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'You don't have to agree to be in the same Church'

22 March 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury put his iPad to one side to talk to Ed Thornton


Market Cross: Archbishop Welby with schoolchildren in Chichester on Tuesday, at the end of his pre-enthronement prayer pilgrimage

Market Cross: Archbishop Welby with schoolchildren in Chichester on Tuesday, at the end of his pre-enthronement prayer pilgrimage

THE Most Revd Justin Welby is not the first Archbishop of Canterbury to have attended Eton or Cambridge. But he is, it is safe to say, the first to own an iPad. The tablet computer enables him to write sermons, compose emails, and Tweet on the move.

Archbishop Welby had the iPad with him in the car, travelling from Lambeth Palace to Norwich. It was the start of his prayer pilgrimage, leading up to his enthronement in Canterbury yesterday.

Four days before, the Archbishop had lent his support to a letter from 43 bishops that criticised the Government's Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill (News, 15 March). He had written that the Bill would force "children and families to pay the price for high inflation".

The next day, in a blog posted on his website - probably written on the iPad - Archbishop Welby sought to mollify the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. His intervention had not been a "grand, political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about".

Nevertheless, the intervention prompted accusations from Conservative quarters that the Archbishop was revealing leftish leanings - even seeking to lead an unofficial opposition.

Archbishop Welby gives short shrift to accusations of partisanship. The Archbishop of Canterbury's is "very much a political role - it's just not a party-political role," he says. "I don't belong to a political party; I'm not committed to any particular political party. I'm not a leftie Archbishop, or a right-wing Archbishop."

Sitting on the Banking Standards Commission, Archbishop Welby has been sharply critical of the practices of some banks (News, 18 January). Yet he is not an ideological critic of capitalism. He told The Sunday Times this week: "The efficient allocation of capital is a good, enabling companies to grow."

On Tuesday of last week, it was the turn of MPs to make their views known on church affairs. The Labour MP Diana Johnson introduced a Bill into the House of Commons that would amend the law to allow women to be admitted to the episcopate (News, 15 March). She accused the women-bishops working party, which was set up to resolve the deadlock on women bishops, of "lacking urgency".

Did Ms Johnson have a point? "Far from it. I appreciate what she's doing, but she's wrong. It's not showing a lack of urgency - there's a great deal of urgency. . . She obviously thinks that we're not going quickly enough; I think we're working extremely hard on it and as well as we can. We want to get this done."

Asked what sort of package he would like to see brought before the General Synod in July, Archbishop Welby refuses to prejudge the working group's outcome. If the Church of England were a political party, the situation would be more straightforward, "because we'd have passed the Measure by a majority and chucked out everyone who disagreed with us; nice and simple.

"It's just not Christian. It's not what we do. We're bound together by a common baptism through the work of the Holy Spirit, and I don't think we should have the liberty of saying to people: 'This is how it's going to be, and that's just too bad if you don't like it.'

"Now, in the end, we make decisions, but I think, on the whole, that the fact that the Church has existed for as long as it has shows that the way we do it tends to have some virtue."

Soon after moving into Lambeth Palace, Archbishop Welby appointed the Canon Director of Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral, David Porter, to his personal staff (News, 22 February). An initial focus for Mr Porter - whom Archbishop Welby describes as "one of the world's major experts" in conflict resolution - has been to facilitate discussions between the different factions in the Synod.

Holding discussions behind closed doors has provided "safe spaces where people can say what they think and listen to each other, and it not all be observed", Archbishop Welby says. "You can't do everything with journalists listening."

HE ALSO intends to adopt a "relationally based" approach to the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) and the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which is scheduled to have its second meeting in May ( News, 27 April 2012).

"We've got to find good ways of listening to what they have to say, and them listening to what others have to say. I mean, you don't have to agree to be in the same Church - we very seldom do agree in the same Church - but you have to find ways in which we continue to love each other, because that's the primary calling.

"The point about Anglicans, of course, is that, unlike a number of other denominations, we tend to do our arguing in public; so it's rather more obvious. But it doesn't mean there's any more arguing."

