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Learn lessons of Covid-19 or society will suffer, warns Welby

15 April 2021

Archbishop addresses effect of pandemic in new edition of his book Reimagining Britain

World Council of Churches

SOCIETY must learn the lessons of the pandemic “or suffer and even perish in our differences”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has written.

In a new introduction to the second edition of his book Reimagining Britain (News, 2 March 2018; Books, 16 March 2018), published on Thursday, Archbishop Welby writes: “The impact of Covid 19 has been as dramatic as a tyre blowing out on a car travelling at speed. It demands urgent action and it reveals the need of essential and often equally urgent change. It has shown us in close-up of time and distance inequality, injustice and the capacity of nature to pose an existential threat beyond the power of any one country to face.

“If we do not learn the lessons and act on injustices of ethnic discrimination, lack of solidarity, neglect of the common good and most of all the even greater danger from human caused climate change then these already terrible results of Covid-19 will seem as little compared to what is to come. We must learn together or suffer and even perish in our differences.”

The opportunity to reimagine society comes rarely, he writes, and “requires society-wide leadership and imagination to grasp it. It is not achieved by ample resources, but by a change of mood, a decision or a historic change. It cannot be forced but may be seized or missed.”

The effect of the pandemic, “as well as changes wrought by the growing US/Chinese tension”, has been “infinitely greater” than that of Brexit, he argues, making the effects of Brexit “impossible to disentangle from everything else”.

Changes will be required, he says, in the ways Britain relates to the rest of the world. “The danger is of having a rootless and self-protective society without generosity, arising from a lack of confidence and an inward-looking and self-centred reimagining of what it is to be British.”

Brexit and the pandemic also mean that “the need for a new economy is clear,” Archbishop Welby argues. “That need by itself requires a change in education and in the infrastructure of the country. It also requires a renewal of values, a reinvention and reshaping of national purpose that is deliberate and integrated with actions at every level, which is reflective of the technological, social, moral and religious contexts.”

In a new conclusion to the book, Archbishop Welby addresses the issue of freedom of speech, which he defended in the wake of the dispute at Batley Grammar School, where a teacher was suspended after showing pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (News, 1 April).

“Free speech, even the freedom to abuse precious beliefs, has diminished out of fear of offence,” the Archbishop writes. “Universities should not be permitted to ban groups other than those manifestly advocating hatred or violence. Tenure for those who express controversial views should be introduced. We need an equivalent to the Bill of Rights that makes most views that do not advocate, promote or lead to violence, even abhorrent ones, permissible so that they can be equally robustly rebutted.”

Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Justin Welby is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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