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Decline of religious belief has made Church ‘less bossy’ says Archbishop Welby

12 September 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Archbishop Welby pictured in July

Archbishop Welby pictured in July

THE decline of religious faith and power in recent decades is not all bad, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

As a result, the Church has learnt to be less self-reliant and “bossy”, he said in a speech on national identity delivered to the British-Irish Association at its annual conference in Oxford on 2 September.

The 2008 banking crisis, Brexit, Covid, climate change, war in Europe, and the refugee crisis had altered the face of Britain, Archbishop Welby said. He described the wounds of Brexit as “slowly healing” and climate change as a “long slow explosion, with huge advance warning and multiple aftershocks”.

In times of threat, it was harder to be selfless and generous, and leadership and reparation involved sacrifice, he said. The Coronation, he said, had been a “conscious reflection on identity . . . the antipathy to hierarchy. Yet, symbolism alone cannot do the long-term heavy lifting of setting identity.”

The “entirely false idea” of individualism had prevailed in recent decades, he said, and religious faith had declined. “This is not all bad; for Churches are ruined when wealth and power lead them to self-reliance. I rejoice in less of a bossy attitude, and of the Church stepping back from telling everybody what to do, here and elsewhere. Except in the House of Lords!”

In the same way, he said, “we need to remember that government neither can, nor should, do everything. But government must function with humility: not dominating; embracing complexity, recognising limits. Dysfunction, absence are leadership, but bad leadership.” Good leadership required seeing the fault in oneself before the faults in others.

“National identity is symbolised in national institutions, but is lived in locality,” the Archbishop continued. This was apparent in Church of England reports on housing, racism, social care, and family and households over the past four years.

Good leadership also required agreeing on the values and boundaries of society, the most difficult of which, he suggested, was “freedom of speech, religion and belief. That, again, requires a very strong protection, in which both evil expression and attacks on freedom of expression are resisted with equal courage and wisdom.”

He concluded: “Leadership will always be human and fallible, but it must be courageous, collaborative, compassionate, and resilient, willing to lose office for what is right. And there, out of a deep fear of showing up how far I am from that ideal, I shall stop.”

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