jQuery Slider

You are here

Archbishop of Canterbury: Sometimes I think: 'This is impossible' - Part 1 & II

Archbishop of Canterbury: Sometimes I think: 'This is impossible' - Part 1

In an exclusive interview, the Archbishop of Canterbury talks frankly about the challenges he faces after his first year in the role

By Cole Moreton
April 20, 2014

'I am not the Pope,” says Justin Welby, not once but several times as we talk. It has become a catchphrase, after a year as Archbishop of Canterbury.

“People have this illusion that you can somehow click your fingers and all kinds of extraordinary things happen around the world. They think you can hire and fire, and all the rest of it, which is almost universally untrue.”

Can the leader of such an argumentative bunch of believers not bang a few heads together? “You can convene heads together,” he says with a wry smile. “What you quite quickly learn is that you have no authority but quite a lot of influence. You can bring people together and help to make things happen. That’s one of the most wonderful parts of the job.”

That is how an unlikely agreement was reached over women bishops, but the Church’s attitude to sexuality is an even more divisive issue that could lead to walk-outs, if it hasn’t already. There will always be some people who just don’t want to be brought together. “Yes. Quite.”

He also has little control over what the Church does with its money, as we shall find out.

Justin Welby speaks carefully, but warmly, in a voice that is flat and nasal and just a little bit posh. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour and shares the same frugal tastes as Pope Francis, who was enthroned a week earlier than him.

On both the Sundays we spend together he wears a dark suit that looks like the one he bought for £10 in a charity shop. And this trim 58-year-old jogs through the streets around Lambeth in the mornings in shorts that are frankly unepiscopal.

Having sped up through the ranks of the Church, he had only been a bishop for seven months when he was called to Canterbury. Those who know him say he still can’t quite believe it has happened. “It’s a very strange feeling,” he admits. “I don’t know what it feels like to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s just that, from time to time, you think, 'Goodness, that’s me’. ”

Is that because the archbishop is traditionally a commanding figure? “Oh, absolutely. The Archbishop of Canterbury is someone of whom one always has a certain awe and fear. And I look at him in the mirror when I shave in the morning and that is very unsettling. Because he doesn’t look very awe-ful or fearful. Well, maybe I do look awful. But not very fearful.”

The archbishop no longer has a chauffeur but travels by public transport or is driven by his wife, Caroline, who insists that she is the better driver. When he takes the bus, people rarely recognise him. “Or if they do, they are incredibly polite.”

Both Welbys have a cutting sense of humour that can at times sound brutal. Sitting in the back of his car, the archbishop suddenly orders his wife to “reverse backwards into The Sunday Telegraph photographer”. Mrs Welby chuckles at the wheel, but tells him the photographer is out of the way. “Is he? Pity.”

You have to be confident to go in for affectionate bullying such as that, but does he ever feel he’s not up to the job? “Frequently. That’s no different to everything else I have ever done, to be honest. As a parish priest, you get a call saying, 'Could you go and see a family whose child has just died?’ You don’t think, 'Oh that’s a pretty easy one’. Your heart sinks and you pray as you go, 'God, if you don’t give me the wherewithal, I can contribute nothing to this situation’. This job is no different. Every day, there are moments when I think, 'This is impossible’.”

Unlike the Pope, he has no power to challenge directly the investments made on behalf of the Church of England. This subject arises when we visit a refuge centre in north London for men caught up in the failings of the immigration system. Archbishop Welby is with Cardinal Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, as part of a joint week of prayer called Listen to God: Hear the Poor. But as one man there whispers loudly, “How can they hear the poor when their churches have so much money?”

The £5.5 billion assets of the Church of England are handled by a secretive body called the Church Commissioners, and the archbishop doesn’t always know what they are doing, as became painfully obvious last summer.

The defining moment of his first year in office was when he took on the high-interest lender Wonga and threatened to “compete it out of business” with a network of community banks run by churches. It then emerged that the C of E had a financial stake in Wonga, through a third party.

