Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has said disestablishment of the Church of England would not be a disaster, and removal of the church’s privileges should be “a decision for parliament and people”.
In an interview with the Guardian ahead of the royal wedding, Welby acknowledged that disestablishment – separating church and state, and removing the C of E’s official status – would be a “complicated process”.
“Would disestablishment be a disaster? No,” he said, adding: “Nothing’s a disaster with God.”
As the leader of England’s established, or state, church, Welby will take Prince Harry and Meghan Markle through their marriage vows at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday. The archbishop also officiates at state occasions, including the coronation of the monarch.
Some critics say it is inappropriate in an increasingly multi-faith and secular society to accord special status to one church or faith over others. For example, 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for Anglican bishops; the only other country to include clerics by right in its legislature is Iran.
Welby said: “I think, in the end, establishment as a legal thing is a conglomeration of different bits of history, there’s no ‘Establishment of the Church of England Act’ that you could repeal – it’s a complicated process.
“And if you mean by privilege that the archbishop of Canterbury very often is involved in royal weddings, or crowns the monarch or whatever, that’s really a decision for parliament and people.”
Welby declined to disclose his private conversations with Prince Harry and Markle in preparation for their marriage, but said he always stressed the importance of communication with brides and grooms. “You talk about communication when things go well, when you’re under pressure, when you’re tired, when things are tricky, when you’re fed up, you do that with every couple,” he said.
Welby also told the Guardian he hoped to stay in the job for another eight years, until the compulsory retirement age of 70, and that of his first five years he was most proud of the ordination of women as bishops.
“I’m more than delighted that it’s happened and I’m even more delighted that since it became possible in law, that round about half the bishops that have been appointed are women,” he said. He would like to see a woman appointed as his successor “at some point”.
On the contentious issue of sexuality, he acknowledged changes in his attitude. “Are my views different to 25 years ago? Yes.”
Asked if they were different from five years ago, he replied: “I hope they’re deeper. I’ve not changed in the sense that I believe the scriptures, properly interpreted, remain for me the final authority in matters of doctrine, in matters of practice. But the phrase is ‘properly interpreted’.
“And we are continuing as a church to debate with each other, to discuss with each other, and to listen to particularly the voices of LGBTIQ+ people who historically have been appallingly treated and never listened to. I think we are changing very distinctly. You talk to [the bishops leading the C of E’s work in the issue] and I think they would say the whole church is on a journey … and I’m part of that.”
On sexual abuse, another critical issue for the church, Welby said that “to fail in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults is the absolute denial of what we are called to in Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us above all to care for the vulnerable and the poor and the weak. And to privilege the institution over that is utterly shameful and wrong and must never be allowed to happen.”
He was “conscious of the possibility” that the church’s reputation could be damaged further in hearings this summer and next year at the national child abuse inquiry, but added: “I think that the worst of all things that we could do is worry more about our reputation than the truth.” The church should be “utterly truthful and transparent and honest”.
He dismissed claims that he has failed to turn around decline in Church of England attendance as “ultra short-termism”. “I believe that over time at some point that will turn it around. While there’s one Christian in this country, it’s not time to stop talking about that.”
This Guardian article by religious correspondent Harriet Sherwood, shows the Archbishop of Canterbury, ++Justin Welby, to be cognisant of the distinct possibility of a Church of England without the privileges of being the ‘State Church’, which guarantees protection by the State; but which also offers certain disadvantages, in that the State can dictate to the Church on matters of doctrine and discipline – which other religious organisations are not bound by law to observe.
However, it is interesting to discover that the Archbishop, when he was speaking to the press, was also challenged about the Church’s attitudes towards the LGBT community; on whether or not the Church’s official position has changed. The Archbishop has admitted that his own position is different from what it was even five years ago. He believes the Church s beginning to come to grips with the fact that hermeneutic research into certain texts of the Bible needs to be updated – in order to deal with the reality of sexual differences that should be properly and justly dealt with in the light of modern discoveries about the complex nature of gender and sexuality:
” I’ve not changed in the sense that I believe the scriptures, properly interpreted, remain for me the final authority in matters of doctrine, in matters of practice. But the phrase is ‘properly interpreted’. “
This new thinking is also contiguous with the modern understanding of the place of women in the Church, which has had to be adjusted to catch up with society’s emancipation of women in the modern world. The ABC mentions his own pleasure at the Church’s decision to recruit the services of women as both priests and bishops – expressing the hope for a more equitable distribution of genders in the leadership of the C. of E.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand