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Interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘gripped by the appalling nature of war

13 October 2023

At the end of his week-long tour of the South Caucasus, Archbishop Welby spoke to Francis Martin in Armenia

Neil Turner/Lambeth Palace

The Archbishop meets refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh at Kecharis, Armenia, last Friday, accompanied by the Archbishop of Kotayk, the Most Revd Araqel Karamyan

The Archbishop meets refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh at Kecharis, Armenia, last Friday, accompanied by the Archbishop of Kotayk, the Most Revd Araqel K...

Could you start perhaps by giving just two or three words to summarise what you take away from each of the four places we visited?

Rome: the immensity of the Church Universal praying together. Azerbaijan: the challenge of discussing with a leader who has just won a war and knowing what to ask and how hard to challenge. Georgia: the pain of a country separated for 15 years from part of its territory by an invasion that was illegal. Armenia: the agony of powerlessness.

Let’s start in Rome. What state are [Roman] Catholic-Anglican relations in?

I think Catholic-Anglican relations have moved on in the years since Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI met — and even before that, the years since Archbishop Fisher met unofficially with John XXIII. From theological dialogue to a deep personal relationship, as well as theological dialogue — to which was added the development of common mission to the needy and the poorest, and which now encompasses an ecumenism of service — and an ecumenism of facing the challenges of the modern world.

You had a long, private conversation with the Pope. How much does that personal relationship mean to you?

Personally, it means the world. He is someone I pray for every day, who I love dearly, in whom I find a wisdom that is both reassuring and deeply encouraging. And particularly this time — not in the personal conversation but in the vigil on the Saturday evening, with the widest group of Churches one can imagine, from all parts of Orthodoxy to Pentecostal and everything between — I think I saw most clearly the Pope in his role as universal Primate.

In Azerbaijan, you had a meeting of a different character, with the President of Azerbaijan. Were you encouraged by what he said?

Yes, I was at the time . . . [but] also a very large pinch of salt.

He’s just won a war that, in his words, achieved all of Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions, of re-integrating Karabakh into Azerbaijan, which is long recognised in international law as part of Azerbaijan. But there is always in one’s thinking an anxiety that, in the exhilaration of military victory, there will be the temptation of pushing further.

And that was the main content of the discussion. Because there must be a move that means that never again do Azerbaijanis and Armenians kill each other on the battlefield — as we knew in 1945, between, say, France and Germany, or Britain and Germany — if there is to be a secure future, with happiness, with security, with economic prosperity and flourishing for the poorest in both countries.

The meeting with refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh: does that put a different complexion on your meeting with President Aliyev?

Yes, in a very predictable way. I wanted to meet refugees, as I have so often in the past, in places of war, because it brings the atrocity of war right in front of you, face to face. The woman whose face I will not forget: a nurse whose husband was killed in the 2020 war and could not contain her tears. The boy of 16, who did not tell me, but I think told you, that his brother was killed a couple of weeks back, in the latest invasion. The older people who spoke of the Turks coming as they did in 1915, and the great killing of Armenians of that year.

When you listen to that, from people who have just fled for their lives, the theory of geopolitics and war takes on a completely different colour and texture. You can feel every thread, and in feeling the threads one is again gripped by the appalling nature of war. So, yes, it changes the complexion; it changes the understanding.

Each renews one’s horror, which is a rightful horror.

How do you balance all those narratives and those people without losing your own clear picture of what you think and what the right thing is to do and to say?

First, never imagine you’ve got a clear picture. The first thing is to be aware of how little one knows. When you listen to people who’ve lived here all their lives, they still have often mixed pictures. So, acknowledge one’s ignorance.

Second, compartmentalise between the leaders and the refugees or the wounded soldiers or the traumatised children. Compartmentalise: hold each conversation in a separate compartment, and do not try to synthesise — because in synthesising you’ll over-simplify. And you will lose sight of the humanity of the question.

Third, hold the poorest and the most vulnerable at the top of your mind. That’s how I do it, to the extent I ever manage to do it.

Can you reflect on what you took away from visiting the border region with these two parts of Georgia that were de facto annexed [following the war with Russia in 2008]?

We were all very fortunate to be invited and accepted by the EU monitoring mission. I think we were all intensely impressed by their calmness, their measured and disciplined approach.

What I took away with was something I’ve often thought of before, and it’s probably fairly banal. It’s the absurdity of these lines we draw in the ground — literally, as you remember: we stood on an empty hilltop with a ploughed line in front of us, and the other side was Ossetia, occupied by Russians, FSB. It was literally a ploughed line . . . not even a river or a mountain range or sea.

And you think: Why are people in the village, in the valley, where the line goes straight through people’s gardens, why are they suffering? Because of this absurdity of human greed and ambition, and pride, and power.

And why couldn’t the local FSB chief say: “Look, draw the line round the village — not through someone’s garden.” Why is there such cruelty? These are banal questions, but it brings it home to me. I don’t know if you remember when we were standing on that path, with coils of barbed wire across the path, which used to be the main path through the village. And you get halfway — trees are the same one side as the other, everything’s the same — except it’s a different country, and if you cross it, you’ll be detained.

I think that absurdity really hit me afresh in that part of the visit. It’s very hard to see easy answers at the moment. But one wanted to say something ridiculous like, Repent; turn away from this idiocy.

The papal nuncio to the Caucasus said to me after the service in Tbilisi that there’s there’s far more that unites us than divides us. Do you think there is an absurdity in some of those breakdowns of relationship?

Yes, there is, because you’ve put your finger on it: it’s a breakdown of relationship. It’s about human relationship, not the surpassing glory of God, who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, and became a slave for our sake and died on a cross. And before that gigantic, enormous, overwhelming truth, everything is made small, if we look at it rightly. And we should start from that perspective, all of us. I’m talking to myself as well.

But we’re so easily mesmerised by the close-up of what seems like the enormous issue until we lift our eyes and see the glory of God.

You have to balance that with the fact that what to me may be an idiocy is, to the person in the centre of it, the most gigantic, enormous thing — and they are a brother or sister in Christ when we’re talking within church arguments; they are someone for whom Christ died, when we’re talking about anything or anyone in creation. And the call is not to judge them, but to find a way of showing them Christ, of showing them the God who reaches out to enable them to find each other as fellow creations.

I noticed in press reports in Azerbaijan, the local press reports described you as the head of the Anglican Church. In the Anglican Communion, headship has been a complicated issue, to say the least. Does that cause you any concern? Is it possible, and you’ve spoken about it yourself, that the leadership of the Anglican Communion and the leadership of the Church of England could be in some way separated?

You’re exactly right to ask the question, because that’s been on my mind; it’s been brought home to me on this visit. I think the answer is, if we do it right, then it should not have a bad effect. In fact, it should have a wonderful effect if we do it right — if we manage to demonstrate that it is possible to have grave differences [and yet] to love one another, to worship God, and, by action and word, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, all at the same time, and to move away from a colonial-style structure to something that is very clearly catholic with a small c, universal.

This trip has pointed out very, very clearly that there’s an extremely difficult challenge, because the brand of Anglicanism is very closely associated with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now, you can’t just change those things instantly and expect everyone to have a different attitude. There’s a huge communication thing; more than that, there is a substantive thing: of being obedient to God’s calling, and then trusting in God’s actions and providence.

Something else that’s come home to me from this trip is how important the team around you are.

I’ve been very fortunate over the past ten-and-a-half years to have worked with exceptionally good people, and continue to be surrounded by very skilled and brilliant people. I think anyone who thinks they know the answers and can, as it were, stand alone in this role is in cloud-cuckoo-land. If you’re the best theologian in history, you may not understand the geopolitics or the challenges of modern science or the psychology, or you may not have the emotional intelligence. If you’re a wonderful church historian, you may not understand other forms of history, and so on and so forth. Therefore, the team is always going to be better than an Archbishop by themselves.

And they’re also a release of tension. I mean, banter, jokes, teasing — [it] enables you to change gear between seeing the President and seeing a refugee, which is a huge change of gear. The lightness of touch from them enables you to cope with moments of deep inadequacy, which come fairly frequently.

You’re on the final evening as we speak, flying early in the morning, and, only in a couple of days, you’ve got a House of Bishops meeting, a big one. How difficult is it to jump right back into conversations about very different topics on very different scales?

Occasionally, it goes completely wrong, but normally, I find it quite easy to do. Because, between now and then, I would have read my way through all the papers again, for next Monday, and therefore reset for a very different conversation. But at their heart, both Monday and this week, in all its varied aspects, is [something] about obedience to Christ, and love for Christ, and love for the people of Christ, and love for those who don’t know Christ. That binds these issues together. So, the constant question is not what is expedient. . . It is what is right before God: how do I — recognising that I will be judged by God at the end of all things — how do I act in a way in which, at the very least, I know that I may have been wrong, but I haven’t just been playing politics.

I think the House is going to be looking at the very complicated issues of how — while motivating and holding the Church together, holding our ecumenical relationships, interfaith relationships, intra-Communion relationships together — we act in a way that, within England, is most faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s the question. How do we serve the unity of Christ, which is upheld so powerfully in the New Testament, and, at the same time, act rightly and obediently to the Holy Spirit in a culture that is so radically different to the one we’re sitting in, even here in Yerevan in Armenia, let alone the culture of far-flung places round the world where Anglicans are worshipping as we speak.

You’ve received various gifts on this journey, a remarkable array of things. But what will you attach the most value to when you get home?

That’s easy. My memory of meeting the refugees. They gave me the gift of their time, of being willing to meet me. That’s a precious gift.

Listen to the interview on the Church Times Podcast here

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