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Welby optimistic about Church: 'The tide of events is turning'

09 November 2012


HIS initial reaction to a call from the Prime Minister's appointments secretary last week had, he said, been "Oh no!"

Making his first public appearance since accepting the Crown's nomination as the next Archbishop of Canterbury (he has still to be elected by the Dean and Chapter of Catnerbury), the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, gave a self-deprecating account of his career to date, but said that he was "utterly optimistic" about the future of the Church of England.

Despite the commentary surrounding his appointment, which has referred to dwindling congregations and internal division, confidence was a key theme of Bishop Welby's statement, which was rooted in an affirmation of the "unsung heroes" of the 16,000 churches of the Church of England.

The Church was "at one of those rare points where the tide of events is turning," he said. In a "time of spiritual hunger", the Church's parishes, churches and schools and "above all people" meant that it was "facing the toughest issues in the toughest place".

Although mistakes were inevitable, "we will also certainly get much right and do so already." While there were millions of people in England "who have no connection to the church", there were also growing churches, such as those in the dioceses of London and Liverpool: "a lot of what we need to do is already being done."

There was also recognition of the "very hard issues" that confront the Church of England today. His past experience in conflict resolution and reconciliation, expounded on in the question-and-answer session, could perhaps be discerned in his statement. He would be voting in favour of the ordination of women as bishops at the forthcoming General Synod, he said; but he had seen "remarkable signs of God's grace and action" in the ministries of those who could not accept this development.

Bishop Welby affirmed civil partnerships, stating that it was "absolutely right for the state to define the rights and status of people co-habiting in different forms of relationship". The Church of England must have "no truck with homophobia". His defence of the House of Bishops' submission to the Government's consultation on same-sex marriage was rooted in a reference to the position of the Church of England within the Anglican Communion rather than a personal conviction about the proposed legislation or the arguments about the institution of marriage set out by the House: "What the Church does here deeply affects the already greatly suffering churches in places like northern Nigeria."

He spoke of an awareness that he must "listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully. I am always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us. Above all, in the Church, we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed honestly and in love."

Of Dr Rowan Williams, whom he will succeed next March, Dr Welby said that he was "one of the world's principal theologians and philosophers", who "will be recognised as one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury. . . On the basis that you should only follow failures, this is a great mistake."

The work of the Church of England was done, he said, not primarily on television or at Lambeth Palace, but in the 16,000 churches, "where hundreds of thousands of people get on with the job they have always done of loving neighbour, loving each other, and giving more than 22 million hours of voluntary service outside the church a month". He had "never had demands on me as acute as when I was a parish priest".

He was enthroned as Bishop of Durham on 26 November last year, and it is only ten years ago that he was the Rector of Southam, in Coventry diocese.

Although much has been made of his career in finance in the oil sector, he was wary of "exaggerating" the value of his career outside the Church, arguing that "what we are really about is God, and God's love in Jesus Christ". His "horrendously bad" personal experience of investment meant that the Church of England should be relieved that he had no control over its finances. "Otherwise our position would be really abysmal."

He recognised, however, the value of having worked "in a world where the Church was felt by many to be completely irrelevant", and the importance of "speaking in a way that enables people to be with Jesus Christ in their daily life". He admitted to being "a bit of a geek" with regard to reading about economics.

A Benedictine Oblate for the past 15 years, he referred to the "treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration" and the "rich and challenging social teaching" of the Roman Catholic Church. Asked about Cardinal Newman, he suggested that "you would have to be complete idiot not to be influenced" by the theologian.

In a year in which Churches have rejected the Anglican Covenant put forward by Dr Williams as a means of preserving unity, Bishop Welby suggested that the Anglican Communion remained, "for all its difficulties, . . . a source of remarkable blessing to the world . . . one of the main sharers of reconciliation and hope in Jesus Christ".

Bishop Welby, who began his words with a short prayer, said that he hoped that he was defined not by his education at Eton, of which much had been made in the press, but "because I love and follow Jesus Christ". His background was perhaps evident in that "I have a better barber and spend more on razors than Rowan Williams".


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