To bless and not to bless: Archbishop Welby in conversation

16 February 2018

Justin Welby reflects on five years at the Archbishop of Canterbury in conversation with Paul Handley

Richard Watt

Has it sunk in yet? Do you feel like the Archbishop of Canterbury?

I often ask myself that question. I don’t think so, no. I’ve no idea what it feels like to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, if I’m really honest [laughing a little]. Yes, there are moments when it sinks in; and then there are moments when you think, “No, they must be talking about someone else.” Impostor syndrome is a fairly constant companion, I think.


And are there times when you think: “I wish I weren’t”?

I’d be lying if I said: “No, never”. But they are glitches. The underlying tune, the underlying theme, is a great sense of thankfulness and privilege of being in this role. Yes, you have moments, but they last very few minutes.


Is it possible to say what the hardest thing is about being Archbishop?

Safeguarding. That’s the hardest thing to deal with in almost every respect. It’s the hardest because you’re dealing with the Church’s sin. You’re dealing with profound human weakness. You’re dealing with the consequences in damaged people, in people who’ve been terribly, terribly hurt.

And it’s heart-breaking. You can’t read the Gibb report or Cahill or Elliott or the Chichester Visitation, or even Carlile, which was taking a slightly different angle — you can’t read those without your heart being broken by it. And I just find it tragic.

I think we’ve sought to address it, both in mechanistic ways but also spiritually, in prayer, in attitude and culture. We’ve sought to address it in every way we can. But it is the hardest thing.


And do you think you’re succeeding in addressing it correctly?

Time will tell. I think the Church today has a dramatically different attitude to 25, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. We’ve got the Measure that came in about safeguarding; we’ve got a much greater commitment of resources. I think five years ago we had 0.5 of a person at the national level; we now have quite a big team.

So, resources have gone in; but, much more importantly, attitude has changed. So that nobody, I hope and I believe, would think it appropriate to shift someone to another parish, that kind of terrible thing that used to happen in the past. Everyone is trained. I go through training, and repeat training, on disclosure, on dealing with disclosures. It comes up at every senior staff meeting right across the country. People are constantly focused on it so that if something happens now it will be reported — and not to report it is very, very serious indeed.


Of course, there are people who are saying it has gone too far. . .



: . . . in that the situation now is anybody accused of a safeguarding lapse of any sort is in trouble. How do you square those two concerns?

I don’t think we have squared them yet. I’ve read the Carlile report very, very carefully, and I’ve accepted its recommendations — all except half of one recommendation. I think he points out some of the quite severe weaknesses in the initial investigation of George Bell, which, in a sense, exemplify what you’re asking about. We have to have a system that brings justice. It must bring justice to those who’ve been abused, to survivors, and it must also bring justice to those who are accused. We cannot have something which either overlooks safeguarding issues and abuse, in its many varied forms, or, alternatively, is unjust in its treatment of those who are accused.


Richard Watt/Church TimesRichard Watt/Church Times

In a sense that’s the half-clause of the Carlile report, the dispute about the anonymity of those who’ve been accused. So how is that resolved?

With immense difficulty. Let me put it the other way round: let’s just have a hypothetical situation in which Chichester diocese had not declared its payment two years ago. With the Independent Inquiry — which is something I called for, to have an independent inquiry, and supported both privately and publicly — with its thoroughness, that confidential undertaking would certainly have become public.

Now, the first question, when I give evidence, would then be asked: “What else are you hiding? What do you really know about George Bell that you are not telling us, because you’re so anxious to keep it secret?” It’s a lose-lose.

And I fully understand the difficulty, and I don’t find it easy to deal with, but it is very . . . We have to treat both Bishop Bell, his reputation, we have to hold that as something really precious and valuable.

But the person who has brought the complaint is not an inconvenience to be overlooked: they are a human being of immense value and dignity, to be treated equally importantly. And it is very difficult to square that circle.


As an example of a church failing which lands up on your desk, and you as Archbishop are held responsible for, not only what’s happened on your watch but what’s happened in the past as well in a way. . .

Before I was born, in some cases.


How do you cope with that sort of responsibility?

It’s the nature of things. One of the strange things about this role, as in many roles in the Church, is that you are often responsible without having any power to change anything. It’s not power without responsibility: it’s responsibility without power. And that applies in all kinds of areas. People say: “Well why don’t you just do x?” In fact, I remember Rowan in an interview saying something very similar.

