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Press: FT provides portrait of Primate’s personality

16 April 2021

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THE interview that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave to Henry Mance of the FT was quite the most illuminating — and favourable — picture of his personality which any journalist has produced.

Way back in the palaeolithic, Giles Fraser interviewed him for The Guardian and was entirely charmed. But, unless you actually work in the Church of England, you might expect a secular journalist to be more sceptical of an Archbishop than another priest would be, and not even Giles ended his interview as Mance did. “All I can say is that, after the archbishop opened the vast wooden door of Lambeth Palace, I walked past the magnolia trees in the garden and felt unexpectedly moved. I said a prayer of thanks — partly out of tradition and partly out of hope.”

I have known press officers who would kill for that sort of coverage of their boss. It certainly contrasts with the treatment given to the Archbishop of York by The Times: “The Most Rev and Right Hon Stephen Cottrell sports trendy-vicar stubble. Judging by recent photos, it’s a new look for the man installed last year as Archbishop of York. The fleece that fits tightly over his priestly shirt and dog collar makes him look more like a cyclist seeking lockdown exercise than one of the favourites to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.”

I wonder whether Mance himself went to Eton: he certainly caught flashes of Welby unplugged, so to say. “After a while I stop trying to predict whether the next sentence out of his mouth will be spiritual or sarcastic.”

I am struck, again, by the Archbishop’s constant consciousness of power and its workings. Talking about his work as a chaplain in the hospital across the road, he said: “I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and got hold of the chaplain and said, ‘Do you need anyone?’ She said, ‘Half of our volunteers are over 70 so they’re sheltering, so yes, we need extra hands.’”

“She would hardly refuse the archbishop, I [Mance] say. ‘You can tell when they’re doing it because they think they ought to, rather than because they want to,’ Welby says wryly.”

There’s a delicious moment when he is asked about the working culture at Goldman Sachs, where juniors have been expected to work 90-hour weeks during the pandemic: “‘I’m thinking how frank I’m going to be.’ He responds, and then takes a breath. ‘I just think it’s plain wrong. Ninety-five-hour weeks — in certain circumstances, fine. We all have times when you have to work ridiculous hours in a real crisis. But when you look at their return on capital employed, when you look at the remuneration of the really senior people . . . you’re saying nothing matters more than the maximum amount of money we can get. You’ll carry that into ethics of the organisation.

“‘You can’t compartmentalise and say, I’m going to make you work a 95-hour week, because we’ve got to have more profit, but you’ve got to be really ethical while you’re doing that. Because what you’re asking them to do is not ethical. It’s internally incoherent. . . I really worry where I see staff working too hard.’”

What did he think the ethics of Goldman Sachs were, if not that “nothing matters more than the maximum amount of money we can get”?

But, having got him to say something interesting, Mance adds real value with a piece of observation: “He nods at an adviser, who mostly corroborates his alibi.”

One of the many frustrations of journalism is knowing that most people you talk to are terrified of saying anything both interesting and true on the record, and quite understanding why.

Perhaps Mance suppressed the word, but the only mention of Jesus in the whole interview comes in a discussion of his skin colour — “Dark-skinned, I would imagine, and not blue-eyed”. Earlier, he had said, “I mean, we’re not Unilever — we don’t have to put the brand on every bit of product,” and this is a considerable change from his original, HTB presentation in which he was telling people that he wished to get the name of Jesus into every public statement that he made.

 

MEANWHILE, the damage done by the advertisement for a chief of staff at Bishopthorpe (Press, 9 April) continues: letters in The Times suggested, variously, that this was, in fact a job, for the Archdeacon of York, for a wife, and that, “Traditionally among the clergy this role has been played by Jesus Christ, in prayer.”

 

FINALLY, I was enchanted by the dating column of The Washington Post, which this week featured a fitness instructor and an Episcopalian priest. Both were women.

“Alyse Viggiano, 30, an Episcopal priest in Alexandria, invoked religious imagery when she described her Date Lab experience as a ‘totally random Hail Mary in the middle of a pandemic’.

“I don’t see it as a burden,” said Alyse of having to explain her calling to the women she dates, who sometimes have negative associations with less welcoming religious denominations. “It’s another form of coming out. It’s just another piece of who I am.”

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