The newly appointed archbishop was embarrassed. He had trusted that any such holding would be filtered out by the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. But why did he not just ask?

“Honestly, they have I don’t know how many thousand holdings. I only have an idea what some of the top 10 are. I don’t get involved in day-to-day management of investments of the Church of England. I’ve got a million other things to do.”

He’s a bit cross now. But Welby’s financial expertise as a former oil company executive is part of the reason he was chosen to be head of a church that needs to reinvent the way it works and funds itself. From property speculation to hedge funds, the Commissioners’ investments have undermined every attempt by recent archbishops to speak out on money matters. But isn’t he the one who is supposed to get to grips with them?

“Get involved in the day-to-day management of investments? I’m not an investment manager. I know nothing about investment. My job is leading in worship, telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ, building the life of the Church spiritually across the country,” he says, with increasing irritation.

'No large organisation runs on the basis that the chief executive knows everything that is going on. You have to work with systems and you have to trust people, and there will be mistakes. It is an inevitable part of it.”

Doesn’t it become an issue when they undermine what he says? “Absolutely it is an issue.”

So have they managed to get rid of the Wonga-related shares at last? “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. When I last asked, which was about a month ago, they hadn’t. It’s a very small holding of about £85,000 or £90,000, which is indirectly held through about three other holdings and apparently it is very difficult to get rid of. But they are continuing to work on trying to extract themselves from it.”

So the Church still has an interest in Wonga, nearly a year after he spoke out so strongly against it? “First of all, it’s not Church of England investment. It’s Church Commissioners’ investment. So I can’t just say, 'Sell it’. I do not have the authority to do that. I have the authority to say, 'I warmly encourage you to sell it, I would really like you to get rid of it’. That I have said on several occasions. They have said, 'We are trying to do that’. They are doing their best, but it is one of the bits where I don’t have the authority to give an order.”

Isn’t that frustrating? “Yeah. Slightly. But every job has frustrations.”

Justin Welby is said to have a temper, so we are both relieved to reach the Rainbow Centre in Folkestone, an impressive church project with a contact room for estranged families and a crisis centre for those who fall through the welfare net.

“Hi, I’m Justin,” he says to one woman, and within moments he is down on his knees talking to her five-year-old. Both are charmed. “I didn’t expect him to be so down to earth,” says the mother.

There is an awkward moment when he meets Graham Sopp, who smiles and asks who he is. The Archbishop of Westminster? “No, Canterbury,” says Welby, smiling across at Cardinal Nichols, who used to hold that title. “I’m the married one.”

Mr Sopp was a submariner during the Falklands conflict, but has lately been down on his luck and unable to work because of a frozen shoulder. He and his wife, Lisa, were let down by an Armed Forces charity and found themselves living in a tent. They were so desperate that one day they decided to link arms on the cliff tops nearby and jump to their deaths. Before they could do so, someone told them about the Rainbow Centre, where they found help and support. “This place saved our lives.”

The archbishop listens carefully, but what can he do? “Oh. Well you can take it to God and pray. You support the people who are doing the front-line work. Those are the key things.”

The Sopps are on his mind as we leave. “There is no system in the world that will stop people having huge problems, but we must have a structure of support for people that meets not merely their financial needs but also their need to be treated as distinct human beings of infinite value.”

But while the Sopps go back to a tiny damp flat, the Welbys are on the way to the Old Palace – their second palace – at Canterbury, where they spend weekends.

How does he reconcile that with what he has heard? “I think that is always uncomfortable. There are all kinds of reasons why you live where you live, reasons of history and that sort of thing, but in a sense that doesn’t really answer the question. We don’t live in the whole of Lambeth Palace, we live in a flat up the top. But the only justification is to use it responsibly and do everything you can with it for the best use of those for whom you care and are responsible.”

Again, he says it is the Church Commissioners who are in control. “It’s not my house, it’s their house.”

