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Leader comment: Welby’s decade

24 March 2023

ANYONE attempting to assess the first ten years of Justin Welby’s time as Archbishop of Canterbury, marked quietly on Tuesday, operates under Christ’s injunction: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” He is not up for election. He has not yet taken that necessary step that changes him from a contemporary to a historical figure. And even without Christ’s warning, the difficulties are clear. Although it is entertaining to judge a political leader by the achievements for which they claim responsibility — essentially anything good that happens during their time in office, not excluding national sporting triumphs — or by the failings that they try to disown, an archbishop is much harder to judge as a individual since he (so far) is genuinely a primus inter pares, reliant on “soft power”. His opinion carries weight, his advice is valued, but his ability to do anything is severely curtailed. He cannot, for example, reshuffle his bench of bishops overnight to something more congenial in the way that a political leader can. Thus any attempt to deliver a verdict on the past decade must therefore encompass, at least in part, the performance of the whole episcopate, and the Church as a whole — rather too great a task for this small canvas.

If not judgement, then perhaps an observation. The Crown Nominations Commission, aware of the fissiparous nature of the Anglican Communion, chose a negotiator — not just one by profession but one by nature, on account of his upbringing. Whereas a good negotiator understands the tensions that exist in all sides in a dispute, a natural negotiator feels those tensions within him- or herself. (This is a characteristic arguably more easily identifiable in women.) Thus those who have been bruised by the Church of England in the past decade can be assured that the Archbishop, too, has been bruised. The freedom to wish away awkward, or even unChristian, elements in the Church is not one that he can indulge. Justin Welby takes seriously his peculiar standing as a focus of unity and an official instrument of the Communion. His misfortune is to come to office when the cause of unity is undervalued. In a reaction against a past when the failings of others were too often overlooked in an effort to protect the institution, the Church and society in general has entered a period in which such failings are exacerbated, and the unity of the institution (always a means to an end, not an end in itself) is discounted. The prestidigitation that Justin Welby must perform in such a context, therefore — and, thanks to social media, on a far more public and unforgiving stage than any of his predecessors — whether it invites suspicion, frustration, or admiration, ought supremely to invite prayer. For if there is judgement here, it is best directed at that Church that dictates the sort of archbishop it has allowed or encouraged Justin Welby to be.

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