Marriage and Family

The revelation of Justin Welby's real father does not change nothing


“Justin Welby. What a bastard,” wrote a communicant of this blog, in a rapidly degenerating comment thread of the sort the Bishop of Buckingham insists ought to be censored: “..if you build a community on people who assume silly monnikers and sound off in a way they never would at work or at home, they reinforce the worst aspects of their characters, all you get is a seething mass of babyish sarcasm,” Alan Wilson wrote a few years ago, in a critique of this blog which was not entirely without reason. Should one leap to delete such crass attempts at humour – if only for the pain they might cause the Archbishop of Canterbury and his family – or permit them to stand in the hope and expectation of correction and rebuke from other communicants? The more mature among the fellowship did not disappoint.

Justin Welby has responded to the revelation that he is not the biological son of Gavin Welby with characteristic serenity, compassion and perspective:

This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. Even more importantly my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.

Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.

At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed? Nothing!

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose‘ (Rom 8:28). Even in the confusion of paternal identity and the emotional-DNA morass of muddled feelings and conflicting thoughts, this Archbishop proclaims the joy of gospel and his absolute confidence in Jesus Christ.

But the revelation that Gavin Welby was not the biological father of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury has not entirely changed nothing. To discover at the age of 60 that the father who nurtured you is not the father whose nature is within you is not immaterial. Certainly, the Archbishop is still Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, but some in the media (and doubtless other detractors) will now constantly remind us that he is not actually Justin Welby, the impoverished son of a divorced drunkard and bullying whisky salesman from Ruislip, but is, in fact, the Eton-educated Justin Montague Browne; son of Sir Anthony Montague Browne; genetic Establishment and elite to the core; born to be great if not conceived in greatness.

The Archbishop has no intention of changing his name: fatherhood is more than DNA, and identity is more than a surname. For all his personal failings, afflictions and grim abuses, Gavin Welby was at least re-stocking the fridge with fish fingers while Anthony Montague Browne was feasting on Sole Champeaux with Sir Winston Churchill.

But the news that Justin Welby is not the biological son of Gavin means that he is not “The first ‘Jewish’ archbishop of Canterbury“. The secret genealogy which the Sunday Telegraph first pieced together has been superseded by a greater secret genealogy: the humble German-Jewish roots of immigrant Gavin Weiler, whose relations died in the Holocaust, have been supplanted by double-barrelled British aristocracy: Stowe, Magdalene, RAF, Churchill’s private secretary, OBE, CBE, KCMG.

Does it matter? Not for Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ: his commitment to peace, reconciliation, prayer, mission and fruitful Jewish-Anglican relations will continue exactly as before. God is his spiritual father: his born-again identity is firmly rooted in Christ. The providential design of his ordinary life continues in all its mundane interactions and irritations. But the revelation of his biological paternity undoubtedly changes conceptions of natural society and perceptions of sentiments of community. To have visited Yad Vashem as a Jew believing that he had relatives who perished in the Shoah has been revealed to have been a mistaken construction. He will now be coming to terms with a changing understanding not of who he is in Christ, but who he is in life. And so, of course, will his children, who have all suddenly acquired an unknowable grandfather.

“Who am I?” is never adequately answered by providing a name or genealogy. Identity is defined by moral and spiritual nurture as much as by biological nature. Questions of self-understanding and of what is good, worthwhile, admirable or of value are a product of nature-nurture fusion, and, for the Christian, these are seared, sealed and orientated by the Holy Spirit.”Who am I?” is the individual question which defines the whole of life and personal integrity. “Who am I in Christ?” is the universal question which answers everything.

The dignity and distinction of this Archbishop of Canterbury is not contingent on his background uncertainties: he has been woven by God in three dimensions, and his moral judgments, intuitions and reactions are born of nature and nurture. But DNA is not nothing: it is our very human structure; the nature of our being. It creates physical limitations and imposes psychological horizons. We can try to escape the boundaries of our foibles and personality disorders or pretend they don’t exist, but the parents who made us are ultimately integral to our personhood, and that bond is inescapable, no matter how distant or detached, denying or denied those parents may be.