles over the DR Congo’s diamond, gold and other valuable resources were hampering access to ebola-infected areas and putting aid workers at risk. Most alarming was the rift that seems to have developed between NGOs fighting a health crisis and the country’s UN peacekeeping mission, known as Monusco, which has come to be regarded by the armed militias as a pro-government force.

“Access is never an issue for the NGOs until the UN turns up with its guns,” said David McAllister, country director of the Tearfund NGO, which has been operating in the DR Congo for more than 20 years.

McAllister added: “The quality of the [UN] personnel that is sent here is very suspect. They are involved in brutality, they are giving away bullets to militias in return for gold. We need the SAS here, quality intervention, to come in and clean it up.” The UK at present has only three soldiers deployed as part of the UN’s 19,000-strong DR Congo mission.

On his tour of the treatment centres, Welby was accompanied by armed UN escorts. In Beni he found UN tanks and blue helmets everywhere — an advance by a cross-border part-jihadist militia known as the Allied Democratic Forces had only recently been repulsed. Welby asked how far the militias had been pushed back and was told: “They’ll be watching your every move.”

Welby later said: “If I’d been asked, I would have ditched our UN escorts. It makes things more difficult.” It turned out there were clashes with another rebel group the day after he left the area.

Back in Goma, Welby told a group of clergy attending an ebola prevention workshop that it was the role of the church “to encourage the people of [DR] Congo and deliver hope in a place of fear”. The region’s governor, Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, applauded the archbishop for his efforts. “Many high-profile people will not take the risk to come here,” he said. “The world looks at the Congo full of fear. But he is here. The population of Beni, one of the most affected areas, is predominantly Anglican, so the message of hope he brings to that community is important.”

The governor later asked Welby if he could introduce him to “business opportunities in London” that might “bring investment back to the Congo”. Welby said, with a wry smile: “I told him people would be very put off by the corruption.”

At a British briefing at the Foreign Office’s base in Goma, Welby was told of yet another hurdle aid workers must face. “There is chronic underinvestment in the health system here,” said Lorna Hall, head of the Department for International Development’s ebola team. “When communities see no attention paid to measles, cholera and malaria [all fatal on a large scale in DR Congo] but hundreds of outsiders coming in because of ebola, that’s a problem.”

Reflecting at the end of his visit on the horrors he had seen, Welby said he had found “hope, certainly, heartbreak and courage”. He diplomatically praised the DR Congo government and international community, but admitted it was “heartbreaking to see people who are hit simultaneously by ebola, political circumstances and the armed groups. People here are under siege.” He thinks it’s “the right thing to do” for Britain to be involved in the DR Congo, and will continue to fight for spending international aid on “caring about people around the world”.

Bishop Désiré Mukanirwa Kadorho of Goma, a short, round, jolly figure with a taste for funky suits when he is not wearing his cassock, praised the archbishop for his efforts to help what he described as “a traumatised nation”.

What Welby’s visit has done is bring encouragement and moral authority, said Désiré. “The world has forgotten the Congo. We need the world to remember.”

But all that is behind a paywall, so the Twitterati will judge the Archbishop by a headline, and the personal and reputational damage caused by journalistic distortion permeates:

What a blessing it is to have blogs such as His Grace’s, where you’ll never find a warped journalistic word, a gratuitously inflammatory headline, or the merest a hint of theological or political bias.