He has opened Lambeth to four members of Chemin Neuf, the first Catholic-led community to live there since the Reformation. Some of his five children also have rooms, as does the Bishop at Lambeth and several members of the administration staff.

But the archbishop admits: “I think it is uncomfortable when you are living in a really grand, big place.”

Insiders say he has swept away the atmosphere of a medieval court, replacing it with a management team. Spiritually, he was converted into a strident evangelical faith and nurtured in the charismatic powerhouse that is Holy Trinity Brompton, but has a Roman Catholic spiritual director and reads the Rule of St Benedict at night.

So is he the man to save the Church of England? “The answer to that is obviously no,” he says quickly. “Clearly. It’s God who does the work. It doesn’t depend on the individual. The moment we start doing this Superman act, we are in cloud cuckoo land.”

The people in the parishes are the ones who matter, he says. It’s his job to tackle “arcane” Church structures so their work becomes easier. New ways of worshipping are being invented across the country all the time. But he is not ready to scrap the ailing parish system just yet.

“When it works, it is brilliant. What it gives us above all is that we are pastorally responsible for everyone in England who doesn’t choose to be outside it. Everyone has the offer of support and love and care from their local parish church. If we lost that completely, it would be a huge loss.”

The trouble is that while lots of people believe in God, they no longer believe in Church. Some 20 million adults in England have faith in a deity, but don’t belong to any religious group. What would he say to them on Easter Sunday?

“I would want to start by saying that the experience of those who put their trust in Christ is of a living presence, of someone they know, who changes life in the most extraordinary way that one can possibly imagine. How you do that is discovered in a community with other Christians, not by oneself. Together we learn the hope that He brings in good times and bad. That comes from my own experience and our own experience as a family.”

Archbishop Welby has known hard times, particularly when he and Caroline lost a baby daughter in a car accident in 1983. He wears a silver replica of the Coventry Cross of Nails, the symbol of the peace and reconciliation team for which he once worked, risking his life as a mediator in war-torn parts of the world.

Trying to hold the Church together must seem easier. The average weekly attendance looks to have bottomed out at 1.1 million, although that’s partly because the statisticians started counting more than just Sunday services. The average age of a Church of England member is 62. The archbishop is a realist; he admits there is a crisis.

“Yes, the Church is facing a particular challenge in terms of its age profile and its numbers, but you will find as many signs of growth as decline. The fact that we have held our numbers in the past few years is quite striking because in order to do that, given the number of people who have been dying, we have had to draw a lot of people to join the Church. Just to stay level. That is happening.”

So what should believers do? “There have been many crises in the Church’s history. We go back 1,400 years. There are two mistakes you can make in a crisis. One is the Dad’s Army reaction: Corporal Jones saying, 'Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ [And obviously panicking]; or Private Frazer saying, 'We’re all doomed’. The other is complacency: 'It’s all going to be fine because we have had worse in the past.’ Each time there is a sense of crisis, the first thing to do is to come back to God in worship and prayer.”

He is not fearful. “The reason why we don’t panic is nothing to do with sociology or demographics, it’s to do with trust in a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and can therefore – if we co-operate with him – raise the church to new and fresh life.”

That’s why there is a sense of calm about Justin Welby. Most of the time. He is convinced that he can only do his best, and have faith. “It’s in the hands of God.”


The Archbishop of Canterbury's deadly dilemma
Christians in some African nations could be endangered if Anglican priests in Britain bless same-sex unions, admits the Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop Justin Welby visits All Saints church in Juba and experienced a rare moment of joy during his visit to South Sudan

By Cole Moreton
April 18, 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury was lost for words as he stood beside a mass grave. The bodies of two dozen murdered men and women lay at his feet in bags. The stench of death was in his nostrils, in 40C heat. Those who loved the slain were in tears. “All you could really do was to weep with them,” says the Most Revd Justin Welby, describing the most harrowing moment of a five-day trip to Africa that he made with his wife, Caroline, earlier this year. “It was hugely painful.”

