‘I am not the Pope,” says Justin Welby, not once but several times as we talk. It has become a catchphrase, after a year as Archbishop of Canterbury. “People have this illusion that you can somehow click your fingers and all kinds of extraordinary things happen around the world. They think you can hire and fire, and all the rest of it, which is almost universally untrue.”
Can the leader of such an argumentative bunch of believers not bang a few heads together? “You can convene heads together,” he says with a wry smile. “What you quite quickly learn is that you have no authority but quite a lot of influence. You can bring people together and help to make things happen. That’s one of the most wonderful parts of the job.”
That is how an unlikely agreement was reached over women bishops, but the Church’s attitude to sexuality is an even more divisive issue that could lead to walk-outs, if it hasn’t already. There will always be some people who just don’t want to be brought together. “Yes. Quite.”
He also has little control over what the Church does with its money, as we shall find out
Justin Welby speaks carefully, but warmly, in a voice that is flat and nasal and just a little bit posh. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour and shares the same frugal tastes as Pope Francis, who was enthroned a week earlier than him.
On both the Sundays we spend together he wears a dark suit that looks like the one he bought for £10 in a charity shop. And this trim 58-year-old jogs through the streets around Lambeth in the mornings in shorts that are frankly unepiscopal.
Having sped up through the ranks of the Church, he had only been a bishop for seven months when he was called to Canterbury. Those who know him say he still can’t quite believe it has happened. “It’s a very strange feeling,” he admits. “I don’t know what it feels like to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s just that, from time to time, you think, ‘Goodness, that’s me’. ”
Is that because the archbishop is traditionally a commanding figure? “Oh, absolutely. The Archbishop of Canterbury is someone of whom one always has a certain awe and fear. And I look at him in the mirror when I shave in the morning and that is very unsettling. Because he doesn’t look very awe-ful or fearful. Well, maybe I do look awful. But not very fearful.”
The archbishop no longer has a chauffeur but travels by public transport or is driven by his wife, Caroline, who insists that she is the better driver. When he takes the bus, people rarely recognise him. “Or if they do, they are incredibly polite.”
Both Welbys have a cutting sense of humour that can at times sound brutal. Sitting in the back of his car, the archbishop suddenly orders his wife to “reverse backwards into The Sunday Telegraph photographer”. Mrs Welby chuckles at the wheel, but tells him the photographer is out of the way. “Is he? Pity.”
You have to be confident to go in for affectionate bullying such as that, but does he ever feel he’s not up to the job? “Frequently. That’s no different to everything else I have ever done, to be honest. As a parish priest, you get a call saying, ‘Could you go and see a family whose child has just died?’ You don’t think, ‘Oh that’s a pretty easy one’. Your heart sinks and you pray as you go, ‘God, if you don’t give me the wherewithal, I can contribute nothing to this situation’. This job is no different. Every day, there are moments when I think, ‘This is impossible’.”
Unlike the Pope, he has no power to challenge directly the investments made on behalf of the Church of England. This subject arises when we visit a refuge centre in north London for men caught up in the failings of the immigration system. Archbishop Welby is with Cardinal Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, as part of a joint week of prayer called Listen to God: Hear the Poor. But as one man there whispers loudly, “How can they hear the poor when their churches have so much money?”
The £5.5 billion assets of the Church of England are handled by a secretive body called the Church Commissioners, and the archbishop doesn’t always know what they are doing, as became painfully obvious last summer.
The defining moment of his first year in office was when he took on the high-interest lender Wonga and threatened to “compete it out of business” with a network of community banks run by churches. It then emerged that the C of E had a financial stake in Wonga, through a third party.
The newly appointed archbishop was embarrassed. He had trusted that any such holding would be filtered out by the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. But why did he not just ask?
“Honestly, they have I don’t know how many thousand holdings. I only have an idea what some of the top 10 are. I don’t get involved in day-to-day management of investments of the Church of England. I’ve got a million other things to do.”
He’s a bit cross now. But Welby’s financial expertise as a former oil company executive is part of the reason he was chosen to be head of a church that needs to reinvent the way it works and funds itself. From property speculation to hedge funds, the Commissioners’ investments have undermined every attempt by recent archbishops to speak out on money matters. But isn’t he the one who is supposed to get to grips with them?
“Get involved in the day-to-day management of investments? I’m not an investment manager. I know nothing about investment. My job is leading in worship, telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ, building the life of the Church spiritually across the country,” he says, with increasing irritation.
‘No large organisation runs on the basis that the chief executive knows everything that is going on. You have to work with systems and you have to trust people, and there will be mistakes. It is an inevitable part of it.”
Doesn’t it become an issue when they undermine what he says? “Absolutely it is an issue.”
So have they managed to get rid of the Wonga-related shares at last? “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. When I last asked, which was about a month ago, they hadn’t. It’s a very small holding of about £85,000 or £90,000, which is indirectly held through about three other holdings and apparently it is very difficult to get rid of. But they are continuing to work on trying to extract themselves from it.”
So the Church still has an interest in Wonga, nearly a year after he spoke out so strongly against it? “First of all, it’s not Church of England investment. It’s Church Commissioners’ investment. So I can’t just say, ‘Sell it’. I do not have the authority to do that. I have the authority to say, ‘I warmly encourage you to sell it, I would really like you to get rid of it’. That I have said on several occasions. They have said, ‘We are trying to do that’. They are doing their best, but it is one of the bits where I don’t have the authority to give an order.”
Isn’t that frustrating? “Yeah. Slightly. But every job has frustrations.”
Justin Welby is said to have a temper, so we are both relieved to reach the Rainbow Centre in Folkestone, an impressive church project with a contact room for estranged families and a crisis centre for those who fall through the welfare net.
“Hi, I’m Justin,” he says to one woman, and within moments he is down on his knees talking to her five-year-old. Both are charmed. “I didn’t expect him to be so down to earth,” says the mother.
There is an awkward moment when he meets Graham Sopp, who smiles and asks who he is. The Archbishop of Westminster? “No, Canterbury,” says Welby, smiling across at Cardinal Nichols, who used to hold that title. “I’m the married one.”
Mr Sopp was a submariner during the Falklands conflict, but has lately been down on his luck and unable to work because of a frozen shoulder. He and his wife, Lisa, were let down by an Armed Forces charity and found themselves living in a tent. They were so desperate that one day they decided to link arms on the cliff tops nearby and jump to their deaths. Before they could do so, someone told them about the Rainbow Centre, where they found help and support. “This place saved our lives.”
The archbishop listens carefully, but what can he do? “Oh. Well you can take it to God and pray. You support the people who are doing the front-line work. Those are the key things.”
The Sopps are on his mind as we leave. “There is no system in the world that will stop people having huge problems, but we must have a structure of support for people that meets not merely their financial needs but also their need to be treated as distinct human beings of infinite value.”
But while the Sopps go back to a tiny damp flat, the Welbys are on the way to the Old Palace – their second palace – at Canterbury, where they spend weekends.
How does he reconcile that with what he has heard? “I think that is always uncomfortable. There are all kinds of reasons why you live where you live, reasons of history and that sort of thing, but in a sense that doesn’t really answer the question. We don’t live in the whole of Lambeth Palace, we live in a flat up the top. But the only justification is to use it responsibly and do everything you can with it for the best use of those for whom you care and are responsible.”
Again, he says it is the Church Commissioners who are in control. “It’s not my house, it’s their house.”
He has opened Lambeth to four members of Chemin Neuf, the first Catholic-led community to live there since the Reformation. Some of his five children also have rooms, as does the Bishop at Lambeth and several members of the administration staff.
But the archbishop admits: “I think it is uncomfortable when you are living in a really grand, big place.”
Insiders say he has swept away the atmosphere of a medieval court, replacing it with a management team. Spiritually, he was converted into a strident evangelical faith and nurtured in the charismatic powerhouse that is Holy Trinity Brompton, but has a Roman Catholic spiritual director and reads the Rule of St Benedict at night.
So is he the man to save the Church of England? “The answer to that is obviously no,” he says quickly. “Clearly. It’s God who does the work. It doesn’t depend on the individual. The moment we start doing this Superman act, we are in cloud cuckoo land.”
The people in the parishes are the ones who matter, he says. It’s his job to tackle “arcane” Church structures so their work becomes easier. New ways of worshipping are being invented across the country all the time. But he is not ready to scrap the ailing parish system just yet.
“When it works, it is brilliant. What it gives us above all is that we are pastorally responsible for everyone in England who doesn’t choose to be outside it. Everyone has the offer of support and love and care from their local parish church. If we lost that completely, it would be a huge loss.”
The trouble is that while lots of people believe in God, they no longer believe in Church. Some 20 million adults in England have faith in a deity, but don’t belong to any religious group. What would he say to them on Easter Sunday?
“I would want to start by saying that the experience of those who put their trust in Christ is of a living presence, of someone they know, who changes life in the most extraordinary way that one can possibly imagine. How you do that is discovered in a community with other Christians, not by oneself. Together we learn the hope that He brings in good times and bad. That comes from my own experience and our own experience as a family.”
Archbishop Welby has known hard times, particularly when he and Caroline lost a baby daughter in a car accident in 1983. He wears a silver replica of the Coventry Cross of Nails, the symbol of the peace and reconciliation team for which he once worked, risking his life as a mediator in war-torn parts of the world.
Trying to hold the Church together must seem easier. The average weekly attendance looks to have bottomed out at 1.1 million, although that’s partly because the statisticians started counting more than just Sunday services. The average age of a Church of England member is 62. The archbishop is a realist; he admits there is a crisis.
“Yes, the Church is facing a particular challenge in terms of its age profile and its numbers, but you will find as many signs of growth as decline. The fact that we have held our numbers in the past few years is quite striking because in order to do that, given the number of people who have been dying, we have had to draw a lot of people to join the Church. Just to stay level. That is happening.”
So what should believers do? “There have been many crises in the Church’s history. We go back 1,400 years. There are two mistakes you can make in a crisis. One is the Dad’s Army reaction: Corporal Jones saying, ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ [And obviously panicking]; or Private Frazer saying, ‘We’re all doomed’. The other is complacency: ‘It’s all going to be fine because we have had worse in the past.’ Each time there is a sense of crisis, the first thing to do is to come back to God in worship and prayer.”
He is not fearful. “The reason why we don’t panic is nothing to do with sociology or demographics, it’s to do with trust in a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and can therefore – if we co-operate with him – raise the church to new and fresh life.”
That’s why there is a sense of calm about Justin Welby. Most of the time. He is convinced that he can only do his best, and have faith. “It’s in the hands of God.
This interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury appearing in the ‘Telegraph’, gives us a valuable insight into a typical day in the life of the spiritual (titular) Head of the Church of England – on the road. His meteoric rise to his present appointment, after being made the Bishop of Durham only seven months before, is unique. His obvious determination to get on with the daunting and enormous task of trying to reconcile the different elements of controversy existing in diverse parts of the world-wide Anglican Communion is compelling.
Whatever one might think about his management skills as a reconciler in the Church, Archbishop Justin Welby has had plenty of practice in the material world – experience that the Church may be hoping will stand him in good stead in the present situation of stand-off tactics being pursued by the more conservative provinces of the Communion – mainly in Africa and the Global South – that threaten the unity that has lately become fragile on the issues of gender and sexuality which have become important in other parts of the Communion.
However, the Archbishop’s commitment to the task ahead – as ‘primus-inter-pares’, first among equals, of the bishops of the Anglican Communion – is complicated because of its different authority structure from, say, the Roman Catholic Church with its magisterium residing in the historic papacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, though nominally the chief bishop of the Communion, has no power of veto over what other provinces of the world-wide Communion decide to do about internal polity. Each Province has its own Presiding Bishop, or Primate; and its own synodical form of government, consisting of Bishops, clergy and Laity; free to make their own canons and structures, without consulting the ABC.
That having been said, it is refreshing to see in a provincial Anglican Church Leader the level of commitment shown here by Archbishop Justin, as contained in his final statement here:
“The reason why we don’t panic is nothing to do with sociology or demographics, it’s to do with trust in a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and can therefore – if we co-operate with him – raise the church to new and fresh life.”
That’s why there is a sense of calm about Justin Welby. Most of the time. He is convinced that he can only do his best, and have faith. “It’s in the hands of God.” he says
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand