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Conflict is natural, says Welby — so is the power to deal with it, should we choose

30 May 2022

Jacqui J. Sze

CONFLICT within the Church is inevitable, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Friday. “The Church is full of people, people are full of conflict, and so the Church is full of conflict,” he said.

It should not shy away from this, however, and rather “stick with each other, listen to each other, try and find out about each other”. This, he said, was the key to reconciliation.

“The Church at its best is full of people who quite often wouldn’t be seen dead together, but who are very pleased to be seen in the life of Christ together, because of the transformation that Jesus brings through the cross, which is the ultimate reconciliation.”

Archbishop Welby was speaking about his new book, The Power of Reconciliation, published next week (Books, 27 May). “The book is an attempt to set out the principles I’d been developing and working with over the previous 20 years, and to formulate them into words,” he said.

Speaking to journalists in Lambeth Palace, Archbishop Welby explained how the method he espouses in the book — based on dialogue, curiosity, and openness — is being used in churches as far apart as South Africa and Hong Kong.

“They’re using it to say: ‘Stick with each other, listen to each other, try and find out about each other. Why do you hold these views? What led you to this?’ And that takes quite a long time. It’s not something that happens overnight.

“And then: ‘How can we see a way forward in which we can perhaps go on disagreeing vehemently, but can do so and remain united in love for one another?’

“Loving one another isn’t always about agreeing. In fact, reconciliation isn’t about common agreement: it is about learning to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It’s deeply based in the gospel.”

The Church of England has, in the past three weeks, attracted press coverage over two high-profile departures, those of Professor Martyn Percy (News, 13 May), and Calvin Robinson (News, 27 May). How might the Church hope to reconcile its detractors when they are so publicly severing ties with it?

“First of all, people are perfectly entitled to leave,” Archbishop Welby said. He would not speak specifically about the case of Mr Robinson, which was a matter for the diocese of London. “I haven’t been involved at all in that case,” he said.

Speaking more generally, he said: “Reconciliation and compromise are not the same thing. Compromise may be part of reconciliation, or may not. But reconciliation is about the conversion of attitude, not necessarily agreement.”

Archbishop Welby argues that the same principles apply to international disputes. He finished the book before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the morning that Russian tanks crossed the border, he delivered an unscheduled, and unscripted, “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4’s Today programme, saying: “We seek peace and justice, and that must end with those involved in conflict not having solutions imposed on them, but finding for themselves the way forward towards reconciliation and peace” (News, 24 February).

The Archbishop reiterated this on Friday: “Reconciliation has to come from the people involved in the conflict.” In the case of Ukraine, “there is not much you can do about reconciliation at this stage.

“If someone taps you on the shoulder when you’ve got your enemy 200 metres away trying to kill you, and says: ‘By the way, have you thought about a peace process?’ the answer is likely to be short and emphatic,” he said.

He praised Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for his continued focus on trying to find a diplomatic solution. “He is not addicted to the battlefield. Quite the reverse. It’s one of the signs of his greatness.”

The role of “extraordinary individuals” in reconciliation processes should, however, always be seen in context. “The best of them, like Desmond Tutu, will always acknowledge that he was part of a very wide ranging effort with a load of people working as well.”

Archbishop Welby praised the work of the Mediation and Reconciliation Hub, part of the Government’s diplomatic service. “Our Government doesn’t have the right to interfere in other people’s affairs,” he said, but “encouragement of the building of communication and networks and forms of reconciliation . . . is really, really important.”

As for the Church, what issues were priorities for reconciliation? The Archbishop said that his recent trip to Canada, during which he apologised for the C of E’s “structural sins of racism and discrimination” against the Indigenous peoples of Canada, came immediately to mind (News, 6 May).

He also spoke of the C of E’s historical links with slavery as an area that called out for a process of reconciliation. In April, he said of the monument to Tobias Rustat in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge: “If we are content with a situation where people of colour are excluded from places of worship because of the pain caused by such memorials, then clearly we have a lot further to go in our journey towards racial justice” (News, 13 April).

Finally, the Archbishop mentioned safeguarding and abuse within the Church saying that it “overshadowed — quite rightly — much of what we do”.

The Power of Reconciliation is published by Bloomsbury at £17.99 (Church Times Bookshop £14.99).

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