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Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Daily fed and guided’ in sacrament

17 September 2021

Archbishop Welby talks to Madeleine Davies about reform and the pandemic

Jonty Herman/Lambeth Palace

THE first Covid-19 patient to die at St Thomas’ Hospital in London was a woman in her nineties, on Saturday 14 March 2020. Within a month, more than 100 patients had died. Among those receiving treatment at the hospital during that time was the Prime Minister (who went on to name his new son after two of the doctors who had saved his life while he was in the intensive-care unit).

Less well-publicised was the presence of one of the hospital’s neighbours, who spent every day, for a period, praying with the dying, until a story ran in The Daily Telegraph: “Archbishop of Canterbury has been secretly volunteering in lockdown — as chaplain at St Thomas’ Hospital.”

“I think I probably prayed with more people near death than in the rest of the time I have spent as a priest combined, to be honest,” Archbishop Welby recalls, speaking in his study at Lambeth Palace last Friday.

“It was just every . . . the whole time. And there was this Muslim woman who was very near the end of her life, unconscious, and the nurse said to me: ‘The family have just said to me, “Please, would anyone pray with her?’’’ Because they couldn’t get an imam in to see her. So I knelt by the bed and prayed for her. I just . . . there was such a beautiful sense of the presence of God, of the love of God. It was a very profound moment.”

He remembers holding the hand of another woman, unable to speak, who was “just looking at me, and we were communicating just with looks”. And a “very senior nurse” who “just burst into floods of tears, and she said: ‘I’m sorry, it’s just this is like nothing I’ve ever had to deal with.’”

Now in his mid-sixties with asthma, Archbishop Welby says that he wasn’t personally “terribly worried” about catching Covid. “You just sort of get on with it.” He prefers to talk about the “real wartime atmosphere” at St Thomas’, and the “extraordinary commitment of staff”.


EIGHTEEN months on, and freshly returned from a sabbatical spent writing a book on reconciliation, he appears full of energy, light-hearted even. If complaints about the sabbatical bothered him (the historian Karen Armstrong suggested that it was symptomatic of how religion in the West had become “indulgent and self-centred”), there is no sign of it.

It turned out to be “absolutely wonderful”, he reports. He spent much of it at Trinity College, Cambridge (where he studied history in the 1970s), writing a new, as yet untitled, book on reconciliation, before taking a few weeks’ holiday in France.

But he is keen, too, amid reports of low clergy morale and a weariness with central initiatives (News, 2 July), to express empathy for those anxious about the road ahead. Throughout our conversation, he is eager to reassure those in the Church who feel burdened by directives coming from the centre. “Do what you can do, and don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t do.”

We talk, first, about the Church’s much-criticised response to the pandemic (News, 3 April 2020). I recently interviewed a young priest who has made the decision to join the Roman Catholic Church, identfying the C of E’s response to the lockdown as a catalyst for the decision. It had revealed, he felt, an “essentially incoherent” eucharistic theology in the Church of England, that “the sacramental life wasn’t important enough to be imaginative to address the issues.”

The Archbishop’s first response is to highlight the “extraordinary stories” that have emerged about the Church’s response. “Dean Robert at Canterbury with his Morning Prayer now has forty thousand — forty thousand! — people using it, and letters from all over the world. . . And this is absolutely standard Morning Prayer with a very brief reflection from a man in his seventies sitting in a cassock in a garden.”

But, yes, he does understand the pain. “I am a daily communicant. I relish profoundly, I benefit hugely, from time of silent prayer in front of the sacrament. Those feed and guide me. The sacrament, receiving the sacrament, these are hugely important — and it was horrible not to have that.”

He repeats his belief that, in retrospect, the Church’s response during the first lockdown was the wrong one. But there was a context, he says: “We were getting calls from all kinds of people in our role not just as a Church but as the Church of England and the Church for England . . . saying: ‘Please can you set a stringent example to help us deal with the problem?’ From other denominations and other faiths and from Government.

“And I think in one sense we did set a very good example. It was stringent, it was difficult, it was very painful, enormously painful for some people, and I wonder if part of it isn’t just the cost of being the Church of England.

“I’m not trying to justify myself. I would do it differently.”


WE MOVE on to an emerging critique — the charge that the parish is under threat (News, 6 August). The Bishops have been keen to reassure people that there is no central masterplan to dismantle the parish system, that the plan is to “revitalise” it. And yet stipendiary numbers are once again being cut, parishes are being drawn into larger units of mission, and the Mission in Revision paper currently out for consultation revealed that five dioceses were planning to close up to 40 churches each within the next two to five years (News, 25 June).

Can the Archbishop understand the anxiety? “I profoundly understand it. I assumed when I went to get ordained that I would spend my life in parish ministry. That is what I wanted to do, and I spent the first ten years of ordained life in parish ministry. I was a parish priest; as was the Archbishop of York for much longer than I was. We are absolutely embedded in the parish.”

