Who’d be Archbishop of Canterbury? Not me. You have surprisingly little executive power and get blamed for pretty much everything: from earthquakes (you are God’s representative, after all), politics (too involved, not involved enough), and the petty disputes of your fractious disputatious clergy — of which I am one.
If vicars are often an object of projection, so much more the Archbishop. Any assessment of Justin Welby’s 10 years of office, therefore, will say more about me than him. The Archbishop is a living, breathing Rorschach test. Still: here goes.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Welby is hard to read because he is seemingly open and yet emotionally closed at the same time. Even before he landed the top job in the worldwide Anglican Communion, he was adept at not granting access to his inner world. The social polish you learn at Eton, with its arsenal of confident self-deprecation, is precisely the sort of self-protecting buffer zone that you need to survive being the nation’s punch bag.
There has been great pain in his life: dysfunctional alcoholic parents, the loss of a seven-month-year-old baby daughter in a car accident. Understandably, he has suffered periods of crippling darkness and has admitted to taking anti-depressants. He is brave in talking about his bruises, and yet also strangely hidden, both open and emotionally distant. And since he is not a natural people person, his openness can come across as scripted.
Welby smiles to reassure, but in repose his face crackles with all the scary intensity of an officer on the Death Star; yes, a bit like a born-again Director Krennic. People say he has a thunderous temper when things don’t go his own way, which I can quite believe. Sometimes you can’t keep it all bottled up. I like Welby, but I am frightened of him.
Back in 2012, I interviewed him for The Guardian when he was still Bishop of Durham. Paddy Power had him at 6/1 to be the next vicar to the nation. We discussed woman bishops, still seen as a long way off. How would he reconcile the competing demands of those who see it as a theological necessity and those who deem it a theological impossibility? How would he square the circle, I asked? “Well, you just look at the circle and say it’s a circle with sharp bits on it,” he laughed. Anglicanism has always involved a certain amount of shape-shifting from its leadership. The phrase “all things to all men” is from the Bible, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing. Ideologically, Welby can be what you want him to be.
Here’s an example. A few days after that Guardian interview, the Rev Rod Thomas — an evangelical conservative — and I discussed who should get the top job on Channel 4 news. Thomas was against women bishops and believes homosexuality is a sin. I thought the opposite. Yet we both agreed that Welby was the right man for the job. That’s the power of a circle with pointy bits. Some see a circle, others see a square.
Women bishops were approved within a few years, and the Church has now agreed on prayers for blessing same-sex marriages. Rod Thomas was made a bishop in 2015 and kept on board. But he is far from happy. “We should not mislead people into believing that we can ask God to bless those things that He has revealed are contrary to His will,” said Bishop Rod recently. I think he may have been more deceived than I about that circle.
Welby’s church, his circle with pointy bits, turned out to be this: a collection of morally-progressive, liturgically-charismatic evangelicals with a hint of woke. Damaged public schoolboys who find it hard to express their feelings in everyday life are often attracted to forms of worship that let it all hang out. Welby talks in tongues. The whole thing is so achingly sincere. This is surely what Prince Harry would be like if he got God. It’s the sort of religion that some of us watch through our fingers with embarrassment — like dad dancing.
With Welby, open evangelicalism has become the new centre of gravity in the Church of England. More Radio 2 than Radio 4, undemanding and depressingly easy listening. “Let’s be clear, I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England”, he told me back in 2012. There remains stiff competition for this title, I can tell you. And Welby is not even close. He has a keen and lively intelligence and a steely will. But Welby’s Church of England, it might be said, no longer feels the need for academic-minded bishops. Better some B-school MBA or a Certificate in Church Planting than a proper PhD in Patristics for the modern cleric on the make.
And here is my real beef with Welby’s Church: managerialism. The backdrop to Welby’s appointment was the banking crisis and the subsequent Occupy camp at St Paul’s Cathedral. The Church needed to get a bit more this worldly, many thought. It needed to understand finance and business. When it came to capitalism, Welby was a grown-up, having worked for Elf Aquitaine in a previous life. And 11 years in the oil industry clearly shaped his thinking about organisational structures. The old, slightly bumbling high-table, soft-power understanding of Lambeth Palace was not for him. Welby wanted to change things and have access to levers of real executive power.
But the Church of England is not set up like this. It never has been. The parish system is the very model of subsidiarity. If anything, the Church is a bottom-up institution rather than top-down. You bow to your bishop, but you don’t necessarily do everything he asks. Under Welby, however, the centre has grown ever stronger, the parishes increasingly weaker. Max Weber famously divided power into the charismatic, the traditional and the legal/rational. Welby is the first archbishop who has tried to govern through the latter.
The “Save the Parish” movement was established as a fightback. Too many bishops became middle managers, hidden behind their laptops. Directives and new initiatives came down from head office, which many of the clergy, myself included, received with an inner groan. In the face of declining attendance, we all had to learn that evangelical up-speak, and get on with the paperwork. Morale has plummeted.
The Church’s reaction to Covid was the depressing conclusion of Welby’s legal/rational approach to power. Buffeted by abuse scandals — including that of a previous friend and mentor, John Smyth, who beat and sexually harassed young boys on Christian summer camps — Welby read the Covid situation in the light of his safeguarding nightmares. Safeguarding was the one area where rules could be imposed on the clergy. Churches were to be closed to protect the faithful from infection. Clergy were allowed into their churches to check them over for insurance purposes, but not to celebrate the holy mysteries, even on their own. The shepherds abandoned their sheep.
It was a terrible directive and a lot of us — myself included — ignored it and were put on the Lambeth Palace naughty list. The gap grew wider between the clergy and the powers that be. “If I had my time again, I would be more cautious about closing the churches,” Welby later admitted. But the damage was done. For many people, a pattern of churchgoing had been broken never to be taken up again. Sunday schools were abandoned, the vulnerable left to fend for themselves. Parish treasurers pulled their hair out as finances went into a death spiral. Zoom was never a realistic alternative for a religion that is inherently physical, all about the body and the blood.
In a couple of months, Welby will preside over the coronation of King Charles III, and the Church of England has never felt weaker. It’s not his fault. Secularisation is a feature of the Western world, not of any specifically failed leadership. But nonetheless, Welby has failed to speak the right words for our time.
In a moment of crisis, Welby’s answer seems to be organisational restructuring — redirecting more and more resources into big, successful, glitzy, mostly-evangelical churches, while letting smaller ones wither on the vine, run by the unpaid or the retired, all exhausted. This feels like what a CEO archbishop would do. Not a pastor or an evangelist. And, most depressing of all, the whole thing seems to be an exercise in bureaucratic navel-gazing.
Welby is a well-intentioned man, but he is unable to read the room — or, rather the nation. When in 2020, he abandoned his fine 13th-century chapel to take the Easter service online from his kitchen, I imagine he thought he was expressing solidarity with those who were stuck at home. But most people didn’t see it like that. It felt like a silly gesture, a gimmick. And a kick in the teeth to those of us struggling to keep the Church show on the road.
Some say Welby will go after the coronation. I don’t know about that. But what I would want from the new man or woman is someone who could help revive the morale of the clergy. “It’s just not so much fun anymore,” said one senior cleric to me recently. On the front line, in the parishes, it feels like the Archbishop doesn’t much care about us. Or if he does, he has been refusing to show it.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe