When the news broke yesterday, the broadcasters described him as an Old Etonian. But Eton alumni are like Irish pubs. You stop being surprised where they turn up. What matters is what Bishop Welby did after his teenage years: he became a successful oil executive, with a long and well-remunerated career ahead of him – then, aged 31, he swapped pay for pews.
Once installed in Durham (and, ergo, the House of Lords), he was enlisted to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, where his often excoriating interventions conferred rising-star status on the 56-year-old. Until a few days ago, Justin Welby was the most influential bishop that you’d never heard of.
Among the politicians who have come to know him over the past few months, there was celebration yesterday, and from all benches. He was invited to join the banking commission with cross-party support, as he was a capitalist who was tough on the City. “In a dark sea of thick and wholly unworldly bishops, he sparks a little,” says one MP. “Talking to the bishops in Parliament seldom leaves you with the impression that they believe in God. I think this one actually might.” The only concern was that he might be too religious for the job.
No one would question the strength of Rowan Williams’s faith. But when he joined fights, they tended to be secular ones: criticising the Government over its cuts, or giving his blessing to environmentalist campaigns. The logic of this is undeniable: that to keep its relevance in the modern world, the Church needs to insert itself into popular debates. But decline continued, each Sunday brings a new closure and the British Social Attitudes survey found that 64 per cent of people never set foot in any place of worship. Dr Williams has had to keep the Church alive in one of the least religious countries on earth.
If this were not discouraging enough, the new Archbishop will have an international flock of 80 million souls, who have very different views on gay rights and women bishops. The threat of schism hangs over the Anglican Communion. Earlier this year, an alliance of 17 archbishops and bishops from four continents – the “Global South” group – wrote to the selection panel to warn, in effect, that they didn’t want another woolly, Left-leaning academic as leader. Being sent to Lambeth Palace can be counted as one of the toughest jobs on God’s earth. Little wonder that clergy such as Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, ruled themselves out.
Had Bishop Welby spent his adult life plotting ecclesiastical preferment, he might have done the same. But his career path has zigzagged – and in the course of doing so, he has come to tick the boxes required of a modern Archbishop of Canterbury. He needs no introduction to the rising trend of persecution of Christians, having run the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. This sent him into harm’s way in Africa, where he was almost shot. He has been a curate in Nuneaton, wrote a book about church management and has proved a dab hand at ecclesiastical finances. But what marks him out is his lack of interest – until very recently – in Church hierarchy, and his approach to religion in general.
There are two ways of looking at the decline of Christianity in England. One is to bemoan the relentless secularisation and the supposed decay of society in general. The other is to accept that being Christian in Britain now means being part of a minority, and that the Church’s mission is to explain the Word of God to people who have grown up having never heard it. Those who know Bishop Welby place him firmly in the latter camp, and say that his mission is evangelical, and that his approach to the task was summed up by his predecessor-but-six Archbishop William Temple: “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.”
This explains the relevance of Bishop Welby’s involvement in the Alpha course, one of the most successful innovations of modern British Christianity. It is a 10-week introduction to the faith, and an evangelical movement that has attracted two million Britons so far. It started at Holy Trinity Brompton, an influential church in west London, and now goes out to prisons and council estates, bucking the general trend of religious decline. Bishop Welby is an admirer and a friend of the movement. At Liverpool, he gave his blessing to a Halloween service called “Night of the Living Dead”, in which a man jumped out of a coffin to convey the message of Resurrection.
This is the sort of stunt that can make mainstream churchgoers shudder, but the Bishop is not the type who believes that the Word of God needs to be accompanied by an electric guitar. Simply that the Church needs to think of new ways to recruit, and recognise that Christianity in Britain is now in such a state that Kenyan religious orders are sending missionaries to Salford. The Roman Catholic Church has found a demand among the young for Latin services that had been abolished following the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Parents who remember the “modernising” Vatican reforms of that era are amazed to see their children seek out the old Tridentine Mass.
But religious revivals always look strange, at first. As GK Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man, any kind of Christian comeback seemed “a puzzle as well as a surprise, because it seems to most people like a river turning backwards from the sea and trying to climb back into the mountains”. Once, it was the Oxford Movement that baffled; now, it is the Alpha movement. And one of the Christians who came through Alpha is being asked by the Queen to look after the global Anglican Communion. It is a seminal moment in the Church’s history.
It is impossible to dismiss Mr Welby as a naive happy-clapper. He embodies the old saying that being a Christian does not mean leaving your brain at the church door. In Parliament he has proved a shrewd and effective interrogator of bankers, easily able to master detail.
When he attacks the excesses of the banks – as he did with brio at a conference in Switzerland last month – he does so with far more credibility because he understands global finance. He is unlikely to take sides in the global warming debate (when asked about his views on the subject, he laughs) and is political enough to know how to steer clear of politics.
Rowan Williams said his successor would need “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”. The eventual winner has the intellect of a financier, the acumen of a politician, the faith of an evangelical and the courage of an African peace negotiator. The challenge facing the established Church is huge. But in the quiet, self-effacing Justin Welby, it has found just the man.
Source: The Telegraph