His throat tightens and his voice becomes clipped as he remembers that day in Bor, a remote town in wartorn South Sudan. Today we are in the back of a car driven by Caroline, passing through the English countryside on the way to Canterbury. This short, trim, bespectacled man looks thoroughly unremarkable in a dark suit and black shirt and says that without the dog collar he can easily go unnoticed in a crowd. “I suspect I have a fairly forgettable face.”

But 77 million Anglicans across the world look to Welby as their spiritual leader, by virtue of the office he has held for a year, even if they find themselves at odds with him.

Many want to know what is going to happen about homosexuality. After the change in the law, will the clergy in England be allowed to bless same-sex marriages? Some priests here are already doing so, risking their jobs. The archbishop says no, they should wait for the outcome of a consultation that will be carried out across the Communion.

He insists the Church still believes marriage is between a man and a woman, and any sudden departure from doctrine in this country would be “absolutely catastrophic” for believers in places such as South Sudan.

After returning from there in February, he urged the House of Bishops not to go too far or act too quickly, because of what he had seen and heard. It has even been reported that he thinks the Church should not bless gay marriages here in case it gets Christians killed in Africa. But today he says that is a misrepresentation of his view.

I want to know what his thinking really is on the matter. The answer begins with a heart-breaking account of his trip and the “powerful, profound” effect it had on him.

“We saw the first bodies as we drove off the airstrip,” says Archbishop Welby, who was flown to the area with his wife in a single-engine Cessna owned by Mission Aviation Fellowship. “I was being driven by the Mayor of Bor. The best estimate he could give was that they’d had about 6,000 killed, of whom they had buried about 3,000. The bodies were in the road or just in the huts where they had been murdered. The most appalling war crimes. It has been happening in other places as well, unreported on the whole.”

Homes had been burnt out or reduced to twists of wood and corrugated iron. Shocked by what he was seeing, the archbishop tweeted a photograph with the words, “shattered vehicles, bodies in streets, looted, a place of evil deeds”.

The Foreign Office was telling people to keep away, but the Welbys went anyway, at the invitation of the local church leaders. “We went in with a heavy escort. The place… some bits looked OK, but others were just shattered.

“There was a smell of bodies,” he says. “We got to the cathedral and there were bodies there. People had fled there for sanctuary and the rebels had come in and killed them. They killed a number of the priests and quite a number of other people, too.”

Among the dead were women who had been raped. “There was one mass grave that had been filled and one that was empty, with the bodies of the clergy lying next to it. They wanted me to consecrate the ground, pray for it, bless it, before they put the bodies in. So we stood there with the corpses of these clergy in body bags and buried them.”

Words failed him. “There was a huge sense of trauma. All you could do really was weep with them. As one did so, the fact of being there was the biggest comfort they could have. The heaviest, greatest trauma of conflict is the sense that you are forgotten, or ignored. That was a massive privilege,” he says, then adds quietly: “It was hugely painful.”

Those who know Justin Welby describe him as “tough” and “unsentimental”, but there is no missing the emotion in his voice. He cares for Africa, having visited many times as an oil company executive and then as a peace worker for the Church, risking his life to mediate between warlords.

The Telegraph has been given unprecedented access to the archbishop at home and at work during a joint week of prayer with Cardinal Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, which has been topped and tailed with Sunday visits to a refuge for asylum seekers in north London and a crisis centre in Folkestone. Tomorrow we will discuss what it is like to be the head of a Church of England that feels a duty of care to the whole nation, whether the nation wants it or not.

But for now, I want to know about those 77 million people. Does he feel personally responsible for them all?

“Yes, I think I do. I am primarily and principally responsible to God, but the fulfilment of that is to be responsible for the people in the Communion.” Is that a burden or a privilege? “A privilege. Always. I wouldn’t use the word burden. I mean, it is a privilege that feels quite heavy at times.”

