Justin Welby was deeply
impressed by the reconciliation work of the Revd Andrew White, the
Canon for Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral. In January
2002, this led to the signing of the Alexandria Declaration, which
brought together Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle
Welby wrote to
congratulate White on his extraordinary achievement, promised the
fervent prayers of Southam parish (the small market town where he
was then Rector), and hoped that he might travel with White on one
of his excursions, "as bag carrier or anything".
White promptly invited
Welby to Israel and Palestine in March 2002, on a follow-up visit
working towards the implementation of the Alexandria Process. The
adventure was, for Welby, "a mind-blowing, viewpoint-changing,
impression was of hearing the stories of desperate and fearful
people, both Israeli and Palestinian, who longed for peace. He
encountered Orthodox Christians from Bethlehem who, despite poverty
and persecution, spoke confidently of their hope in Christ. The
Rector of Southam was left pondering that "It puts the issues of my
life and work in perspective."
Shortly afterwards, Welby
was invited to join the team at Coventry Cathedral as White's
co-director of international ministry. When offering him the job,
the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Colin Bennetts, explained that
he would spend two weeks a month travelling, mostly to areas of
violent conflict, and would have to raise his own finances.
Caroline, Welby's wife, said that "such a crazy offer could only be
from God," and so had to be accepted.
Welby and White forged a
good working relationship, and a strong personal friendship, and
Welby brought to the team particular experience in management and
He left Southam in
October 2002, and was installed the following month as a
Residentiary Canon. Welby focused on Africa, especially Nigeria,
where he had first travelled with the oil company Elf Aquitaine in
the late 1970s.
After riots in Plateau
State, centred on Jos, the state governor asked Welby and his
Coventry team to facilitate community reconciliation in 2003. They
commissioned research into the root causes of the violence through
the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the
University of Jos.
peace-building and skill-training workshops for more than 1000
disaffected Christian and Muslim youths. In collaboration with the
state security services, they financed an early-warning system in
the form of satellite telephones for key community leaders across
the religious and ethnic divide, to enable quick communication in
the event of crisis. Because newspapers were often complicit in
escalating violence, they also gathered journalists from ten states
across central Nigeria to teach how the media can alleviate rather
than aggravate tensions.
In the south of the
country, in the Niger Delta, Welby was invited by the Nigerian
government to act as an international mediator for its peace and
security strategy, bringing together indigenous communities, oil
companies, and local officials.
Although Welby had
witnessed much abject poverty during his African travels, in the
swamps of the Niger Delta he saw "poverty unlike anything I had
Much of Welby's work in
Nigeria, Burundi, and elsewhere placed him in positions of grave
personal danger. On a dozen occasions, he found himself in
situations where the militia was in control, and anything might
happen. Twice from Nigeria he telephoned Caroline at home in
Coventry, and asked her to pray, fearing that he might have
miscalculated the risks, and might be dead within minutes.
At the height of the
violence in Plateau State in 2004, Welby drove in convoy with an
armed escort to Wase, a Muslim-controlled town about two hours from
Jos. In a tense atmosphere, as he was meeting the local emir, his
Muslim driver outside overheard three young men with AK47s
discussing whether to kill their English visitor. They left in a
On another occasion,
Welby was taken out to dinner in a hotel at Port Harcourt by a
Nigerian oil contractor involved in bunkering (stealing illegally
produced oil) and given subtle death threats at the table. He
learnt that he had a price of $30 on his head, and later joked
that, in comparison with the $250,000 contract to kill Andrew White
in Iraq, "I couldn't decide whether to be insulted or afraid." But
he quickly left the area.
Welby admitted that the
reconciliation ministry was "dependent upon very large donations
from a very few sources". In 2005, the work collapsed.
international ministry was downsized, and there was a change of
focus, away from flak-jackets and dodging bullets in war zones to
reconciliation at home. Since the funding had run out, all the
employees at the International Centre for Reconciliation (ICR) were
made redundant. Welby was moved to the domestic side of the
cathedral's ministry, although he was allowed to continue with some
African visits much less frequently.
The collapse of the ICR
and the dismissal of staff was a major knock-back, for which Welby
felt personally responsible, an emotionally draining episode. He
called it an "experience of grief", and reflected:
. . .
the pressures of achievement, or working towards targets, or trying
to get things done, are the ones that knock us off course. I had a
significant failure this autumn, and struggled profoundly,
emotionally, in terms of stress and trying to know what to do. At
times like that, and just as much in the pressure of success, we
can find we are no longer the people we want to be or even feel
comfortable being. My aim for 2006 is to keep my core values in the
centre of what I do, and maintain the boundaries that tell me where
I am going wrong.
Within the Coventry
Cathedral chapter, there was a "full and frank exchange of views"
about homosexuality, after Canon Jeffrey John withdrew his
acceptance of the post of Bishop of Reading. Welby asked, "How can
we go around the world trying to talk about reconciliation . . .
when we don't live it out in our own community?"
Welby made his own
position clear, writing that "sexual practice is for marriage, and
marriage is between men and women, and that's the biblical
position." Such a view was pastorally difficult, "but it's what the
Bible says". Therefore, the question of right and wrong in the
Jeffrey John affair "matters enormously . . . truth is
None the less, he was
perturbed at the manner in which Canon John's nomination as a
bishop was debated by the Church: "the public arguing through the
columns of The Times, the Telegraph and over the
BBC has not helped evangelism. . . I'm not saying that the issue
isn't important: it's just not the right way of doing it."
He reiterated that,
whatever people might think about the principles at stake, "it
cannot be right that the secular press is a substitute for dialogue
between Christians, a vitriolic go-between that makes our
communication with other people who follow Christ more difficult,
not more easy."
He lamented that the
Church of England's "destructive" arguments over homosexuality were
"a diversion of effort", a distraction from the task of "seeking to
win the 92 per cent of this population who never go near a church
and find the whole debate completely incomprehensible". Nothing, he
warned, was "a greater sapper of spiritual passion" than public
At Coventry Cathedral,
the Dean, the Very Revd John Irvine, created space for "an open
conversation" about homosexuality during a Sunday-evening service
in spring 2004. Welby debated the issue with his friend, the Revd
Adrian Daffern (the Canon Precentor), seeking to model to the
congregation a generous and prayerful approach to theological
dialogue in a spirit of harmony.
After the event, Welby
reflected: "in God's grace we managed to disagree profoundly, but
without bitterness, without rancour. I cannot deny he's a
Christian: he loves the Lord Jesus Christ. I disagree profoundly
with some of his interpretation of scripture and am quite happy to
say so in public," but their conversation had taken "the sting out
of the debate", and "had an immense effect in bringing people
towards Jesus Christ".
WELBY first encountered
Anglican Benedictines as an ordinand in the early 1990s, when he
spent four days on retreat at Elmore Abbey, near Newbury, in
Berkshire, at the recommendation of his stepfather, Lord Williams
During his first retreat,
Welby found the liturgical rigour of the community difficult to
cope with, "the regularity, the vast chunks of psalms, the lack of
spontaneous worship". But he soon came to find the discipline a
There are also moments of
awe, as through sheer repetition the word of God penetrates my
thick skull, and I see afresh. Above all, for me, there is the
encouragement of ordinary people seeking to live out a life of
integrity in community, with Christ at the centre, guided by a Rule
of incandescent common sense.
Welby was a regular
visitor to Elmore, and in 2004 became a Benedictine oblate (similar
to the "third order" among the Franciscans and Dominicans),
committing himself to following Benedict's Rule in his daily life.
To his parishioners, he explained that the Rule was "full of good
stuff" and remarkably contemporary as an antidote to stress.
He pointed especially to
Benedict's emphasis on a balanced lifestyle (a mixture of work,
prayer, and rest), stable relation- ships, and freedom from chasing
He also later noted
Benedict's counter-cultural emphasis on obedience: "I am very
challenged by it. As a canon, I have sworn obedience to the Queen,
the Bishop, and the Dean (the last two with explicit
qualifications!). . . I don't do obedience very well. Nor do many
Yet he admitted that
obedience to those in authority was essential for the flourishing
of a Christian community, and a reflection of their obedience to
These are edited extracts from Archbishop Justin
Welby: The road to Canterbury by Andrew Atherstone. It is
published this week by DLT at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20 Use code CT618 );