After more than a decade working in the oil industry, Justin Welby was ordained in Coventry in 1992 and served in parishes in the diocese for a decade. He served his title at Chilvers Coton with Astley, said to be the inspiration for the fictional village in George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, before incumbencies in the market town of Southam and the village of Ufton. It was, he recalls, “the toughest job I‘ve ever done . . . far more stressful than what I do now. . .

“It was at the time of the Church Commissioners’ running out of money. There was a time in the ’90s parish share was going through the roof. I mean, it would go up 20 per cent a year. Numbers of clergy were going down very rapidly, resources were completely absent, the bureaucracy just seem to weigh on one the whole time.

“The capacity to get things done, other than just keep the show more or less staggering along the road from one week to the next, was appalling. And it was very lonely. And I will never, never forget that. . .

“I have gone through plenty of groups which have said: ‘Oh, we need to get rid of the parish system: it’s outdated.’ It’s rubbish. . . We are the Church for England. If we are going to be for England, we have to be in every community, or as many as we can possibly manage. We have to be open to every person, not just the congregation, precious as they are.”

At the time of the Archbishop’s appointment in 2012, a Reader who had trained under him in Ufton told the Church Times that under Justin Welby the congregation had grown “without alienating anyone, but [he] carried people with him, both the new and the old” (News, 16 November 2012). He had “met people where they were and engaged with them in the pub, village hall, or wherever”.

Today, the Archbishop observes off-handedly that he was “fortunate, blessed providentially, whatever, by the fact that the number of people going to church grew a lot, and it grew through the basic disciplines of weddings, funerals, and baptisms, through being at the school-gate, through running nurture courses . . . tea parties for those who have been bereaved, by after-care, by visiting.

“It was standard parish work, and it wasn’t complicated. But it was unbelievably hard work. . . I can’t ever remember being as psychologically, emotionally, or physically exhausted. . .

“I am not just in favour of the parish. I am passionate that the parish is essential.”

He enunciates: There is no ‘threat’ to the parish. . . People will use phrases and words clumsily at a conference. It happens. There is no conspiracy to abolish the parish.

“Pete [Wilcox, the Bishop of Sheffield] got it absolutely right: the threat to the parish is the last 70 years of decline, so that there are fewer and fewer people. . . This is why numbers matter. If you don’t have people, you can’t do the job” (Features, 10 September).


WITHIN two years of the Archbishop’s consecration, a far-reaching set of reforms had been announced, designed to reverse the Church’s decades-long numerical decline (News, 21 April 2015).

After years of upholding the principle of inter-generational equity (distributing only such sums as would enable the value of the endowment to be maintained in real terms through time), the Commissioners announced plans to unlock £72.7 million of funding.

Money would no longer be used to “subsidise decline”, dioceses were told. All of the funding distributed must be investment for mission and growth. The chair of the Archbishops’ Council's finance committee, John Spence, spoke — to loud synodical applause — of the desire to “return this Church to numerical and spiritual growth, and to return Christ to his rightful place — at the centre of this country, its conscience, and its culture” (Comment, 25 July 2014).

When I start to ask the Archbishop about the focus on investing for growth and turning around the numbers, he interrupts: “Which has not so far happened.”

Lambeth PalaceLambeth Palace

Does he feel confident about the potential for the Church to grow, given the “huge shift in the tectonic plates of European and world culture” mentioned by the Archbishop of York in his most recent Vision and Strategy paper?. Does the Church perhaps need to accept being smaller, being a “faithful remnant”?

“If that happens, it happens,” he observes, peaceably. “But it’s not us who grow the Church. It’s God who grows the Church.”

The conversation turns unexpectedly to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where, it emerges, a conversation with a priest liberated the Archbishop from anxiety about results. The Rt Revd Désiré Mukanirwa Kadhoro, the first Bishop of Goma, died suddenly last year of Covid-19.

“He did extraordinary work,” the Archbishop explains. “He had 137 militias operating in his diocese. He had Ebola all over the place. . . When I first went to see him in the mid-2000s-late-2000s, Goma was under siege. . . We went to a refugee camp. There were about 10,000 people there and there were 250,000 refugees in the area. No resource, at all.

“And I said to him towards the end: ‘Désiré, how do you manage?’ And he said: ‘I do what God enables me to do, and the rest is his problem.’

“And I think I would want to say to clergy . . . and to laity: We can only do what God enables us to do, and the rest is his problem. So, if you can’t do things, don’t be guilty. . . Keep a sane home life, and keep up with your friends, and do what you can, having done that, and spend time with God in prayer.

“If that means we end up as a faithful remnant, so be it. But my bet is, if we do go for simpler, humbler, and so on, if we do what God resources us to do, if we don’t exhaust ourselves, and if we get rid of guilt — and I am the champion of self-imposed guilt — the Church God will grow.”

