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Taking up the cross of St Augustine

29 August 2014

Richard Harries reads  lives of Archbishops Williams and Welby

Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and reconciler
Andrew Atherstone
DLT £18.99
(978-0-232-53072-8)
Church Times Bookshop Special Offer £17.10 (Use code CT945 )

Rowan's Rule: The biography of the Archbishop (Revised with new material)
Rupert Shortt
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99
(978-1-444-78743-6)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT945 )

I HAVE known seven Archbishops of Canterbury, all able and godly men, but Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, in their very different ways, are the most original and interesting.

The general outline of Archbishop Welby's life is now fairly well known, but it is good to have this full biography by Andrew Atherstone, which, within the limited time that was available, is well researched and readable. The first chapter on the new Archbishop's painful childhood is particularly moving.

As his housemaster said in a letter to his mother when he was leaving, "Many a boy would have been off the rails completely by the problems which Justin has had to face, and I admire enormously the patience and wisdom he has shown in dealing with them."

Here, I think, is a clue to how he is approaching the divisions in the Anglican Communion. As he continued to support his alcoholic, volatile father as a teenager, so he regards all fellow Anglicans as part of "the family", and, as such, not to be thrown out. There is also a clue from his Cambridge days in the way he coxed the college boat "with nerves of steel", a characteristic described by Lord Williams of Elvel, who became his stepfather, as a "ruthless streak" that, if directed in the right way, could do much good.

What Atherstone's book brings out is the remarkable way these and other experiences have shaped the rich bundle of gifts that Archbishop Welby brings: first, his time in high finance in the oil industry, which he was clearly good at. "Treasury teaches you to be decisive. Markets don't allow you to hang about and vacillate. And treasury teaches you about teamwork and working collaboratively."

Then, in addition to his time as a curate in a deprived area and as the vicar of a traditional market-town parish, there is his remarkable ministry at Coventry in reconcili- ation work, going into some of the most dangerous parts of the world, where his own life was seriously at risk. Fundamental to his approach here, as later, is to see reconciliation not as a path to an early agreement, but as a way of bringing antagonists together in order to bring about a better and less violent form of disagreement - disagreement without rancour.

His times at Liverpool Cathedral and at Durham were much too short, but in both he had begun to make an impact, and they have given him a further feel for the C of E in its different forms. This breadth of vision is also reflected in his spirituality. Still happy to be described as a conservative Evangelical, he has been decisively influenced by the Charismatic movement. At the same time, he is nourished by Catholic spirituality, has a Roman Catholic spiritual director, and has installed members of an RC religious order at Lambeth.

The Vatican requires two authenticated miracles for someone to be made a saint. Archbishop Welby already qualifies. First, he took the General Synod back to scratch on the issue of women bishops, and so transformed the atmosphere that it finally went through on a much bigger margin in the House of Laity than people were expecting.

Second, he switched the press from talking about the Church of England and sex to the Church of England on money. He has talked clearly and authoritatively about payday lending, the need for banking reform, and issues of poverty. As he told his first diocesan-synod meeting at Durham, "Everything to do with money is merely theology in numbers."

The first edition of Rowan's Rule was published in 2008, and had a very positive reception. In this edition, Rupert Shortt adds five new chapters, taking the story of Rowan Williams (Lord Williams of Oystermouth) up to his installation as President of Magdalene College, Cambridge. It is particularly good to have here a transcript of some of the CD that the former Archbishop made with Canon John Young of York, in which he talks about fundamental issues of belief.

Equally valuable is what has come out of personal interviews that Shortt has had with Rowan Williams, and a discussion of his 2008 Cambridge lecture "What difference does it make?" Shortt has done a great job with, first, his book introducing the former Archbishop's theology, and now with this revised biography. But there is still a third, more difficult, book to be written by him, looking at the vast corpus of Rowan Williams's writings on such a wide range of subjects, and trying to see them as a comprehensive whole.

What comes out strongly in this new edition is the overriding priority that Archbishop Williams gave to preserving the unity of the Church, even at the cost of his personal convictions. This was a priority that came naturally to him not only from his study of church history, but his conviction as a deeply Catholic churchman. The cost not just to his convictions but to his person was huge. He literally bore within himself the strains and antagonisms of the Church, and saw it as his vocation to do so. Future historians may well judge that it was this prolonged prayerful suffering that actually held the Communion together at a time when any other form of leadership might have finally cut its already frayed edges.

When Rowan Williams first took up office, he said that his priority was to recapture the imagination of people for the Christian faith. Sadly, so far as we can tell, hostile and ignorant forces were such that this has not yet been achieved. What he did succeed in doing was getting the serious intellectual respect of secular thinkers in a way no archbishop since William Temple has succeeded in doing. It is a wonderful piece of divine irony that, at a time when religion was meant to be in retreat, the two most outstanding public intellectuals of the time were the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks.

What the subjects of both these biographies have in common is a nice line in humorous self-depreciation and a profound humility. In both of them it springs from the same source, the centrality of Jesus Christ in their lives rooted in a disciplined life of prayer. We have been, and are being, much blessed by their faith and their gifts.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. A new edition of his book Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian roots of our political values (DLT) is being published for election year.

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