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Church of England decline is ‘a personal failure’ — Archbishop of Canterbury bares his soul

13 June 2023

Welby gives wide-ranging interview at the Religion Media Festival

Daniel Sands

The Archbishop of Canterbury is prayed over during his Mission Weekend in the diocese of Salisbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury is prayed over during his Mission Weekend in the diocese of Salisbury

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he regards the numerical decline in the Church of England as a personal failure.

During a Q&A at the Religion Media Festival on Monday, he also spoke of his personal preference for a “fully independent safeguarding system” and his belief that the Church needed to be more “unapologetic” about its teaching on sexual morality. Asked about moves in Parliament to enable same-sex marriages to take place in church, and the possibility of disestablishment, he suggested that discerning the will of God might involve “refusing to do what the law says”.

A recurrent theme in his answers to questions, put by the broadcast journalist Julie Etchingham and the audience, was a long view of history, and the sovereignty of God. “One of the great things we do is we get into terrible angst and fear and think it’s all down to us,” he observed. “It’s not. It’s all down to God, and to him we must be obedient.”

Asked about an “alarming drop” in attendance at C of E services during his ten years in office — by one third (News, 6 April) — the Archbishop nevertheless offered a personal, candid answer.

“The further decline in the Church is something that, in the end, even if I am not — and I’m not saying I’m not — even if I were not responsible for, I am certainly accountable for,” he said. “So, that, personally, I count as failure. Lots of people tell me I shouldn’t have said that. . . It’s what I feel personally.”

He continued: “I am not sure I know what else could have been done. Because, in the end, . . . the future of the Church, and its survival or otherwise, does not depend on archbishops: it depends on God and the providence of God. And, over the last 2000 years, we’ve been in much worse places than this, infinitely worst places than this. We spent 150 years killing each other over the real presence in the sacrament.”

Ms Etchingham noted that the Archbishop had had to steer the Church through “the most incredibly turbulent ten years”, including political upheaval, the Covid-19 pandemic, the death of a monarch, and “bitter disputes” within the Church. She questioned whether “endless and deep divisions over sexuality” had come at the cost of mission. Many, she said, would be asking, “why are they endlessly navigating issues that for an awful lot of people are completely settled?”

While agreeing that the Church was “far too inward-looking”, Archbishop Welby defended the Church’s approach to discernment.

“Within the life of the Church, care and love for one another means we have to listen to one another and not, as a political party might do, impose one group’s views on people who entirely disagree,” he said.

“The vast majority of Anglicans across the 85 million in the Anglican Communion would think that, even the place we were in before the House of Bishops decision [to allow prayers of blessing for same-sex couples], was far too liberal. And simply to treat them, as someone said in a speech, as people who are too ignorant to understand sex, is absolutely unacceptable. They are brothers and sisters in Christ.”

In his opening remarks, the Archbishop said that Bishops who had gathered at the recent Lambeth Conference had “spent two hours on sexuality and ten days on everything else”.

Nevertheless, the former proved a popular topic at the Religion Media Festival.

The president of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, said that he had been “astonished at the level of concern, bordering on anger”, in Parliament over the Church’s position on same-sex marriages. Noting efforts to bring a Private Member’s Bill that would enable such unions to be solemnised in churches (News, 7 February), he asked the Archbishop what his response would be to “Parliament saying ‘If you won’t do it, we’ll do it for you.’ . . . Would disestablishment come into your mind at all?”

Archbishop Welby was sanguine in his response, noting that disestablishment was “a question for Parliament, as establishment was and remains. We could argue about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and there are varied views within the Church of England.” He declined to give his own view. “What I do know is God’s bigger than that. It’s not going to make any difference to the future of the Church whether it’s established or disestablished: it’s in the hands of God.”

He was “not remotely” worried about political turmoil, he said. “But if they do that, well, let them do it, and we’ll see what Parliament does. Parliament is sovereign. It is entitled to vote on these issues. What the Church would then do would depend on our consciences and, in the end, what we, after prayer and consideration, believe is right before God. It certainly may involve refusing to do what the law says, as for Christians throughout history.”

Asked about his recent intervention concerning the Church of Uganda’s support for the Ugandan parliament’s Anti-Homosexual Act (News, 9 June), he reiterated that he disagreed “very strongly” with the criminalisation of gay people. But he also emphasised the need “to be fair to the Ugandans” when it came to the definitions in the legislation.

“The issues they call aggravated homosexuality are rape, homosexual rape, and deliberate infection with AIDS, and paedophilia, which are very, very serious crimes, and rightly, in this country. And so that’s what I mean by presenting the complexities of the issue and not just damning them bluntly, as it were. . . Some of that Bill was other than people portray it.”

From the audience, Archbishop Welby fielded a question from a 22-year-old woman, who asked whether the Church was “too apologetic about its positions on sexual morality”. She said that many women, “particularly women of my age”, suffered in the current dating culture. She referred to pornography, among other factors.

The Archbishop agreed with her “entirely. We were talking about it in the College of Bishops last week, and I think we do need to be more open about the basic rules, the basic understanding of sexual morality within Christian thinking. Without sounding as though we are lecturing, but just to be unapologetic about saying . . . sexual activity should be within permanent, stable, and faithful relationships of marriage, as that is understood in each society.”

Discussion also touched on politics. The Archbishop evaded a question whether Boris Johnson was “morally fit to lead Britain”, praising the existence of the Privileges Committee (“it’s a very good thing that there’s a process in Parliament that measures the issues against criteria”), but he did say that politicians had misled Parliament in the past. “In fact, there may even in this room be people who are morally not 100 per cent pure and upright. Certainly I’m not.”

When it came to the Illegal Migration Bill, which he has recently described as “morally unacceptable, and politically impractical” (News, 10 May), Archbishop Welby was more forthright. He was reminded of Jesus’s teaching on the Last Judgement and the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, he said.

“These two groups of people, the sheep and the goats, they either feed the hungry or fail to do so. They nurse the sick, they visit the prisoner, and, as we think about the Illegal Immigration Bill, they welcome the stranger or they fail to do so. The second group live as though it doesn’t matter. The first group is welcomed by Christ to eternal life. The second group have to face the terrible consequences of living for their own interests as though those in need did not matter.”

While the Church sought to speak truth to power, it was guilty of “immense failures and sins” itself, he acknowledged. “Therefore, we should welcome the challenge and scrutiny from the media that is part of living in a democratic society.”

There had been “catastrophic and total failure” in safeguarding, he said. While the Church was now “more open” about safeguarding challenges, “until we have a fully independent, central safeguarding system — and this is not the official view, but it is my view — . . . we cannot hold our heads up.”

Survivors and their advocates, in evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (News, 9 March 2018) and elsewhere, have repeatedly called for the C of E to be answerable to an entirely independent safeguarding authority.

Ten years into his tenure, the Archbishop also spoke of taking “more risks” in his media engagements. He urged journalists to help to explain religious world-views to their audiences. While the UK might be growing more secular, this was not true of the world: “When we talk about religion or religious people, we are not studying some endangered exotica under the microscope,” he said.

Religion was not a “bolt-on”, but “the prism through which we see everything else”.

Further questions. Asked whether GAFCON Primates had “given up” on him, Archbishop Welby said: “Some of them have. Some of them haven’t. If you are asking someone to repent, actually you haven’t given up on them. You just think they are going in the wrong direction. . . No one has yet left the Anglican Communion. . . But, as it happens, I entirely agree that the structure of the Anglican Communion needs reforming.”

On whether, were he to begin his tenure again, he would focus more on the renewal of “the little, the local, the ordinary parishes” rather than “flagship projects”, he said: “I think it has to be a balance. . . What we have to do is find ways of getting the whole Church to live for the flourishing of the whole Church. And that means that certain groups that have very large resources should be encouraged to share those resources very extensively, of people and of leadership and of money, and that involves things like church-planting, church-grafting, building new churches. We opened more churches last year than we closed. . .

“It also involves for the rural parishes, where they have an enormous weight of buildings, putting a lot of extra support into that and simplifying the bureaucracy of looking after them. And stopping the business of closing parishes and spreading clergy ever more thinly, but being more open, I believe, to the ordination of those who are the natural community leaders and who are faithful Christians, so that we aim back towards [having] many more parsons in the parish, particularly in the rural areas.

“But we mustn’t forget the outer estates. . . Those actually have a huge call on our money and our time and our energy.”

On the MSP Kate Forbes and her treatment by the press, he said: “I think it was an entire failure of many newspapers, and reporters and radio and TV, to do [their] job of explaining how this happens, why this view is taken. It’s presented as an entirely eccentric view, which, if you held a different world-view, it is.

“People are perfectly free to choose not to agree, but surely it is part of newspapers’ duties to try to explain how that happens, so it’s not made as a snap judgement in a pile-on of the press.”

Finally, on those caught in the eye of a media storm, he said: “I think there is an absence of forgiveness. There is an absence of the possibility of redemption. So, people are treated as though they were the worst villain on earth, and where do you then go when terrible things happen?

“If you’ve treated someone in sport, or something like that, as the absolutely final say in evil, how do you deal with Bucha? How do you deal with South Sudan or Sudan? How do you deal with five million dead in DRC, which is never reported on? . . . Are these pile-ons always proportional?”

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