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ACC-17: Welby candid, and not in camera

ACC-17: Welby candid, and not in camera

By Paul Handley in Hong Kong
May 2, 2019

The Archbishop of Canterbury is conservative on equal marriage, prays for wisdom, confesses that he failed to predict Brexit, is woken at night by mistakes he has made, and won't say anything nasty about Donald Trump.

These and other revelations came out in a nothing-off-limits question-and-answer session at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting, in Hong Kong on Wednesday night. The session was originally going to be private, but late on, the Archbishop invited the press -- essentially the Episcopal News Service and the Church Times. Through the evening, he used them as a reminder that he was speaking in public and perhaps should not say anything too outrageous.

None the less, he was more candid than he has been over a wide range of topics. Questions ranged from what makes him laugh and what annoys him most (the same answer: "myself") to where he got his clerical shirt (South Africa). In between, there were questions about sexuality, establishment, Donald Trump, and an Archbishop of Canterbury from overseas. Here is an edited version.

Church unity

In all my life as Christian, what I have noticed is that, when the Church is united, the Holy Spirit moves in great power. When the Church divides, the Holy Spirit shoves off somewhere else. . .

And we should not be concerned about the Anglican Church. What really matters is the Church of God. It's the universal Church; it's all Christians who love and follow Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus says in John 17.21, that he prays for us to be one on order that, in order that, for the very precise purpose that the world may know that he came from the Father. That makes it clear what we've got to do.

I live in a country which is just incredibly bad at disagreeing. . . And is it surprising that people don't see an answer from the Church when they see a Church that is utterly consumed for dislike for one another? . . .

If the Church is going to grow, we must learn to love one another as Jesus loved us. Nothing less will do.

And I would give up anything in my role, anything, if it furthered the future of church unity.

Anglicanism's colonial past

I was brought up with this attitude that colonialism was bad; that, although there were good people in the Empire who sought to serve, and often gave their lives, the principle of imperialism and colonialism was deeply wicked.

When you come to the Anglican Communion, we have to recognise that it is inherited from the colonial legacy, and that is why I'm so keen on saying that we are a family. . .

I would hope that, at some point in the future . . . I hope sooner rather than later . . . it would be possible for people from outside the British Isles to be Archbishops of Canterbury. That's quite a big change for the way the Church of England does things; so it's a long and complicated process, and there's no point in rushing these things. Rushing into it, it would be very dangerous to do that. . .

So, what's my vision? My vision is that we become an effective, equal family of Churches in which the imperial legacy is only a history, and sad history at that.

Same-sex spouses excluded from the Lambeth Conference

We are deeply, profoundly divided over the question of human sexuality. . .

I find myself deeply torn. . . On the issue of what, in English law, is called equal marriage . . . I am personally, er, conservative on this. But I am equally convinced that it may be that I am wrong. I think part of Anglican theology is always an assumption that you need to go on listening. Anglican theological methodology never closes things down. . .

Secondly, I do not believe that this is a Church-splitting issue. I'm often accused of preferring unity over truth. I have to say that I think that is a non-point. Try saying to yourself: "I believe in truthless unity for the Church"; or, alternatively, "I believe in divided truth." Doesn't make any sense. It's a nonsense statement. . .

I'm perfectly happy to be called, with a small "e", evangelical -- "Evangelical" in many parts of the world is a sort of tribal name, and has got a lot of baggage in the last 30 or 40 years, in the UK as well -- I'm evangelical because I believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, is the final source for matters of faith and practice. . .

When I look, for example, at 1 and 2 Corinthians, I find a Church that was utterly disfunctional. . . And there is only one thing that Paul does not say to them. He never says: "You're so useless, I'm going to come and start another one. . .

Now, for next year, for the Lambeth Conference, I was faced with a really difficult decision, because a lot of people would be excluded by the inclusion of other people, and they're people in really bad places.

And I love them, and I love the people who I have not felt able to invite.

I hope and pray that we can get to the point that, God willing, we can love one another deeply. . . And we can only do it if we decide together to do it. We can't do it if any individual parts of the Church say, "I've got to win, and everyone else has got to lose." It doesn't work that way.

On being Archbishop

I don't feel, deep down, that I'm anything except just me. But I have got over that: it's taken me six years, but I've sort of concluded that, like it or not, I am the Archbishop of Canterbury -- there are loads of people who don't like it -- and therefore I'd better do what I can, and pray a lot, despite the fact that I don't feel up to the job, to seek God's grace to do it.

Prayers he would welcome

Four things: wisdom to know what to do; courage to do it; and patience to know when to do it, because you can do the right thing at such a wrong time so that it becomes the wrong thing.

And, finally, resilience. Today I've had some really encounters. . . And it is really punishing on the spirit -- anyone involved in church leadership knows that. You get 99 letters saying that the decision you've taken was genius, and one letter saying, "You're wrong." Which one do you remember?


Nobody will be able to know, for 50 years, if they ever do, work out why we voted as we did. Where I was wrong, and a lot of us in the Church of England were wrong, was, we didn't listen carefully enough. So I've become more cautious, trying to listen much, much harder to the cries of pain from the poor and marginalised, and those shut out. . .

The vote has been taken, and I think we have to listen to the vote. But, we cannot sacrifice the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and therefore we have to find a way forward, and we have to find reconciliation. . .

I have found Members of Parliament in the most profound mental and emotional distress. . . We need to pray for them, and love them and support them, because a lot of them are being pushed to the very edge of endurance.

