Archbishop Justin Welby regret sketh
Mission

Welby’s chief regret? His carelessness over other people’s views

There’s a rather beautiful interview with Justin Welby in Prospect Magazine, entitled ‘Brief Encounter’. It reads like a quick-fire series of questions, giving the Archbishop almost no time to think. He did think, of course, because these questions were sent to him, and his responses were written. And they are all the better for being considered and personal: there is no extempore waffle or thoughtless impugning, as there is so often in a face-to-face interview. Each response is a nugget of insight into Justin Welby the man, whose vulnerable self is so often shrouded by a cope of archiepiscopal aloofness, and buried beneath a mitre of impregnable woolliness.

“What is the first news event you can recall?” he’s asked, and we are transported back to when Justin Welby’s mother worked for Winston Churchill who once cried while having tea with them, so the boy Justin cried – he didn’t know why – and so they sat and had more tea. In a sense it’s the beginning of the current era, because Winston Churchill was the Queen’s first Prime Minister, and so this Archbishop and this Monarch share a ‘first’. It’s inescapable that for Justin Welby the ghost of Churchill looms large, and possibly also his politics, but certainly his legend, because later the Archbishop is asked: “What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?”

And he answers with not one creative work, but with the last moving example of each: “Joe Wright’s Churchill film, Darkest Hour. Music: Thomas Tallis, Lamentations. Novel: Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees. Poem: Denise Levertov, ‘Agnus Dei’ in the Collected Poems.”

Perhaps the Archbishop cries a lot. Perhaps he gets depressed a lot. Perhaps he just remembers those works of art that move him. Either way, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who was moved to tears by ‘The Darkest Hour‘, and who no doubt sometimes misses his Mum dreadfully, and he doesn’t care what you might think about that.

Some people cry at ‘The Supervet‘, and definitely wouldn’t want anyone to know that at all.

We get some theological insight, too, when he’s asked: “If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?” He answers:

The Upper Room with the disciples, Jerusalem, on the day of resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining historical moment on which the entire world turns. It changes everything and makes all things possible; it is the pivot that transforms despair into hope, death into eternal life and makes Jesus known as my saviour, redeemer and Lord.

One wonders if the Archbishop would want to be in the Upper Room as a qualitative observer of these events, smiling knowingly at the terror and panic in the Disciples’ disbelief and doubts, with their not knowing while he fully knows whether Christ’s body had been stolen; and their certainly knowing nothing of the fact that this would become “the defining historical moment on which the entire world turns”. Or whether he’d want to be completely participant, fully embedded among the Disciples, even thinking they might have seen a ghost, and with all the insecurities of knowing nothing of the past 2,000 years, sharing in the traumas and darkest nights of the crucifixion of his good friend Peter, demanding to know why this Jesus – saviour, redeemer and Lord – didn’t do something to stop the suffering.

“What is your favourite quotation?” he’s asked, and responds:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:16)

I read this verse in a Bible given to me by a dear friend when I became a Christian. When I was enthroned as ­archbishop of Canterbury, I had the same page open in the illuminated Gospels that St Augustine brought with him to England.

Here is a glimpse into the Christian mind: Justin Welby has been chosen and appointed by God, and his mission is to be God’s servant for good. His task is to make the words of Christ relevant for this time, and not relegated to ages past, and that means preaching the centrality of the atonement, without which Christ recedes and any fruit rots. If Justin Welby manages anything, it is to impress upon the nation and the world that God is interested in history and in all the details of our lives. He witnesses daily to the fact that Christ’s life, death and resurrection were not merely spiritual in their implications, but historical: His victory was eschatological; not a rejection of the present creation, but the source and promise of its total renewal.

You may not agree with Justin Welby’s apprehension of that renewal, but he does more than most to turn chaos, rebellion and darkness into order, reconciliation and light. In short, he bears fruit. Whether it will last or not remains to be seen.

And the the interview goes on to offer insights into his ancestors, his sermons, his problems, and the fact that he prefers to worship in a lowly parish church than in a grand cathedral (and loves “mucking about in boats”). He is asked at the end: “What do you most regret?”

And he answers: “The times I am careless about other people’s views.”

This blog has occasionally nudged him to reconsider his views on a few matters – perhaps too many, and perhaps insensitively and occasionally impertinently so. Apologies if the tone was ever inappropriate.

But there is another matter before him – even today as he grapples with the theological complexities of the Lambeth Conference and the interminable if not perpetual discontent in the Worldwide Anglican Communion – and that is a potential CDM against a diocesan bishop.

The Archbishop is of the view that witnesses supporting such a CDM may only give testimony as it relates to the person bringing the CDM: that is, witnesses may only speak of how the bishop’s conduct affected the complainant personally.

This means that if someone were to accuse a bishop of (say) sexual abuse, the only witness testimony admissible would be from those who either witnessed that specific abuse, or can bear witness to the effects of that abuse on the complainant. The fact that there may be others whom the bishop has abused and are willing to testify to their abuse at the hands of the bishop is neither here nor there: the CDM is restricted to how the complainant is affected personally.

It is strange, is it not, that as the Church of England preaches the virtues of transparency and accountability, the CDM process remains mired in petty reputation-guarding injustices. If a bishop is a serial abuser, why may one brave complainant not raise his or her head above the parapet with the assurance of support by the testimony of other professing victims? Why may the CDM process not be used to establish character traits in behaviour or habitual misconduct in public office? Why must the complainant be isolated and confined to a blacked-out waiting room; their testimony detached and disconnected from a community of fellow sufferers?

Perhaps – without any impugning of personal integrity or any allegation of ‘carelessness’ – this view might be reconsidered by Lambeth Palace?

Tread carefully in your responses below. Justin Welby will be gone soon, and God knows who or what will follow. You might find yourselves longing for the days of an Archbishop of Canterbury whose chiefest fault was being careless about other people’s views, and thanking God that he had sufficient self-knowledge and humility to admit it.

You might even miss him.