Justin Welby has become the first sitting Archbishop of Canterbury ever to appear on the BBC’s flagship political debate programme Question Time. Perhaps his predecessors over the past 43 years of episodes thought they’d be better off out of it. And some will say they were absolutely right: “The Archbishop should stay out of politics,” is often hurled in his general direction, mostly by those who seem oblivious to the fact that leading a church (and especially an established church with a worldwide communion) demands a degree of political involvement or ‘interference’, and even the occasional ‘controversial’ intervention into the murky political realm. Indeed, theologically, it is debatable whether there is a ‘secular political’ realm at all, given that the earth and all creation belongs to God.
The Archbishop was asked about energy bills (he wants cheaper), traffic jams (he wants fewer) and taxation (he wants fairer), and so his essential message was the embodiment of common-sense compassion; popular, liberal and democratic. In becoming all things to all people in order that by whatever means possible some may be saved, the Archbishop of Canterbury adopted the political disposition of a Liberal Democrat.
But it was his answer in response to a question on the war in Ukraine which made his appearance worthwhile. “Apart from Europe going to war or applying more sanctions,” the audience member ominously began, “how can Russia be held accountable for the horrific war crimes being committed in Ukraine?”
And Justin Welby’s response, unusually for Question Time, was of the sort where you could hear a pin drop:
Sharing his own traumatic experience war crimes, such as the harrowing memory of having to pray over a mass grave while bodies are still out in the open, rotting in 50-degree heat, he reminded the Question Time audience – indeed the whole nation – that justice, if it is to come at all, takes time. Wars get harder, crueller and more foul with each passing day. The priority, he said, must be to secure a ceasefire, because it’s ordinary people who suffer most, and the only urgent remedy is diplomacy because sanctions take time.
It is a favoured theme of his: mediation is paramount in order to secure peace, even when any kind of settlement remains elusive, and reconciliation looks like a pipe dream.
He ended his homily with a reminder that Vladimir Putin will ultimately be held to account by God, if not before, and so sounded a weighty prophetic note into the political banality of potholes and traffic jams. On Judgment Day God will ultimately weigh Putin’s sin and evil. The Lord might even dispense judgment on earth before He does so in heaven.
Such a declaration to a world leader, or about a world leader, has echoes of the rebuke issued by Archbishop Ambrose of Milan to Emperor Theodosius in the 4th century. Theodosius had lost his dear friend General Butheric in Thessalonica, a victim of a mob riot when the General refused to release a popular chariot-racer who had been imprisoned for some demeanour. The Emperor, a devout Christian, hatched a plot for vengeance. He invited all the city to a chariot-racing festival in the Circus Maximus, locked them in, and out of blind revenge massacred all 7,000 in cold blood. Archbishop Ambrose was of the view that no penance could expiate such a grievous sin against God and abhorrent crime against humanity, and so Theodosius was excommunicated. When he next came to Milan Cathedral to worship, Ambrose ordered him out, declaring: “Your coming is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws.”
It might have taken eight months, but out of fear of eternal damnation this rebuke ultimately had the desired effect of remorse, repentance, and restoration, as divine rebukes are supposed to do.
Perhaps this is what the Archbishop of Canterbury should have said to Patriarch Kirill when they spoke a few weeks ago. God knows, the spiritual succour he is giving Putin’s evil is an undoubted sin against God, and an unquestionable crime against humanity.