Interview with Justin Welby: to the sea again

22 November 2018

Madeleine Davies accompanies the Archbishop of Canterbury on a return to his childhood place to escape

DIOCESE OF NORWICH

The Archbishop takes a stroll by the sea, at Blakeney

The Archbishop takes a stroll by the sea, at Blakeney

STANDING on the prow of the UK’s fastest lifeboat, which is surging at a rate of 35 knots through the slate-grey North Sea, the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to be in his element.

For those with shakier sea-legs (including your correspondent), the small cabin offers handles to cling to, as Bernard Matthews II  carves a lurching path through the waves. The Archbishop, though, is outside with the crew, apparently unperturbed by the careening motion.

In fact, he’s thrilled to be offered the wheel, marvelling at the sensitivity of the steering, all the while chatting to the captain about visits to oil rigs in a previous lifetime.

“I’m sort of like Ratty in Wind in the Willows,” he tells me, back on shore later. “There is absolutely nothing quite like messing about in boats.”

Kenneth Graham wrote the much-loved story in 1908, and a new biography by Matthew Dennison suggests that the river was a bolt-hole during an unhappy childhood: Graham’s mother died when he was five, and his father was an alcoholic.

For the Archbishop, whose own father was unpredictable, struggling with anger and alcohol, summer holidays with his maternal grandmother in Blakeney on the Norfolk coast meant stability.

“It was normality here,” he observes, sitting in the choirstalls at St Nicholas’s, the parish church in Blakeney. “London is home, we are Londoners; but this just has really good memories. I feel very relaxed and more normal here.”

LAMBETH PALACEThe Archbishop aboard the Caister lifeboat

His second choice on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, during which he recalled a “grim” Christmas with his father, was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (of which the opening was played), which he associates with these holidays: “that sense of security, safety”.

It’s interesting, I suggest, that the sea, which he loves so much, also represents danger. The prologue to our trip out to sea at Caister was a re-enactment by schoolchildren of the Beauchamp disaster of 1901, in which nine men died. In the Bible, encounters with the sea were a test of faith. When Peter saw the wind and the waves, he became afraid and began to sink.

According to his cousin, the Archbishop was the one who would go out in rough weather when others held back, although he doesn’t remember this.

“I was as nervous as anyone,” he recalls. “The nerves that went with a strong wind I remember to this day, and the recognition that the line between just having a really exciting time and something going seriously wrong in rough weather is always quite a fine one.”

Anyone, he suggests, can relate to the disciples’ fear: “That sense of waves, of a power that is greater than you, which you can do nothing about. . . When that happens in life, and all of us will have experienced that, the response has to be the turning to Jesus and trusting oneself in his hands.”

In his public ministry, it is striking how willing he is to draw on his family history, and, in particular, its more difficult moments.

“It is very simple,” he tells the crowd gathered at Caister. “Bad things happen, but God is more powerful.”

 

PERSONAL testimony is “very much part of the Evangelical tradition from which I come”, he remarks, and much of his personal history is already in the public domain (“thanks to you kind ladies and gentlemen of the press”).

It’s possible to “overshare”, he says. “But I think, particularly in quite a secular age, where the tradition of being an Archbishop is so grand . . . the job is to reach out to those around us with the good news of Jesus, and they’ve got to know it’s a human being preaching to them . . . and that the good news of Jesus is good news in the bad times and in good times.

“It does seem to me that the capacity for people to think ‘Yes, if that can happen to him, it can happen to me,’ is probably less usefully helped [by] stories about when you met the Prime Minister than stories about when there was a mess-up in your family.”

But being open is something that he has had to learn, he admits. When I ask him whether another Etonian’s recollection of learning to conceal hurt rings true, he starts agreeing before I finish the question.

“Yes. Exactly.”

It’s not just Eton, he suggests. “Boys’ boarding school: there is a lot of having to put on a hard shell to survive. . . It’s just childhood isn’t it? And part of growing out of childhood is learning to know yourself — to know who you are as God knows you, and to allow that to be visible.”

“As I get older and older, I get more and more emotional,” he reflects. “I think the reality is that some of the events that I went through while I was at university, and the last few years of my father’s life, and events after that, and with our daughter and everything, changed that.”

It’s an openness that other members of his family share. His daughter, Katharine, has been widely praised for writing about her experience of depression.

On some matters, disclosure has been less of a choice. It is two years since Charles Moore revealed the true identity of the Archbishop’s father — a “scoop” that entailed securing a DNA sample from him and comparing it with that extracted from a hairbrush (News, 15 April 2016).

Rather than a complaint about an invasion of privacy, the Archbishop’s response was a shift from the personal to the universal (“My own experience is typical of many people. . . .To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal”); and from the biological to the metaphysical: “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

 

TO BE back in Blakeney is strange, he says. He has already met 30 or 40 people on this trip who knew him as a child, or knew his grandmother, and there has been little time for conversation. Among those sitting down for the “Blakeney Breakfast”, a monthly event that unites schoolchildren and villagers, is his great-aunt. Someone has already dropped off a pheasant for him to take back to London.

Later, walking through the village to the sea, he points out things that have changed since his childhood, and is delighted when a passer-by asks if we’re all going for a swim (“That is so Norfolk!”).

“I felt at home in a boat,” he observes of his childhood. “If I go out sailing . . . even yesterday on the Caister boat, everything else disappears. Now why is that? I think it’s just the focus, it’s the beauty, it’s the air, particularly where there’s no noise apart from the wind and the waves and it’s you with the elements, and the beauty around you is so absolutely gripping.”

Bernard Matthews II was different from his past experience on boats: no sails to hoist, no rudder. But it provided the same exposure to risk and vulnerability as is encountered in all coastal communities. He reflects, several times, on the future of Happisburgh (pronounced “Hazebrough”), a village on the front line of coastal erosion, observing how little is within our control.

When I ask him what was challenging about his formation as a priest, he mentions “learning to live with powerlessness . . . that sense that you can’t just make things happen, which is something we have to keep coming back to.”

It is an interesting observation, given how often commentators resort to describing his archiepiscopacy as one characterised by managerialism. It’s not his job to worry about the future, about numbers, he insists.

What would his message be to a priest who is worried, who isn’t finding it easy to secure the church growth that seems now to be the measure of a successful ministry?

“Numbers are really important, but they are not the test of your holiness or your validity as a priest,” the Archbishop replies. “They are important, because our job is to lead people to faith in Christ; but you look at so many stories of mission and history where people saw very little in their lifetime — but they laid roots that transformed the Church over the years.”

The sea at Blakeney is calm today, and the winter sun is out. There is time for a stroll on the shore before the next leg of the Archbishop’s tour. It has been wonderful to be back, he says.

I ask him whether the revelations about his father prompted a lot of private correspondence, and he tells me that, just last week, someone in Chile confided in him about having made a similar discovery.

“Obviously it was helpful; so I am really grateful for that,” he says. “It goes back to the thing: God takes things that are good or not good and all comes within redemption. Everything is redeemed.”

Listen to the full conversation on the Church Times Podcast

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