Indigenous peoples

We have neglected indigenous peoples -- New Zealand, Aotearoa and Polynesia is a very good example -- through colonialism, and today through unfair trade, marginalisation, lack of educational opportunities, and unconscious bias on an extraordinary scale. And that is true all round the world.

And we have to learn to listen to indigenous peoples with the same attention as we listen to one another.

In the global North, when indigenous peoples say things we don't like, we say, "Don't worry, that's all right; they need more education." It is racist, disgusting, and obscene. . .

We will be judged for the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples.

Donald Trump

As Christians, we have an absolute obligation to speak for justice. But we also have an obligation to speak for justice in ways people can hear. . .

I'm a pragmatist, I like to change things. . .

Jesus came to bring sinners to repentance, and there's not one of us that isn't a sinner. I do things as Archbishop of Canterbury that I wake in the night doubled up in pain by the thought that I did that thing, because I'm so ashamed of it.

I don't know President Trump at all. I know he's the President of the United States of America, and because I respect the United States of America, I respect the presidency.

If I were to say anything, which I would never have the opportunity to do, I would say it to his face, not behind his back.

[He quoted the US Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, who said outside the White House, "He is my president, properly elected, and I pray for him every day."]

So, that's what I would say: pray, respect the office, and be clear about the nature of what is justice.

His spiritual life

I'm an early riser. I get up and spend time with the scriptures, and in prayer, essentially a form of lectio divina. I work through the Bible steadily and systematically, always with an up-to-date commentary, often one I disagree with. . .

If I'm reading the New Testament, a New Testament book, I'll read it in Greek; if I'm reading the Old Testament I'll read [it in translation]

Then I go for a run, and I use that time for a very systematic time of intercession, in which I pray steadily through, first of all confessing my sins, secondly, for the family, then I pray for five -- TKC, that's when I pray for my five [editor's note: the Thy Kingdom Come initiative involves praying for five people one wants to know Christ].

And then I pray for my senior colleagues at Lambeth, and anything that's on their heart about the Communion -- bits that are suffering (that all takes quite a long time), and the Lambeth Conference and the Church of England.

And in the next section, I pray -- and I intersperse each section with praise. . . and then I pray, funnily enough, for the people who lead the churches that I led in the past: so the diocese of Durham, the cathedral at Liverpool, Coventry Cathedral, my parish, my curacy parish, the place where we went to church when I was training. . .

And then, finally, I pray for myself, and that's the pattern. . .

And sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it goes badly, but it's what I do.

Then I go to the morning office -- there's quite a lot of prayer: we try and pray at the beginning of every meeting -- and then I go to the eucharist, maybe, most days when I'm in the office; and then, in the evening, evening prayer. And then, once a week if I can, I have three-quarters of a hour of silent prayer before the sacrament. . And I'm learning, when I wake in the night, rather than worry, to pray. . . I've always fallen asleep very quickly when praying.

Persecution review

Will it make a difference? I think these things are incremental. . . When you read the report, and see the extent of the persecution against Christians around the world, you realise that this is one long journey.

This is a major step. It's another government saying: this matters, and I'm really pleased about it.

As Christians, we also have to stand up . . . for freedom of religion and belief [i.e. for all faiths]. It's no good saying Christians should have freedom of speech and other people shouldn't. . .

God is so big, so great . . . he died for us while we still his enemies. He has nothing to fear from human stupidity. We don't need to protect him.

Relations with Islam

[There is] persecution around the world. It's not always very happy if you're a Bosnian Muslim, and you've just remembered the 25th anniversary of 7000 Bosnian men and boys, as young seven, being murdered by Christians -- the biggest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.

So I don't think Bosnian Muslims would agree . . . that Christianity is always smiles, and light and bending over backwards.

Yes, we have formal and informal dialogues, and that's because Jesus says one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy, and everyone falls into one of those categories.

When I meet Muslim leaders, I challenge them . . . and I frequently mention Malaysia, and particularly the ban [for non-Muslims] on the use of the word "Allah", which, of course, simply means God, and is written right through the Bible in its Arabic version. . .

[Five years ago, in an interfaith discussion about Islamic State at Davos,] I said, look: until religious leaders start taking responsibility for the acts of their own communities, we're not going to get anywhere in dialogue. When we look at Srebrenica, I may not like the fact that the people who did it were Christians [but] unless I look at my own faith, and say "What is the foundation for such a horrendous act of mass murder, near-genocide?", I cannot expect other people of other religious faiths to do the same thing. . .

We win the right to be blunt with people by showing them that we love them. . . We've got to build the dialogue so we can say the tough things, and part of the way of saying those things is saying them in a way that doesn't paint people into a corner: you've got to give people a way forward, and they can respond rightly.

And this is just reconciliation theory: there are some people who'll be beyond the pale [he cited the senior leadership of Islamic State and Boko Haram]. It requires police action for them to be arrested and removed from the scene.


The advantages? think we'd notice it if we weren't established. [The Church would have] less ability to speak clearly in the public square. . .

The disadvantages: we have duties and obligations. We're seen as the umbrella for all Churches and all faiths. In other words, we're expected to speak for those of other faiths as well as Christians. That's sometimes complicated; it sometimes constrains us. But I think it constrains us very helpfully, because it causes us to think very very hard.

We're not a state Church: we're an established Church. If you look at the voting record of bishops in the House of Lords -- it doesn't matter what colour the Government is -- they vote three times against the Government for every one time they vote for it.

We are there, and we're often the people through whom things are done. . . I think the balance is that it's good for us, and I think it's very good for the country, because it says that human beings are more than merely material. It says that the constitution recognises that we are under God.


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