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A ‘Justin-effect’?

21 March 2014

ON THIS day last year, the Most Revd Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop in Canterbury. He ends his first year without having restricted his ability to manoeuvre through ill-judged utterance. His biggest headache, the Anglican Communion, remains together, though the centrifugal forces have increased. His work on the Banking Commission and with credit unions has won him respect. His public persona is undeveloped, but this is reasonable after just one year.

In his inaugural sermon, Archbishop Welby quoted Pope Francis, elected in Rome a week earlier. Comparisons between the two men are inevitable, and this week's announcement of a joint initiative against people-trafficking is an encouraging sign that the two Communions are seeking more active engagement. As the Pope and the Archbishop have tackled their respective offices, similarities have emerged. Both are self-deprecating, uncomfortable with pomp, and came to office having seen the worst that humans can inflict upon each other: Pope Francis during the "Dirty War" in Argentina, Archbishop Welby on his various trips to war-torn areas of Africa. It might be argued that the Pope has the harder task ahead of him. He was elected as a reformer, and has so far taken on the Curia, appointed a personal "cabinet" drawn from outside Rome, summoned a synod to discuss marriage and divorce, and issued an unprecedented questionnaire to the faithful, the response to which will define his willingness to change pastoral practice, if not doctrine. Francis has the authority to make these changes because he is Pope. A refrain of Archbishop Welby's is that he is not a pope. Every new incumbent at Canterbury must learn how to operate with very little personal power. On the issue of same-sex marriage, for example, he has no power over his bishops to enforce discipline - and they, in turn, most likely, have no power to enforce it over most of their clergy. The effect of this powerlessness goes beyond the occasional awkwardness with incredulous overseas church leaders. As successive predecessors have found, it seriously inhibits the freedom of expression that is an essential part of the job. If the Archbishop disagrees with his Church's policy, he cannot complain or campaign. Perhaps once or twice he can say: "I think this, but cannot do anything about it;" beyond that, he undermines his own authority and that of his Church.

In one respect at least, the Pope and the Archbishop resemble football managers. Their words can be analysed, but at the end of the day, it is the performance of their teams that must be judged. The "Francis effect" has improved morale within the RC Church to an unexpected extent, and there are signs that the ball might be moving out of defence. Archbishop Welby is less of a public figure, preferring backroom negotiation to open-air exhortation. This approach has helped to prevent another own goal over women bishops. On the issue of same-sex relationships, however, he has various groups in his team kicking in opposite directions, and he is thus constrained from speaking freely about it. It is for this reason that an honest appraisal of the Archbishop's first year as leader must also encompass the willingness of Anglicans to be led.

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