And the answer is, strange as it may sound, we don’t have a papal system; you can’t give orders in that way. The Church of England — and, even more, so the Anglican Communion, by a couple of orders of magnitude more — moves through consensus, collaboration, what historically has been called a process of reception, of growing into something and then looking back and saying: “Yes, in this we see the work of the Spirit of God changing us and directing us.”


So what power do you have?

I’m not sure power is the right word. You have the capacity. . . The Archbishop and clergy and lay leaders at all points in the Church have the capacity to bless and not to bless something — to say: “Yes, I support that,” or not to support it. That can make quite a significant difference.

You have certain legal powers, but they’re relatively restricted. Famously, the Archbishops, in either province, don’t hire or fire bishops, which everyone is very surprised about.

Sometimes if you make an appointment that people like, it’s very nice to get the letter saying: “Congratulations on your appointment of whoever.” And you think, that’s nice but, actually, it wasn’t me. And you get the other one that says — usually the same person — “Why did you appoint so and so?” And you think, well actually it wasn’t me.

The big mistake in this role, which I’d sort of worked out before I came, but it has been amply confirmed, is: don’t waste time looking for levers to pull, because there aren’t any. It’s a process of persuasion, of example, of blessing and withholding blessing for particular things.


So, if you receive a letter or an email saying ‘please can you do something about this . . .

Well, there are certain relatively restricted things that I can do. You can speak, you can advocate, you can seek to persuade, you can raise issues. When you get the letter that says: ‘Why don’t you put a billion pounds into such and such?” — and assumes that I ring up the Church Commissioners and say: “Now, put a billion pounds into such and such,” and they snap to attention at the other end of the phone and say “Yes, Archbishop, we’ll do it straight away.” That, of course, is an illusion.


If you haven’t got the ability to make things change. . .

I didn’t say that. Because by blessing, by supporting, by advocating, you can make things change. And I think that’s one of the things that takes longer — but is in many ways more satisfying than a highly hierarchical structure where you give orders and everyone does what they’re told, if that exists. That’s probably how the Church Times works: as the editor, you say: “Go, do this,” and they all immediately do it [laughing]. . .

But what is satisfying. . . For instance, let’s look at some of the things. Renewal of prayer and the religious life: it’s one of the major priorities for what we do. Community of St Anselm: we can’t say to dioceses: “Form a community,” or to other provinces: “Form a religious community.”

But, somehow, in the grace of God that’s happened here, it’s grown: it’s developed, it’s got much deeper roots, it’s wonderful — and we’re seeing other communities growing up in other places.

On the reconciliation front, out of a number of different sources, this Reconciling Leaders Network, Women on the Frontline initiative.

These two things have emerged and we are supporting and blessing them, and we’re seeing them taken up by people around the world.

Thy Kingdom Come is a huge thing: it’s completely outgrown even the Anglican Communion, let alone the Church of England, and is being taken up by churches all round the world.

Now, all that’s happened, I wouldn’t say it’s because I said “that must happen”, because I don’t think that would have had the impact. But, undoubtedly, the fact that the office of the Archbishop supported it opened some doors, and the wind of the Spirit blew. And somehow it caught people’s imagination, and in the grace of God things happened. So you can make things happen; it’s just you can’t give orders and make things happen.

 Richard Watt/Church TimesRichard Watt/Church Times

What sort of freedom to manoeuvre do you have? As Archbishop, and as the years go by, do you find yourself more constrained by an understanding of what’s expected of you, or what the consequences will be if you say something?

I think that’s a really interesting question. And, funnily enough, it’s one that I’ve been pondering over this weekend, probably because five years have gone by [laughs].

I don’t think I’ve got a good answer to it, but I think the answer that’s forming in my thinking is that, as time goes by, you need more determination to do certain things.

But if you have the determination and work with others — I mean, again, it’s not about giving orders — your freedom for manoeuvre is not constrained, to the extent that working with others, and through relationships, there is the opportunity for people to gather a common vision and to move in a particular direction.

And I think part of that is, when the context changes, we change the way we do things.

One of the other changes, I hope, I think, has been that both the College and the House of Bishops have become more willing to discuss — the last meeting was a very good one — more open, more collegial. And that’s not something that I’ve just brought in: it’s happened steadily, with a common view of that happening.

But what that means is you can raise subjects and actually chew them over together, and that reopens your room for manoeuvre.


Ok, I can see that. Do you find yourself biting your tongue more than in the past?

I think I am ever more aware that, if I don’t bite my tongue, the consequences will be painful.

But I have just written a book, which is not a tongue-biting exercise, and — for good or ill, we will wait and see — has quite a lot of not-tongue-biting in it. So, yes, I try to resist the urge to bite my tongue.


