Church of England

Martyn Percy on Justin Welby: “there is a marked absence of salient and resonant ‘God-talk’, or any persuasive public theology”

Here follows the first of a six-letter exchange between the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and Dr Adrian Hilton, Editor of this  blog, on the matters of the mission of the Church of England; the theology and secular provenance of the Renewal & Reform programme, and the character and ministry of the Most Rev’d and Rt Hon Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. These letters were simultaneous exchanges, so responses will be published on alternate days. Here is Martyn Percy’s first letter:

Dear Adrian,

I was interested in your trenchant defence of Archbishop Justin’s Reform and Renewal agenda. And also your assertion that he is a courageous spiritual leader.

I don’t doubt his courage. But I want to mention an off-the-record conversation I had with a ‘fan’ of the Archbishop at a conference recently. The person is a seasoned senior commentator on religious affairs, works for an international news agency, and is clearly impressed with ++Justin. They expressed great admiration for his life-story – the bootlegging background; the father who he knew, but then turned out not to be his father; the great personal danger in Nigeria with the Muslim militia; the possibility of kidnap; his business experience in the oil industry; his ‘business sense’ (also lauded); and of course, the tragic loss of his infant daughter in a car crash.

This person also expressed great admiration for ++Justin’s purported debt to The Rule of Benedict, despite his obvious HTB and public-school Oxbridge CU/Evangelical background. And of course, great admiration was voiced for the new experimental ‘Religious Order’ at Lambeth Palace, where young people can now join for a year or more in a novel scheme. And so, the commentator concluded, the ‘Reform and Renewal’ was a fine development: undertaken by a humble, grounded, saintly man – who also had a lot of useful business experience. What could possibly be better for a struggling 21st-century denomination?

I put some questions back to the commentator. First, how much did it cost to join the new Religious Order at Lambeth? They did not know. I understand it is £12,000 pa – well beyond the means of most young people.

Second, which part of ‘Reform and Renewal’ is shaped by The Rule of Benedict? Actually, come to think of it, which element of ++Justin’s ministry owes any obvious debt to this book and to Benedictine spirituality? As we sat talking, we could think of none. If anything, the aggressive and assertive imposition of ‘Reform and Renewal’ is diametrically opposed to the ethos of The Rule.

Third, I wondered if any of the parts of ‘Reform and Renewal’ – on leadership training or reforming theological education, for example – were rooted (at the point of origin) in any kind of theology? To me, they just seem to be pragmatic ‘business-like’ reasoning. The commentator reluctantly agreed; there was no sense of theology being at the heart of the initiative. Moreover, the claim to be pragmatically addressing a ‘crisis’ with ‘action’ might be a coup: seizing ‘emergency powers’ to rush through reforms. None of the reforms were rooted in collaborative reflection and theological wisdom,

I then asked the commentator if they had followed the recent critique of the Archbishop offered by Matthew Parris in The Spectator? Responding to the multiple atrocities that took place in Paris on 13th November 2015, which included the murder of many young people in the Bataclan Nightclub and over 130 deaths, the Archbishop gave an interview to BBC Songs of Praise, and stated that the atrocity had “caused him to doubt his faith”. Matthew Parris, writing in The Spectator a few days later, openly questioned whether this personal and rather confessional insight into the quality of the Archbishop’s belief was appropriate and adequate for the wider public: we are in confessional mood, here’s an anxiety of my own. The Paris atrocity has not occasioned me any new doubts, but Justin Welby’s remarks have caused me to doubt Archbishop Welby. Speaking on behalf of God, I have to ask the Archbishop: ‘Justin, where are you in all this?’… I’m not a believer, but I try to understand what believers believe. Christian theology has a long and distinguished intellectual history; faith’s most difficult conundrums have all been raised and answers (acceptable or otherwise) have been offered to all the obvious questions [Matthew Parris, ‘Has the Archbishop of Canterbury Forsaken God?’, The Spectator, 28/11/2015, p12].

There is no way of evading the public’s demand for ecclesial leadership that grapples openly with hard questions, and engages richly with the ‘long and distinguished intellectual history’ of Christianity. We cannot afford an Archbishop who forsakes this. To be sure, the Archbishop speaks commendably about his personal life, exhibiting a rare humanity for someone in the constant glare of the media, and in public life. He can speak movingly of his own personal situations, tragedies and losses – past and present.  And on the whole, the media warm to this.

He also speaks about those religious interlocutors that have apparently shaped his life. Yet there is little sense of how The Rule of Benedict shapes the Archbishop’s thinking and practice; in fact, his modus operandi seems rather at odds with that of Benedict. And despite his moving personal testimonies and anecdotes, there is a marked absence of salient and resonant ‘God-talk’, or any persuasive public theology. The Archbishop is on record as saying that the most important theologian in the twentieth century is John Stott (sermon at Durham Cathedral). And that the most important ‘theological movement’ to emerge over the last hundred years was Alpha – this said to a group of bemused American Anglican theological educators.

As Evelyn Underhill once reminded a former Archbishop of Canterbury (Cosmo Gordon Lang) in a personal letter penned in 1930, “the most interesting thing about religion is God – and the people are hungry for God”. Underhill was concerned about the inner life of the clergy that she observed. She was making a plea for the church to talk less about its own concerns, and instead to dwell more on God.

So I asked the commentator if she could think of anything memorably inspiring the Archbishop had said about God. There was a lengthy silence, and then an admission: “No,” they said. It was once said of Cardinal Basil Hume that he “had the gift of being able to talk to the English about God, without making them wish they were somewhere else”. The crucial part of that sentence is ‘about God’. In an age of celebrity culture, church leaders who can talk about themselves, and who engage the media with moving and exciting personal stories are clearly an asset. But this is not the primary vocation for church leaders. Glib ‘God-talk’, earnest personal testimony, or an emphasis on mission and management only drives the public further away. We need church leaders who can speak about God – wisely and inspiringly.

So my question is simple: what is the most interesting thing the Archbishop has said about God? Not a personal testimony: just God. What was said about God?