During a meeting of the FCA in London last year, the Primates of Nigeria and Kenya suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury should no longer chair the Primates' Meeting. Instead, the chairman should be elected by the Primates themselves, they said.

Archbishop Welby is sympathetic to their point of view. "I think I very much understand what they're saying. We have to find a way for the structures of the Communion over time to reflect the realities of our commonality in the grace of God, and ensure that they are not simply driven by the imperial accident of history.

"All structures need to change from time to time - to reflect changes in history, in culture, in experience, in means of communication. They always have done in the Anglican Communion: we don't have a single thing which has always been the way it is. So I'm sure that, over time, the structures will continue to flex and adapt."

When Archbishop Welby's appointment was announced, much was made of his inexperience as a diocesan bishop: he had been Bishop of Durham for just under a year. But his experience of wider Anglican Communion affairs is more extensive than perhaps has been realised.

Andrew Atherstone's new biography, Archbishop Justin Welby: The road to Canterbury ( News and Comment, 15 March), describes how he was appointed a "pastoral visitor" to help resolve disputes in the Communion. Furthermore, through the international reconciliation work that he first undertook at Coventry Cathedral, he has forged close relationships with Anglicans in Africa, especially in Nigeria, which he has visited 75 times.

"The job of Archbishop of Canterbury encompasses a role across the Anglican Communion," he says. "All my experience over the last ten years has been of the importance of recognising that what happens in one place in the Communion has a deep impact across the Communion.

"It's not just that we have an impact there, wherever "there" may be, but there, wherever there may be, has an impact on us. And we are bound together not by mere history, but by our baptism, by bonds of affection, by a deep sense of belonging as a family, not as some kind of institutional organisation."

N THE matter of sexuality, a fierce point of contention within the C of E and across the wider Communion, Archbishop Welby reaffirms the Church's official line: "The Church of England teaches that marriage is a lifelong union of one man to one woman, and nothing we've done has changed that. There is no challenge to that in anything that the Church has done over the last few years. That remains absolutely clearly our position."

In an interview with LBC Radio last week, he had said that it would be "completely absurd" to suggest that the love expressed in gay relationships was "less than the love there is between straight couples" (News, 15 March).

If this is so, is it not time for the Church to offer blessing services to same-sex couples? The Archbishop responds: "The House of Bishops made it quite clear there will be no liturgical provision in that area, and that remains very clearly the case, and that's a view that I support."

He says that he is attempting to articulate "a fairly nuanced position" on sexuality. "It's perfectly clear . . . that you find relationships within the LGBT communities that are deeply loving, profoundly committed, and stable. It's equally clear that you find some relationships within marriage that are dysfunctional, damaging, harmful.

"So the idea that the quality of affection in all straight relationships is always better than in all gay relationships is obviously contrary to the evidence.

"But it remains absolutely clear that the Christian ideal for the upbringing of children is in a stable relationship between a man and a woman, committed in marriage to one another for life, and to the nurture and support of members of that family. Now, the nature of the family will vary culturally; it may be more extended or less extended. But the nature of the family in different forms is the basic building-block of our society."

At the same time, Archbishop Welby would like to see those on both sides of the sexuality debate exercising "self-awareness as to what assumptions, what framework we're bringing to the [biblical] text".

The disagreements over sexuality are complex, and point to wider discussions about "hermeneutics" and "issues around scriptural authority, and the very nature of the documents themselves: are they documents only of their time? Words like 'inspiration' - what do they mean by 'inspiration'?"

HOW does Archbishop Welby approach the Bible? "I think that there are moments - though I wouldn't want to defend this - when I want to mutter to myself, 'It all comes down to hermeneutics.' I certainly don't want to defend that, because it's not true, but it sometimes feels like it."

It is important to employ "a very self-aware hermeneutic, a hermeneutic of suspicion in how we read, in what causes us to read in different ways". He describes "our capacity simply to circle the wagons and have a nice, safe system, which nobody challenges us on".

Listening to people with whom one disagrees profoundly is "very important", he says. He always has at least one biblical commentary on the go, "which will often be deliberately taken in order to challenge my thinking, to be slightly unsettling, because I'm very aware of the partiality of my experience and my reflection".

