FAITH leaders have praised the “moving”, “compassionate”, and “dignified” manner in which the Archbishop of Canterbury dealt with the revelation about the identity of his biological father.
Until a month ago, Archbishop Welby believed that his father was Gavin Welby, who divorced Justin’s mother when Justin was three, and who died when he was 21.
The discovery that the Archbishop is the son of the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Sir Winston Churchill’s last private secretary, followed a DNA test. This was prompted by evidence pieced together by Charles Moore of The Daily Telegraph (News, 9 April).
The results had come as a “complete surprise”, the Archbishop said in a statement last Friday. After describing the alcoholism of both his parents, and his “messy” early life, he went on to speak of his pride in his mother, who has been in recovery since 1968, and a life of “great blessing and wonderful support”.
He went on: “My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.”
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, praised the Archbishop’s “very moving” statement, which he said was “indicative of the peace, love, forgiveness, and resolve” of God.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said that he was “full of admiration for the dignified manner” in which Archbishop Welby and his mother, Lady Williams of Elvel, handled the news.
“Upheaval in family life is neither uncommon nor easy to embrace,” he said. “Every family knows this. But to do so with such steadiness and honesty in the full glare of publicity is remarkable, and yet fully characteristic of them both. This is a great tribute to their Christian faith.”
In a video interview with the BBC this week, Archbishop Welby said that he was “not embarrassed in any way” over the revelation. “I suspect that most of us process these things very slowly, and so I didn’t have hysterics. I put the phone back in my pocket, and got on.”
In the same report, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that the story would have a positive impact on those who discovered similar revelations later in life. “They will identify with the Archbishop and his story, and he to them,” he said. “I think it will increase even more his pastoral sensitivity.”
The Archbishop decided to take the DNA test — in which his mouth swabs were compared with hair samples from Sir Anthony — after Mr Moore went to him privately to tell him of rumours that he had heard from the Browne family. Mr Moore arranged the test. The Telegraph reports that the results showed a 99.9799 per cent probability that they were father and son.
Archbishop Welby received the results on the Wednesday of Holy Week, and informed his mother the next day, telling her that “I wasn’t in any way upset, which I wasn’t, and I remain not upset.”
Lady Williams, who has served on the Parole Board and as a magistrate, said in a statement that the news had come as an “almost unbelievable shock”. Neither she nor Gavin Welby had ever doubted that they were the parents of Justin, who was born almost nine months to the day after their marriage.
“I have watched Justin, from an almost impossible childhood, grow into what he is today, marry his beautiful wife, Caroline, and see his children and now grandchildren grow up,” she said. “As a family we are truly blessed.
“But none of this would have been possible without our firm Christian faith, and a determination never to relinquish hope. God has given us so much, and my gratitude knows no bounds.”
The Archbishop said on Monday that his mother had been “extraordinarily courageous”, and that his children had been “incredibly supportive” of their grandmother.
“They adore her, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “I have the same life history I had before. . . Absolutely nothing has changed. I am who I am in Jesus Christ, and nothing more or less than that. Nothing changes.”
In his statement, the Archbishop said: “Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy, in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us; grace and power which is offered to every human being.”
The Archbishop has previously spoken candidly about his childhood. On Desert Island Discs, he described a lonely Christmas with his father, who was “always unpredictable, sometimes very full of rage and anger” (News, 2 January, 2015).
Sir Anthony, whom the Archbishop met as a small boy, died a few days after the Archbishop’s installation in Canterbury in 2013. Shortly before Sir Anthony died, he was shown a picture of the Archbishop banging on the door of the Cathedral with his crozier, and admitted that it was credible that this was his son.
Friends told the Telegraph that he was also anxious to meet his newly discovered half-sister, Jane Hoare-Temple, who, like him, grew up believing that she was an only child. Ms Hoare-Temple, aged 63, is the only child of the first marriage of Montague Browne.
Archbishop Welby had hinted at the revelation to come during his discussions with young Africans on the eve of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meeting in Zambia, on Friday.
“We need to be a Church where I am who I am because I am in Jesus Christ,” he told them. “That’s the only thing that gives me identity, and you will see why I am saying that in a couple of days’ time.”
Church officials had been prompted to check canon law, the Telegraph reported, to clarify that the results had no bearing on the Archbishop’s eligibility to hold his post. A 1964 revision of canon law states: “No person shall be refused consecration as bishop on the grounds that he was born out of lawful wedlock.” In any case, the Archbishop was born within wedlock.
The reports were briefly discussed before opening prayers on the second day of the meeting of the ACC in Zambia on Saturday. The statement by the Archbishop, present among members, was read out by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock.
Despite being worthy of a soap opera, the news had been “very carefully reported”, Bishop Stock said. He was “really delighted” that journalists had drawn out the themes of redemption, grace, and hope.
Visibly moved, he described the Archbishop’s response: “I feel his openness, his complete honesty, is absolutely typical of the man I work with. One of the things that always strikes those who work with him is the closeness of his family, and the way they support each other through all that life throws at them. . . All that remains absolutely true.”