The leaders in South Sudan expressed gratitude that the “Mother Church” had come to them in their hour of need. But to his surprise, even in their troubles they asked about homosexuality. They had read the Pilling Report in November, which proposed that priests in England be allowed to bless gay marriages. The Anglicans in South Sudan were adamant that if such a thing did happen, their own beliefs and culture would make them unable to accept help from the Mother Church any more. The archbishop reported this to the House of Bishops a few weeks later, urging caution.

“I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain,” he said privately, soon afterwards. “I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help – and who we can help – can’t take it, feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us, is something that we can’t easily do. Certainly not in a one-day meeting of the House of Bishops.”

The immediate result was a restatement of the Church’s traditional position, with the threat that clergy would be disciplined if they blessed gay marriages or married their own same-sex partner. Some were furious. A hospital chaplain has just become the first priest to marry his male partner. “It’s best if I do not comment on that,” says the archbishop, sounding relieved that it is the Bishop of Lincoln’s issue.

So where does Justin Welby stand on all this? Just before flying to Africa, he sent a joint letter with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, urging the heads of Anglican churches around the world to “demonstrate the love of Christ” to same-sex couples. It came after Nigeria and Uganda introduced harsh new anti-gay laws.

In this country, he has taken care to listen directly to people who have suffered discrimination and persecution because of their sexuality.

“One cannot sit and listen to that sort of reality without being appalled,” the archbishop told the General Synod last summer. “We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality and we have not fully heard it. The majority of the population rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. And sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like.”

All this would suggest he thinks the Church of England should react to the shift in our culture in some way, but how? “How you do something has to be thought through very carefully,” he says. “That’s why we get into the conversations, the thinking, which is what we are doing at the moment and which I don’t want to pre-empt.”

He’s talking about those “facilitated discussions” that are due to take place across the Anglican Communion, once the ground rules have been published next month.

The dead in Bor were victims of a war that was nothing to do with homosexuality. But on LBC radio last month, Archbishop Welby recalled another atrocity, where the killers claimed they were acting to prevent Christians forcing them to become gay. “I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America… and a lot of them had been killed.”

That massacre was not in Bor, but he won’t tell me where it is, for fear of endangering those who remain. The LBC host asked him whether he believed a Christian in Africa might suffer violence and abuse because of a decision made at Lambeth Palace about gay marriage? “Yes,” he said. “Precisely.”

So in what sense was he misunderstood? “What I said is that I have been in places where that has been the reason given for attacking people,” he says. “Now, as I said then – and this is where there was misinterpretation – that doesn’t mean that you don’t do certain things. That would just be giving in to that kind of terror.” To argue that you should not bless a gay marriage here just in case it might cause a killing over there would be a kind of moral blackmail, wouldn’t it? “It would be. You can’t say, 'We’re not going to do X, which we think is right, because it will cause trouble.’ That’s ridiculous.”

Instead, he is trying to acknowledge the need and suffering on each side and look through consultation for a way that will allow the Church to serve them both – however unlikely that may seem.

“We are struggling with the reality that there are different groups around the place that the Church can do – or has done – great harm to,” he says. “You look at some of the gay, lesbian, LGBT groups in this country and around the world – Africa included, actually – and their experience of abuse, hatred, all kinds of things.

“We must both respond to what we’ve done in the past and listen to those voices extremely carefully. Listen with love and compassion and sorrow. And do what is possible to be done, which is not always a huge amount,” he says.

“At the same time, there are other groups in many parts of the world who are the victims of oppression and poverty, who we also have to listen to, and who find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with. How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all? And not only by one group that you prefer and that is easier to deal with? That’s not acceptable.”

In some ways it would be easier for him to yield to campaigners in this country. But Justin Welby believes that to shift doctrine too quickly or too far would be to turn his back on those in South Sudan whose tears he has shared.

So for the moment he is putting his faith in the consultation – and presumably praying for it to work a miracle.

“The job is to love each individual as Christ loves them, which is infinitely,” says the man with 77 million people on his mind. “Sometimes that leads you into very difficult choices indeed.”


Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top