Right at the beginning of your primacy, you were said, it might have been in the context of gay marriage: “I must examine my own mind prayerfully and carefully.” I remember a couple of conversations where people were trying to push you to say exactly where you stood on this matter, and you said “Just give me time.” Have you had enough time?

No, not yet [laughs]. I think where that has taken us, taken me, is to this really huge programme around the Episcopal Teaching Document, as it’s called in rather an ungainly fashion (we need something snappy for that). But what that is doing is mapping out the area of our agreement and disagreement.

It’s not coming to find a conclusion. It’s mapping out the area of our agreement and disagreement always around themes of missiology and theological anthropology and general anthropology; and looking at the culture, biblical theology, the philosophical and ethical theology, and the history and patristic theology. Those four great streams.

Now, the issue of how the Church, after 2000 years, deals with understandings of human sexuality is about as big and complicated an issue as you’re ever going to get. And it’s not one you make a snappy decision on.

And I think the point of the episcopal teaching document, which is being looked at by numerous other Churches — and let’s remember that it’s not just us that’s struggling with this, it’s all the global Churches — is that the outcome of it, I hope, will be a much clearer map of the things we agree on; the things we disagree on; and the things we think are really serious disagreements, the most fundamental disagreements.

And coming out of that, we are able to take the next step, in which direction it happens to be. I’m not going to be any more precise than that. And I can make this answer as long as you like, I’ll just go on talking till you ask me to stop, really.


In the mean time, we have had the “good disagreement” process.

Or “disagreeing well”, whichever. . . I prefer “disagreeing well”.


Various people, whom I think you used to be quite close to, people like William Taylor and so on, are saying that this is unbiblical.

Well, I’ve never been that close to William. I’ve met him a couple of dozen times over the last 40 years, I guess. I’m very reluctant to disagree with him on this, but I don’t agree with his biblical view on that. I think when you look through, particularly, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, the latter part of Philippians, Ephesians — I mean, you could go on and on — a lot of the underlying theme is how a Church that was extraordinarily diverse, particularly between Greeks and Jews, or Jews and non-Jews, Greeks meaning everyone who wasn’t Jewish, how that Church found its unity in Jesus Christ, although it disagreed on numerous things, most fundamentally about the application of the law.

And we all know these arguments. Paul, I would not sum up his teaching as “disagreeing well”: I think that would be naff and obviously wildly simplistic; but there is this struggle to see how you live in love and unity when you disagree with one another — and that is disagreeing well.

Now, you can create a straw man and say: “It doesn’t matter what we disagree on, as long as we’re nice to each other” and suggest that I’m saying that. That’s rubbish — of course it matters what we disagree on. These arguments are incredibly important, not only about sexuality, but about numerous other things within the Church.

But do we live out that disagreement in a way that demonstrates that we are caught up in the love of God and the love of Christ? Or do we live them out in a way that says we’re behaving like a political party having a row?


That has quite a fundamental impact on the unity that we’re aiming for.

Indeed. Well, the unity we’re aiming for is the unity that Christ prays for towards the end of John 17. But it’s also the unity that Paul calls for, especially for example in 1 Corinthians 10 onwards; in this wonderful picture in Ephesians 2 — the beautiful, extraordinary picture of the walls being broken down. That was obviously talking in a particular social context.

But that sense of unity without uniformity: we don’t all have to tick exactly the same boxes; but we do have to be devoted to Christ as Lord, we need to be caught up in the love of God in Jesus Christ. We need to be caught up in that love to serve the world around us, to care for the poor and the marginalised and those on the edge. To set aside ourselves. That kind of unity, which I see beautifully — and there’s another thing I really enjoy about this role: when you go somewhere and you find the Church putting aside profound differences — the Church, I don’t just mean the Anglicans, God’s people, the people of Christ — putting aside profound differences in order to serve the most badly hurting and ill-treated and tortured. That is so beautiful, that if we could live that, I cannot see how the world would not be captured by it.


And yet the world can look at the Church as it works through some of these serious ethical and moral questions, and certainly anybody under the age of 30 would say “We’ve sorted that. It’s not a problem. Why are you still obsessing about sexual relations?” for example.

Because [sighs] we are a Church that is caught up, as the people of God in the love of God, in time and space. The Church is not just what we see today around us: it is all those throughout history who loved and served. It is the tradition, it is the scriptures, it is guided by the scriptures, it is held by the scriptures, by the tradition. And working out what it means to live as God’s people in a given age and culture is something we have always struggled with.

