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Let’s question, but not have a culture war, says Archbishop of Canterbury

23 April 2021

Archbishop Welby gives interview as row brews over PM’s flat


Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday

Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday

IT IS a “golden-age myth” to assume that politicians are more corrupt now than they used to be, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

In an interview with the BBC journalist Nick Robinson for the Political Thinking podcast, posted last Friday, Archbishop Welby said: “They [politicians] get things wrong; they mess up. Politicians are human beings. If we want perfect politicians, there won’t be anyone sitting in the House of Commons. We’ll never have another Prime Minister. We can’t have a Royal Family. There’s nobody who can rule if we insist that they’re faultless and flawless.”

The interview took place as the row was brewing over the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat, but before Mr Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, had alleged publicly that Mr Johnson had sought donors to pay for the costs of refurbishment. No. 10 has said that Mr Johnson obeyed the ministerial code of conduct and electoral law.

The Electoral Commission announced on Wednesday that it had launched a formal investigation into the funding of the refurbishment,stating that it was “satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Archbishop Welby went on to say in the interview that the “vast majority” of politicians whom he had met privately showed “a passion about trying, despite all the grit in the system, to make some good progress”.

Mr Robinson asked the Archbishop how he would respond to those who said that politicians now thought “you can break the rules without consequence, help your chums, and lobby for them. They fear that morality in politics . . . may be dying.”

Archbishop Welby responded: “Isn’t this the golden-age-myth syndrome? Churchill was given huge sums of money by his mates. He helped people out; they helped him out. It’s how politics worked. We have raised our standards and raised our standards, and, of course, it’s not right to help out your chums or lobby inappropriately or whatever it happens to be.

“But the standards now are at a level that no 19th-century politician would have survived for one week. So, it’s not that morality has disappeared; it’s that morality has got much more sting and bite than it ever used to. Good, that’s great. But let’s not pretend that politicians are worse: if anything, they’re better.

Archbishop Welby also spoke about the publication of the report by the Anti-Racism Taskforce (News, 23 April), which was published shortly after the interview took place.

“Will we get all that they [the Commission] are going to say done quickly? No. Are they going to challenge us painfully and properly? Yes,” he said. “Is every Anglican [every C of E member] racist? Absolutely not. But, in the Macpherson sense, does the Church have an institutional bias towards white people and against the global majority? Yes.”

The changes required to make progress on racial justice in the Church would require “everything from soup to nuts”, the Archbishop said.

“Changing our training. Changing our deployment and development. Changing the way we interview, so interview panels are diverse — for that matter, including disability, which is another failure. Changing the way we appoint and select people for bigger jobs and wider jobs. More black bishops.

“And being really conscious of how we train and educate. There’s areas like critical race theory which are very controversial indeed. There’s areas of theology which are very controversial. We don’t shy away from teaching them. We teach people to think hard about them and come to their own conclusions.”

Regarding cathedrals’ and churches’ reviewing their statues and monuments in view of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests (News, 19 June 2020), the Archbishop said: “As a historian, I’m deeply committed to contextualisation. . . ; 99.99 per cent [of statues and monuments] will stay, but they will stay in many cases with saying ‘At that time, this was believed. Set this against the good news of Jesus Christ and what Christ says about the equality of all people, and then reflect on whether this person was wholly bad, worth a statue, or just a normal human being who lived in his time, her time, and got things wrong.’”

Archbishop Welby agreed that society was engaged in an “unhealthy” culture war. “We are in a time where culture and historic inherited culture is questioned very, very deeply, where culture’s power and privilege are in question very deeply, as we’ve seen with the Church and many other bodies on things like safeguarding as well as race,” he said.

“Good. Let’s question, let’s be suspicious, let’s ask the hard questions. But let’s do it . . . in a way in which we learn to disagree well, and let’s avoid saying that someone who disagrees with me is unfit to be called a human being, or heard, or published, or whatever it happens to be.”

In an interview on Sunday on BBC Radio 4 this week, Archbishop Welby was asked who would pay for the Racial Justice Officers recommended in the report. “I don’t know the answer to that yet,” he said. “That is going to be one of the more difficult things to pay for at a time when the Church is extremely strapped for cash. In the end, these things become priorities. . . You have to work out where you’re going to spend your money. But I simply can’t answer that at the moment.”

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