He has recently been reading Islamic liberation theology, which has "been very challenging, because there you see from within a different faith-tradition a very different approach, both to Qur'anic interpretation and interaction with Christians".

Working through biblical books, such as the Psalms, with Christian leaders overseas, often in areas of violent conflict, he has observed the different hermeneutical process "or grid" that others bring to the text. "That is very challenging, and makes you question to a degree how you understand it yourself."

Archbishop Welby was converted to Christianity in the conservative Evangelical climate of the Round Church in Cambridge. "I'd still describe myself as a conservative Evangelical if I had to put a label on, but the trouble with the label is it brings so much baggage."

The influences on Archbishop Welby have extended beyond Evangelicalism. In Norwich, he is pleased to bump into his former Vicar at Holy Trinity, Brompton, Bishop Sandy Millar, through whom he became acquainted with the Charismatic movement, in particular the ministry of John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement.

Archbishop Welby has described Fr Nicholas Buttet, a Roman Catholic priest who became his spiritual director in 2003, as one of the "formative influences" on his life; and, since 2004, he has been a Benedictine oblate.

His theological influences are eclectic: he finds Professor David Ford "very helpful"; Professor Anthony Thiselton's writings on hermeneutics have been very influential; and he finds it "difficult to dip into Karl Barth without finding something of worth". Revisiting the early Fathers over the past two or three years, he has "been struck by what I haven't seen before".

WHEN his appointment was announced, Archbishop Welby said that the work of the Church of England was primarily done 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" (News, 9 November).

Archbishop Welby reiterates his commitment to the parish, pointing out that he was a parish priest for ten years, and that, for the four years when he was Dean of Liverpool, the cathedral was "immersed in the local community". He is "absolutely passionate about the capacity of parishes to grow, serve their communities, and be transformational influences".

But, while the parish is "utterly essential", it is "not sufficient". It is necessary to look "for new ways of enabling people to find the Church, for the Church to come to them". Lord Williams was "extremely wise" to talk about the "mixed economy", he says.

"Our understanding of the incarnation of Christ is that God comes to us in identifiable form, as a baby, not threatening. And that has to be the model. Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry are ways in which we say, OK, how do we ensure that people find the grace and love of God, and see the treasure that there is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in ways that they can find accessible?"

The incarnation should also teach the Church about "risky living", he says. "The incarnation is the most extraordinary example in human terms of risky living: it's God emptying himself and taking the form of a servant; that just in itself is full of the unpredictable.

"Now, obviously, at the same time, it's entirely covered in the providence of God. But for Jesus in his humanity, wandering around Palestine under military occupation in the first century was not a risk-free occupation."

HERE is "no one technique by which we will deliver a renewal of the Church and the growth of the Church", Archbishop Welby says. "The only way in which that happens is God."

Despite his career as a treasurer in the oil industry, Archbishop Welby insists that he does not intend to take "a corporate approach". He "wouldn't make too much" of his corporate background. "I was never that brilliant. . . I don't think it gives me any better qualifications to be Archbishop than anyone else, just different ones."

Nevertheless, senior clergy who have had meetings with Archbishop Welby have remarked on his efficient, business-like approach. Does he plan to enact changes at Lambeth Palace, which has been likened to a royal court? "I've never worked in a royal court; so I've no means of comparing. I mean, Lambeth Palace is full of people working extremely hard and not paid a huge amount of money."

Becoming Archbishop of Canterbury has been an "extraordinary" experience. The learning curve, not surprisingly, is steep.

"You realise that quite casual comments . . . have far more weight than one wants them to have. And my old habit, and I think the habit of many in the Church, of thinking aloud is actually one to be discouraged, because it can be seen as a change of policy rather than a reflection."

He is keen, none the less, to continue to be open in his dealings with the press and others. At a media reception in Lambeth Palace earlier this month, he mingled happily with journalists, seeming to enjoy their company more than his predecessor did. He has commissioned Mark Elsdon-Dew, from Holy Trinity, Brompton (and a relative by marriage), to conduct a review of his communications; and, iPad in hand, will he be able to resist blogging about his activities and views?

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