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Identity in Christ, not in DNA

15 April 2016

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s faith has been his true anchor, says Andrew Atherstone


Family: Justin Welby as a baby in April 1956, with his mother, Jane, and Gavin Welby

Family: Justin Welby as a baby in April 1956, with his mother, Jane, and Gavin Welby

SPEAKING to young people in Zambia last week — two days before The Daily Telegraph splashed revelations of his biological father across its front page — the Archbishop of Canterbury declared: “We need to be a Church where I am who I am because I am in Jesus Christ. That’s the only thing that gives me identity, and you will see why I am saying that in a couple of days’ time.”

This has been his consistent response to a bewildering discovery, after the results of his DNA test. Rather than hide from the facts, Archbishop Welby has embraced them with remarkable public poise and good humour. When the news broke, he reiterated: “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

Archbishop Welby makes it a personal rule, whenever speaking on public platforms, always to talk about Jesus Christ. Indeed, as he told Songs of Praise, he sees it as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s responsibility “to enable not just faith, but faith in Jesus Christ, to be at the centre of our conversation”.

These new deeply personal revelations about a drunken one-night stand 60 years ago, and the chaotic turmoil of a broken home, are a surprising opportunity to bring the gospel of grace and redemption to public attention.


WHEN the Archbishop speaks of his faith, he frequently emphasises personal experience of the love of Jesus, supremely displayed at Calvary, bringing radical life transformation. As he wrote in the foreword to his 2014 Lent Book, Looking Through the Cross by Graham Tomlin (Bloomsbury): “The cross is the moment of deepest encounter and most radical change. God is crucified — my Friend died — in some way, for me.”

Last autumn, Archbishop Welby celebrated the 40th anniversary of his conversion, which he can date precisely to Sunday 12 October 1975, at ten minutes to midnight. On that memorable evening, he knelt down in the rooms of an undergraduate friend at Trinity College, Cambridge, and “opened my life to Jesus”.

His friend explained that Jesus died on the cross out of love for sinners, and when Archbishop Welby “surrendered to God”, it was “like the world changing, like someone I’d never known coming into the room and being there”. He describes it as “the most ultimately liberating thing I could ever do. That’s where the cross led me.”


THAT intimate encounter with Christ, daily renewed, continues to sustain the Archbishop, even in the media glare. It transforms his sense of identity and purpose. But there were earlier staging posts on that journey of faith. His final year at Eton coincided with a particularly stressful meltdown in the relationship with his alcoholic father, Gavin Welby. Justin flunked his A levels as a result.

He wanted to spend a gap year as a volunteer teacher in Kenya, but Gavin refused to countenance it; so Justin’s mother, Jane, sold a diamond ring that she had inherited from her godmother to pay for the flights.

Travelling to East Africa enabled Justin to escape from his father’s orbit, but the letters that came back from home were often abrasive and upsetting. He told Gavin that he would not reply if they continued.

Then, however, in June 1974, in the Kenyan outback, Justin had a moment of spiritual encounter, a foretaste of his Cambridge conversion. In the words of a fellow gap-year volunteer, Justin “re-dedicated his life, and accepted Christ as Lord”.

The immediate result was a strong desire to write to his difficult father to put their relationship straight. Even in those early days, as he fumbled towards faith, the gospel was beginning to shape Welby’s deepest identity and his attitude towards his broken family.


AT OTHER moments of crisis, Archbishop Welby has found himself clinging to Christ. His infant daughter, Johanna, was killed in a car accident in France in 1983, a trauma he describes as “the most utter agony”, but also a time of deep experience of God. The tragedy drove Welby and his wife, Caroline, back to the cross of Christ, where they took renewed strength.

Reflecting on that experience, the Archbishop explained: “God is aware of our suffering, of the suffering of this very broken world . . . he is at work even in the darkest places. . . The cross is the great pointer where the suffering, and sorrow, and torture, and trial, and sin, and yuck of the world ends up on God’s shoulders, out of love for us” (interview with Premier Christian Radio, March 2013).

Caroline Welby believes that the bereavement has contributed directly to her husband’s vocation to pastoral ministry, and to his work among grieving families and communities in situations of conflict.


THE Church of England was slow to recognise Archbishop Welby’s potential. When he first offered himself for ordination in 1987, the Bishop of Kensington, John Hughes, famously took against him, bluntly observing: “I’ve interviewed more than a thousand candidates for ordination, and you don’t come in the top thousand. I can tell you: you have no future in the Church of England.”

The Bishop assumed that Welby had led a sheltered life at Eton, Cambridge, and Kensington, inoculated from the harsh realities of real life. Only as Welby’s more complicated life story began to emerge — and after the Revd Sandy Millar, his Vicar at Holy Trinity, Brompton, had given the Bishop a sharp rebuke — did the doors to ordination open.


THE Daily Telegraph has reminded the world this week of the Archbishop’s painful formative years. That upbringing has shaped his pastoral instinct and evangelistic urgency. He speaks of “tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives”, but also of “the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us”.

His deepest identity is not found in the genealogies of Archbishop Welby or Sir Anthony Montague Browne, but in being adopted into the family of God. When every family secret is revealed, and every human legacy weighed in the balance, relationship with the Saviour Jesus Christ provides the only safe anchor in an unpredictable world.

“Go out there with the gospel,” the Archbishop told students at St Mellitus College in 2013. “Carry the gospel into the world around. Do not hold back. We have the best news there is.”


The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and the author of Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and reconciler (DLT, 2014).

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