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The strong thrive, the weak suffer: Welby challenges the pandemic narrative

08 February 2022

Max Colson/Church of England

Archbishop Justin Welby addressing Synod on Tuesday

Archbishop Justin Welby addressing Synod on Tuesday

COMMUNITIES must learn to look at the world as a single unit rather than through “the lens of narrow nationalism, factionalism, politics, economic union, or self-selecting group”, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Archbishop Welby, in his presidential address to the General Synod on Tuesday, spoke of the experience of meeting leaders of different faiths from around the UK. It had made plain how much overlap there was when meeting the challenges and opportunities of the pandemic — notably, loss of confidence about all communal life. “One person put it best when they said it was as though the pandemic had caused us all to ‘lose the muscle-memory of how to be together’.”

Covid had shown unequivocally that individualism and atomisation were both illusion and fantasy, the Archbishop said. From staying at home to bulk-buying supplies, getting the vaccine, or wearing a face mask, the message was clear: “Our actions affect other people. We cannot do what we want without it having an impact somewhere else.”

The tension between individualism and community was interrelated with global intergenerational equity, technology, climate change, and vaccine nationalism, and they had a common feature: “Those who have, gain more, and those who have not, bear the consequences. The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.”

The challenges of the age went to the heart of understanding what it meant to love one’s neighbour, Archbishop Welby said. “For many richer countries, the philosophical, moral, and, above all, spiritual loss of even a notional underpinning of what it means to be a society, leaves us without the means of navigating the huge changes of the near future.”

He went on to talk about responsibility and truth in national life, “found in the pattern of the life and indwelling presence of the Christ who remains, dwells, pitches his tent with us”. Making reference to a BBC interview that he had conducted with the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, he said: “Below the surface we present to the world, [God] sees the rich inner life we all live with, and he calls us to see others, in all their nuance, their story, fully, too.”

Truth and life would transform the nature of the world, and had done so throughout the centuries, he said. “A society that forgets about God, that loses the sense that it needs God, that no longer desires God . . . loses the profound call to see the wholeness of the individual human person and the call to love.”

The Archbishop found that in “individual events like the shocking, disturbing, and utterly abysmal harassing of Keir Starmer and David Lammy yesterday, [ranging] to the threats of war in Eastern Europe, to the actual wars around the world”, societies were forgetting God, and therefore existing by the creation of an enemy. “Do we not see it in our own society — and, I fear, do we not see it far too often in our own Church?”

Grace and wisdom “call us to find our way into God’s abundance from the selfish scarcity in the world: and then to be that abundance in the world; and that has been what has happened so much over the last two years, praise God.

“But, somehow, even though we as the Church of England are a Church that God has blessed so abundantly . . . we nevertheless have convinced ourselves [of], have talked ourselves into, a sense of impoverishment and inability to meet the issues with which God has faced us.”

Centring in Christ, being held together across differences and disagreements, was the mark of Christians, he said. “It’s not that we all agree, or even that we are good at disagreeing well much of the time, but in foot-washing, in service and love, we open a way to express the steadfast love of God to each other — and so we are strengthened to be the abundant love of God in the world.

“That is true, God knows, of the genuinely impoverished Churches of the global-majority world, as well as the lavishly endowed ones like ourselves.”

He challenged the Synod: “Do we want to hear the story that each precious person in the Synod has to tell? Do we want to know them? Do we see the innate value in other people and come to discussions with humility and room to grow and learn?

“Will we have the courage to reimagine? Will we allow ourselves to be renewed by the Holy Spirit? Will we dare to work towards the world God wants for us, a world where all things are made right, where relationships are restored, justice flows down like a torrent, and mercy like an ever-flowing stream?

“Three small habits for each of us. But, if we practise them now, there will be transformation. The grace of God will guide, hold, and encourage us.”

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