There’s nothing new about what we’re going through at the moment. It is on a different subject, but it’s things we’ve done before. We need to learn the lesson of going through these processes of disagreement while demonstrating a profound love for one another.

If you’ll let me slip back into some of my little clichés, which is where I’m obviously happiest, Jesus tells us to love one another, to love our neighbour, to love our enemy. And I keep saying to people: “Well, who is left out? Who does not fall into one of those categories?”


Is this grasped, do you think, within the Anglican Communion at the moment, this approach to disagreement?

On a bad day, I ask myself if it’s grasped within me — when you’ve been infuriated by something and you’re sort of struggling.

In parts, and from time to time. I mean, you’ve got the new-bishops’ course running in Canterbury at the moment — in fact, they’re coming up here tomorrow: 30 bishops from all over the world, colloquially known as “the baby bishops’ course”. And they come from places of the most horrifying conflict: South Sudan, DRC. They come from places of enormous, indescribable wealth.

They come from totally different ways of being and thinking, and they come together and share together their life of learning what it is to be a bishop, down at Canterbury and up here. And you do see them learning to love one another. It’s wonderful: it’s very beautiful.


Richard Watt/Church TimesRichard Watt/Church TimesSo, looking at the Communion now and five years ago, do you think it’s in a better place than it was?

[Hesitates] Talk about a hostage to fortune. All right, yes, I do. But I think that’s building on what was already happening; I’m not taking credit for it in any way.

We’ve had two good Primates’ Meetings. They were jolly difficult at times, but they were good. And they were very, very moving, and I still look back at moments in each of them — particularly prayer together, the eucharist together — and am bowled over by what I saw and participated in, and just think what a privilege that was to have been there. And a good ACC in Lusaka; and we’ve got plans for a Lambeth Conference.


And being physically together is important?

Hugely important. There is no substitute.


Twitter doesn’t make a good substitute?

[Laughs] No, it certainly does not. We are a family. In [my] family, with the children, we have a WhatsApp group. Well, that is not a substitute for the raucous, noisy, boisterous, calm, supportive, argumentative, getting together. Come on. When someone in your family is hurting, you can send all kinds of supportive messages, but it’s not the same as an arm round the shoulder.


In the light of the Philip North withdrawal, the nomination of Sarah Mullally to London, and our various ecumenical discussions, how well is the C of E managing the introduction of women bishops?

It is very good news that there are now women bishops in the Church of England and their ministry is flourishing right across the Church. I am looking forward to working closely with Bishop Sarah as she moves to London.

Since the canon was promulgated in 2014, almost half of new bishop appointments have been women, which is very encouraging. Clearly it is vital that we continue to enable all in the Church to flourish.

The events around Bishop Philip North’s withdrawal and Sheffield were deeply saddening for all involved, men and women, and were a setback. The Bishops remain committed to the five principles, and the report by Sir Philip Mawer was a very helpful and clear guide to the way forward.


I want to move on to the subject of your forthcoming book. What are you attempting to do?

After I wrote a Lent book about two years ago [Dethroning Mammon], I said to all my colleagues: “If you ever see me start another book, please shoot me,” because it was such a painful process. About 18 months, 20 months ago, on holiday, I suppose, following the Brexit vote, it provoked me into thinking what kind of country are we hoping to be? And then I sort of started writing a bit, and it accidentally turned into a book.

And what the book is about — it’s called Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope — what it’s trying to say is, from within a strongly Christian viewpoint, I think we’re at one of those moments which happens probably every three or four generations — I’d say the last one was the generation after 1945; before that the middle decades of the 19th century, [though] that’s an arguable historical point — when we have the opportunity and the necessity to reimagine what our society should look like in this country. I am trying to contribute some ideas to that.

So it starts with a general look at what you might call values, or societal virtues and practices, and then applies it in the great historic triad of areas where reform has been centred over the last couple of hundred years: education, health, and housing. But then it looks at some of the great changes in, say, around the family, around the environment, around foreign policy, and immigration and integration, and the role of faith groups, and the Church in particular.

So, it tries to look at those around a structure of values, and contribute to the discussion I think we need to have as a nation: about what our dream is, to have a hope-filled future for the next years — whether we have Brexit or not, and it looks very likely as we are. But what do we do that’s not just about economics and about management, governance, but is about saying: “What kind of society fills our lives with hope and purpose, and what do we base that in?”?


How does that translate from being words in a book, or conversation at a dinner table, to something to something that actually makes a political change?

