THE Archbishop of Canterbury has described the revelation about the identity of his biological father as a story of redemption and hope.
Until a month ago, the Archbishop, the Most Revd Justin Welby, believed that his father was Gavin Welby, a difficult, alcoholic man who divorced Justin’s mother when Justin was only three, and who died when he was 21.
The discovery that he is, in fact, 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.
The results had come as a “complete surprise”, the Archbishop said in a statement on 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 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 shared them with his mother the following day, telling her: “I wasn’t in any way upset, which I wasn’t, and I remain not upset.”
His mother, Lady Williams of Elvel, 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.”
Speaking on Today on BBC Radio 4, Mr Moore said that the Archbishop had been most concerned about the effect of the news on his mother, born Jane Portal, now Lady Williams after her second marriage in 1975.
In his statement, the Archbishop said: “By the grace of God, found in Christian faith, through the NHS, through Alcoholics Anonymous, and through her own very remarkable determination and effort, my mother has lived free of alcohol, has a very happy marriage, and has contributed greatly to society as a probation officer, member of the National Parole Board, Prison Visitor and with involvement in penal reform.”
He went on: “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. Even more importantly, my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.
“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.”
He had hinted at the revelation to come during his discussions with young Africans on the eve of the Anglican Consultative Council 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 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. It was discovered that, under Archbishop Fisher in the 1950s, canon law was changed to state that: “No person shall be refused consecration as bishop on the grounds that he was born out of lawful wedlock.”
The reports were briefly discussed before opening prayers at the second day of the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council 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 it 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.”
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, issued a statement of support, praising the Archbishop’s “very moving” statement, which was “indicative of the peace, love, forgiveness and resolve that we are not only all called to, but all endowed with if w but allow God’s healing, reconciling and comforting presence in our lives.
“This is of course also indicative of the personable and ‘real’ character we have all come to know to be Justin Welby, who, I am confident, will have this experience further enrich his ministry of compassion.”
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 he died, he was shown a picture of him banging on the door of the Cathedral with his crozier, and admitted that it was “croyable” (credible) that this was his son.
Archbishop Welby referred to his own experience on that day in his statement on Friday:
“At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: ‘We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?’ To which I responded: ‘I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in his service together.’ What has changed? Nothing!"