Archbishop Cottrell recently observed that the Church’s many initiatives had “not always been well received”, nor “always been particularly effective”: “It is very likely that the Covid-19 crisis has increased this sense of weariness.” But Vision and Strategy also suggested that, to establish 10,000 new churches in the next decade, “most churches and all dioceses would start something new to reach people in their contexts.” Perhaps some of the reaction against church-planting and the Myriad scheme (News, 2 July) came from a place of exhaustion?

“A lot of the church-planting, a lot of Fresh Expressions, a lot of what is happening in the Church is not saying to parish clergy who don’t have any more to give — I know that feeling very very well — ‘Never mind, you have got to give more, you have to got to somehow plant three churches.’

“Myriad is only one part of the story. Another part of the story is: let’s try and lighten the load — make it easier to run ancient buildings, find ways of resourcing. We are not a poor Church, as you know. We’ve got a lot of money. It’s not always in the right place. . . In fact, it’s usually not in the right place, actually. . .

“The Church Commissioners were hugely generous last year with massive emergency funds, and give away something like half a billion every year, anyway. But there is a lot of money. Getting it flowing in the right place is really challenging.”

He returns to his memories of parish life: “I led a small church. It was growing — big deal. It was still small. I used to go to New Wine. I would come away so depressed at what we weren’t doing. And we would always have a bit of a bicker on the way home. . .

“And my wife would say: ‘No, of course we’re not: we’re a small church in a small town in the Midlands. We are not HTB . . . Don’t fret about it. That’s their job. Let’s do our job.’”


THE Archbishop mentioned recently that he had been reading Faith Formation in a Secular Age, a book by Andy Root, a Lutheran professor of youth and family ministry, which draws on the work of Charles Taylor. One of the arguments is that people today continue to have strange, transcendent experiences, but lack the religious framework in which to place them (Features, 3 January 2020). How would the Archbishop rate the spiritual temperature of this country?

“I don’t think there is a spiritual temperature,” he observes. “I think in this country there are roughly 65 million spiritual temperatures. One of the clergy said this morning [during a visit to Hackney]: ‘The rumour of God in this part of London is still very strong.’ So the spiritual temperature is high. And he said: ‘A lot of what we are doing is just helping people find the vocabulary to express it. . .’”

He refers to Dad’s Army: “It’s not that we are ‘doomed’; it’s a case of ‘Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring.’”

The US religious journalist Jonathan Merritt has argued that it is getting harder to talk about God, that “sacred speech and spiritual conversation are in decline . . . basic moral and religious words”. A poll that he commissioned found that just 13 per cent of practising Christians had a spiritual conversation around once a week.

In England, the one million lay people who regularly attend Church of England services are being encouraged to become “agents of mission” (News, 8 February 2018). Can the Archbishop understand why it may feel difficult to talk about God in a society in which the language and vocabulary has become increasingly alien to many people? It can feel that there is a huge chasm.

“But there isn’t a huge chasm when they see a community that loves one another, that feeds the poor, that is present in every community,” he argues.

“Feeding, loving and caring for those in need, being alongside people in hospitals, having chaplains in the armed services. . . What will make a difference is if we continue to encourage people that the essentials in the Church are that you love God and you love people.

“It’s not complicated,” he insists. “It is unbelievably hard work. But it’s not complicated. Yes, there’s a problem with vocabulary; so we need to speak human and not Christian the whole time.

“We need to be able to explain very briefly why we are Christians. And people won’t always understand it. But they will understand when they come to church because . . . they have been bereaved, or they are just puzzled about things, or they just want to see what the building looks like — and someone’s really friendly and doesn’t lecture them or sermonise but just chats to them and they think: ‘Oh, they’re really nice. There is something about that place.’”


THE Archbishop turned 65 this year. Bishops must retire at or before 70. His priorities for this next stretch haven’t changed, he says. “It’s prayer, and religious community. It’s reconciliation and . . . learning to be people of incredible diversity, disagreement, passionate love for each other, and passionate love for the world around us. . .

“I am just more and more convinced of something I’ve always believed: that the core of the Church’s witness and evangelism is a community of normal people who can talk normally about their faith to those they love.”

In 2013, he inherited a Church divided over sexuality. What does he hope to hand on to his successor?

“I pray to be able to hand over to my successor a Church that is able to disagree well on these things,” he replies. “That simple. And still love one another. And be passionate and robust, but still love one another.”

So, potentially, in terms of actual teaching or pastoral practice, it might not look different from the situation that he inherited?

“We will see.”

It is hard not to worry, looking at numerical decline, he agrees, as our conversation comes to a close. But he returns to memories of his Congolese friend: “Désiré liberated me from feeling that everything was my ultimate fault. Yes, I am accountable, and I will stand before God and be judged. And there will be all kinds of things, and part of it will be to be judged on. . . not on the graphs, but on who I was as Archbishop.

“That will be about relationships and love and holiness and lots of other things I’ve still got a lot to learn about.”

Listen to an extended version of this interview on the Church Times Podcast (out on Friday).


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