That’s a rather mechanistic approach to political change, I think: that there are either words in a book or there’s political change. I think the two are very much more integrated; that changes in the way we think lead on to practices. So values and practices go together and feed off each other in a sort of iteration. So, for example, if you look at the post-1945 governments right through into the late ’60s, you had that extraordinary outpouring of change and reform, the implementation of the ’44 Education Act, health-and-safety legislation, the Health Service, the implementation of Beveridge . . .


Implemented by one political party, though. . .

It was both political parties. What happened was you had Beveridge: so that’s words and thoughts. But then people began to legislate on the basis of — not entirely agreed: Conservative and Labour were very different — but on the basis of a view of what was valuable, what was important in society, that had changed dramatically. It’s the result of Keynes’s rethinking of economics.

If you go back to the 19th century, you have the same thing after the Great Reform Act of 1832, right through to the 1870 Education Act. And the process of values of being put into practice and practices influencing values is a really complicated iteration, in which they touch each other and bounce off each other. So the book is a contribution, and it’s only a contribution by one person: it’s not the Church of England view, it’s a contribution by one person of some ideas around that.


I was thinking about foodbanks the other day: that’s an example of where people perceived a problem, many people have come up with a practical solution, churches are involved together with the wider community — and yet it seems to be having no effect on government policy.

I think you’re taking a very short-term view, for a start, but I entirely agree that it has not had sufficient impact on government policy or on concerns. And we have to, as the Church, particularly with our position in the House of Lords, push continually on this to influence government policy, and that is something we’re doing.


You mention concerns as well as policy, because it doesn’t seem to have changed the general view of poor people in this country.

No, I would agree with that. It has not changed our attitude to poverty sufficiently. We’re dealing with a culture that over the last, certainly arguably since the late ’70s, certainly since Big Bang in ’86-87 and the great changes in the City of London, has become financialised rather than is economically driven to a degree. . .

[Philip] Bobbitt picks it up very well in The Shield of Achilles, that we have the market state, and the market state is the state where the authority of the rulers is validated by economic prosperity and market choice. Bobbitt shows very clearly how different that is from previous incarnations of the nation state.

Now, when you’ve got that kind of market-driven state, when people say the big problem is the consumer is not spending enough as one of the major analyses of society, that is going to take a huge amount of change. Because that drives you into saying that those who can’t spend enough are therefore valueless — that’s the sort of logical consequence of that appalling view of what it is to be human rather than starting with the intrinsic dignity of the human person.


We were talking about the blessing and withholding of blessing. Do you have access to politicians?

I see politicians a great deal, yes.


And is there a way you can influence them personally?

Let’s wait and see. I mean, I think we’ll have to look back in 50 years and see whether that had any influence or not.

Me personally? I have no idea. I wouldn’t be vain enough to say that one conversation with a politician means they go away saying: ‘Oh, I’ve got to change my whole attitude.” I think one’s in cloud-cuckoo land if you think that.

But, over time, a consistent witness in action and love and life by the Church and by those who speak to politicians, an attitude that changes popular approaches, will have an impact. But it takes time; it’s not one person: it’s not one archbishop, for goodness’ sake.


And are you listened to?

Well, they’re always polite and listen. Whether they agree is a completely different thing. And I think very often they disagree. But that’s fine; that’s the nature of democracy and the kind of free society we have. I’m entitled to express my views, they’re entitled to disagree.

I don’t go in there, and they say “Well, if you say that, Archbishop, we’d better change our whole approach.” It doesn’t work that way.


That’s a sadness.

Yes, it’s a great sadness, but you know. . .


The next five years. Do you get the feeling you’re pacing yourself now? That there are things about which you say: “Well I can’t do that now, but I’ll do that when I’ve finished this job”?

Not really. . . I couldn’t think of an example of that. You obviously do pace yourself: diary management; you have priorities. There are certain things, you just think: “I’m never going to get that done.” That’s just life.


But do you have an agenda, still, that you think: “I haven’t done this yet. I must get on with it”?

Oh yes, huge, enormous, yes. But it’s not a sort of managerial tick-box agenda. It’s a sense of how, as the Church of Jesus Christ — or a part, to be accurate, of the Church of Jesus Christ — do we, in this country and around the world, respond to the prompting of the Spirit, particularly around the poor, around the crises of the world? How do we love as we should love?

And, more widely, how do we contribute — how do I contribute, with other Churches — to the Church Universal being seen as touched and filled and overflowing with the love of Christ?

That’s the great challenge that we always have, and everyone has that responsibility.

Listen to an edited version of the interview here

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