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Welby tells of Christmases past and present

22 December 2014


Castaway: The Archbishop of Canterbury with the presenter Kirsty Young, last week 

Castaway: The Archbishop of Canterbury with the presenter Kirsty Young, last week 

THE Archbishop of Canterbury spoke openly about about trials he has endured as a son and a father, in an interview broadcast for Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, on Sunday.

Archbishop Welby advised those facing a difficult Christmas without a loved one: "Attack the day, so that it doesn't attack you. I think the most helpful thing is to celebrate the person, to remember them with love, to remember what they gave, what you gave them."

He recalled to the programme's presenter, Kirsty Young, the death in 1983 of his daughter, Johanna, aged 7 months, in a car crash. It was a "constant reminder of the uncertainty of life. The only certainty in life is Christ. Everything else is contingent."             

The Archbishop told Ms Young that Blessed be your name by Matt and Beth Redman (the refrain of which is "You give and take away") encapsulated this experience. It was the song he would save if all but one of his selections were swept away in the waves, he said.

Asked about his experience as the son of an alcoholic father, he described one Christmas he spent alone, while his father stayed in bed all day. Finding all the shops closed, and "a sandwich or something" in the fridge, he had had a "grim, grim day". His father was "always unpredictable, sometimes very full of rage and anger".

It was not all grim. Beethoven's sixth symphony reminded him of his grandmother's house in Norfolk and a "sense of security and safety and a place that was good, with family". He provided some insights into a happy family life as a husband, and father of five, that included "very noisy" games of Racing Demon, during which he sang The Lion Sleeps Tonight (his first track) to distract other players. Ironing was a good opportunity, he found, to pray.

His earliest memory was having tea with Winston Churchill, in 1961: "I remember a very, very old man and he cried. I don't know why, and because he cried, I cried, and then we sat and had tea."

Arriving in the radio studio just hours after flying in from Sierra Leone, where he met Ebola victims, the Archbishop drew several times on his experiences in Africa. His fourth musical choice was Yesu Odeshi, performed by Kapicho of South Sudan. It reminded him of "that sense of their faith and trust and joy in God, in the midst of absolute horror".

Asked about the Church's position on gay relationships, he said "I'm really not going to answer the question very well", arguing that it would be "inappropriate" to "weigh in", during the process of facilitated conversations. But, he said: "It's something that, as you go round the Communion, and having visited all the provinces, I'm very aware of this, that it is seen by many as an absolutely central understanding of obedience to Christ in both directions either in favour of against."

Choosing songs, he confessed, had been "like pulling teeth" owing to his incapability to remember the music he liked. But with the aid of a colleague, he had selected tracks including the anthem God is with us by John Taverner, which he had heard at Coventry Cathedral; and Gerry & the Pacemakers' You'll Never Walk Alone, which reminded him of Liverpool, an "amazing, wonderful, poor, battered, thrusting, lively, humorous city"; Listen, Listen, O my child,  which had been commissioned from Michael Berkeley by his mother and step-father, for his archiepiscopal installation.

With his trademark self-deprecation, he confessed that his "constant companion" as Archbishop of Canterbury​ is Imposter Syndrome. But becoming a Christian had revealed that "there was someone who knew me better than I knew myself, and who loves me more deeply than anyone, despite knowing absolutely everything about me, including the things I deeply dislike about myself."

His luxury item was the complete boxed set of the West Wing, a seven-series show about the challenges of high office. 

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