+Welby’s Self-effacing Debut

By John Martin in London

When Ladbrokes Bookmakers announced on Tuesday that it had closed betting on the Canterbury race following a flurry of bets on the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, it was a strong sign that the Crown Nominations Commission had finished its work and royal approval from Queen Elizabeth II was imminent.

After much delay in the CNC’s deliberations, the final stages of the official processes worked rapidly. Justin Welby was phoned by the office of the Prime Minister late last week and was told he would be sent a letter by Nov. 5. It was delivered to him by hand outside Portcullis House (the parliamentary offices opposite the Palace of Westminster). “I have to admit I opened it right away,” he told reporters assembled in the historic Guard Room at Lambeth Palace.

So, one of the Church of England’s all-time least-kept secrets is finally out in the light. Justin Portal Welby, Bishop of Durham for only a year, will be enthroned as 105th Archbishop of Canterbury on March 21. “To be nominated to this post is both astonishing and exciting. It is something I never expected and the last few weeks have been a very strange experience,” he confessed.

In a statement Archbishop Rowan Williams said Welby possessed “an extraordinary range of skills and is a person of grace, patience, wisdom and humour. … He will bring to this office both a rich pastoral experience and a keen sense of international priorities, for Church and world.”

Welby in turn was generous in his praise of Williams as someone of “extraordinary integrity and holiness, immense personal, moral and spiritual courage, and of course one of the world’s greatest theologians and philosophers.”

Then, in trademark self-deprecation he quipped: “On the basis that you should only follow failures, this is a great mistake.” Then taking a more serious tone he added, “The world owes him a great debt, more than it knows.”

“Let’s be clear,” Welby said in a press interview in July, “I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England.” Another time he said he slept through all his lectures at theological college. This is a common tactic used by graduates of the famous Eton College (which Princes William and Harry and Prime Minister David Cameron also attended) to confound or disarm their critics.

Welby explains his 11-year career in the oil industry in similar terms. “I drifted into it because I couldn’t get a job when I left university and I ended up working with Elf in France in its international finance team. They needed someone who could speak English and I didn’t know anything about anything, so they could shape me. I stumbled into the first thing in my life I was reasonably good at, and ended up being group treasurer in a company called Enterprise Oil.”

Given his business background and relatively short church career, was he perhaps one of the most “worldly” in the succession of archbishops? He said he did not compare with medieval prelates who owned vast estates and acquired immense wealth. Replying to another question he said he had first-hand experience of the Episcopal Church, appreciated the connection, and certainly would not be telling it how to go about its business.

More than being a triumph for his old school, Welby’s appointment is one for Holy Trinity Brompton, the parish church located in Knightsbridge close by the famous Harrods department store. It was at this church that as a young man he and his wife Caroline connected to the Alpha Course.

Alpha has become a worldwide phenomenon boasting alumni of 15 million. It is the single reason why the church in London is bucking a long-standing trend of numerical decline. It was at HTB (as it is commonly called) that Welby and his wife, after the tragic death of their baby daughter Johanna in 1983, felt the call for him to pursue ordination. In 1989 he left a £100,000-plus salary as an oil-industry executive. By 1992 he was a curate earning £11,000 a year.

He will bring a positive commitment to church growth. Welby said he is committed to the Fresh Expressions movement championed by Archbishop Williams. As Dean of Liverpool Cathedral he had maintained traditional worship but also started a café church. “We soon found we were struggling to find space for people, having previously struggled to get them to come along.”

He is firmly committed to women joining the episcopate. “I will be voting in favour,” he declared. He recognises the church faces “deep differences” over sexuality. “It is absolutely right for the state to define the rights and status of people cohabiting in different forms of relationships, including civil partnerships. We must have no truck with any form of homophobia, in any part of the church.”

He stated his support for the recent bishops’ statement opposing same-sex marriage but added that “I know I need to listen to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully.” London newspapers such as the Telegraph took this and a rejection of “the language of exclusion” as an “olive branch” in what is a very fraught debate. He pointed out, however, that what the Church of England does “deeply affects the already greatly suffering churches in places like northern Nigeria.”

Welby has made a positive start. He was sure-footed in dealing with the media Friday, as he has been from the moment it became known that he was a “possible” for Canterbury. He is playful and delivers a good sound bite.

It was slightly comic to witness the mood of the gathered media in Lambeth Palace. As the minutes ticked by after the sound of Big Ben striking 11 a.m., an almost holy, perhaps slightly apprehensive, silence began to descend. Was the bookmaker’s certainty about to be delivered or — at this late hour — were the assembled media to be greeted by a Richard Chartres or John Sentamu? When Welby appeared alongside the Lambeth Palace public affairs director, the sense of relief was almost palpable.

On Nov. 4 at St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, a blindfolded 10-year-old boy selected one from among three crystal balls sealed with wax, each containing a single name, the final act in another episcopal search. Thus emerged Tawadros II, who will lead Egypt’s Copts, succeeding the much esteemed late Pope Shenouda III.

What is certain is that the Church of England’s way of choosing bishops and archbishops has been put to a stern test in the last two months. Already General Synod members are signalling that they want a review of the CNC’s processes. It’s unlikely, though, that they would take the same route as the Copts. There is biblical precedent for elections by lot — consider Matthias succeeding Judas Iscariot — but less evidence that the early church continued in that vein.


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