The Archbishop’s Biographer

In July 2012 the London-based publisher Darton, Longman and Todd commissioned a biography of the 105th archbishop of Canterbury. That was four months before the world learned about the appointment of Justin Portal Welby. The publisher assigned the task to Andrew Atherstone, who teaches Christian history at the evangelically oriented Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University. Atherstone produced Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury, a 152-page paperback, published in March 2013 just before the archbishop’s enthronement. It is now available in expanded form as Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and Reconciler.

Atherstone writes: “Justin Welby declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this book, though he happily and graciously allowed me to speak freely with his friends and colleagues.” He spoke with Douglas LeBlanc by phone about the man who was unknown to many Anglicans, and the broader Christian church, before his appointment.

What are some incorrect assumptions that people make about the Archbishop of Canterbury?
One false assumption is that he’s the head of the Church of England with a lot of institutional power. In fact, in England much authority is devolved to the parishes, and bishops are primarily pastors and teachers of the faith who lead by example, not by ordering people about. Another false assumption is that he has authority over the global Anglican Communion. He’s not an Anglican pope and has no authority outside England. The Communion is a family of autonomous churches.

Didn’t Archbishop George Carey prevail on Archbishop Augustin Nshamihigo of Rwanda to resign after the genocide in that nation?
Certainly he urged Nshamihigo to resign, but Carey had no legal authority to force him out. He could only try moral persuasion.

Why does the Archbishop of Canterbury tend to attract more attention than the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation or the president of the Baptist World Alliance?
Partly because the archbishop is a public dignitary, with a seat in the House of Lords, and a place at the top table alongside the Monarch and the Prime Minister. The Church of England is still the national church, established by law. The archbishop isn’t elected by the general synod; he can’t lobby for votes; it’s not an honorary position for a year or two — ultimately he’s appointed by the Queen. So by tradition he has a significant voice in the media. It’s an archaic and unusual system, but it still brings great opportunities to speak for Christ on the national and global stage.

Because reconciliation has played such a central role in Archbishop Welby’s pilgrimage, including many trips into dangerous settings, how important will reconciliation be in how people evaluate his leadership?
The key questions are What does reconciliation mean? and What role does repentance play in reconciliation? Some Anglicans want relationship without repentance, and others are calling for repentance that leads to reconciliation. In war zones reconciliation means an end to the fighting, but in the Christian church reconciliation means getting right with God and with each other, which is something different.

Does Anglicanism’s decades-long debate about same-sex couples suggest that expecting repentance before relationship is a doomed project?
It’s not a doomed project at all. Repentance as the key to spiritual renewal was one of the discoveries of the East African Revival in the 1930s, and will be a central message of the second Global Anglican Future Conference, which meets in Nairobi, Kenya, this October.

How might the archbishop’s talent for reconciliation make him more likely to find a peaceful resolution to the Anglican Communion’s debates about same-sex marriage?
The archbishop is determined that Anglicans should get to understand each other by listening carefully, not just by publishing position papers or delivering platform speeches. He leads from the front in putting relationships central. I don’t think a harmonious resolution on same-sex marriage is possible, but he will try to find a way.

Is the Church of England less likely to be countercultural now that Parliament and the Queen have agreed that the state will recognize same-sex marriages as a matter of civil law?
It’s true, the Church of England often finds it difficult to be countercultural. But its position on this issue is very clear, formally at least. The Church of England, and the archbishop himself, have consistently argued against the new legislation and won’t be conducting marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, though some denominations in Britain probably will.

In his service as parish priest, canon at Coventry Cathedral, cathedral dean at Liverpool and, briefly, bishop of Durham, Archbishop Welby developed on emphasis on taking radical risks for the sake of the gospel. In what ways do you think he will call the Anglican Communion to this frequent theme?
One risk the archbishop loves to emphasize is innovative evangelism, urging Anglicans out of our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel. Another risk is dialogue with our enemies, with whom we disagree very deeply, which carries the danger of being misunderstood by our friends.

A third risk, faced by the archbishop personally, is the opportunity to relinquish some of his ex-officio influence. For example, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he chairs the Primates’ Meeting and calls the Lambeth Conference. It will take courage to let this role go, because by his very position he’s bound into the rigid Anglican structures. But he’s fully aware that it’s an anachronism to have a global Communion led by a white man at Lambeth Palace.

As you note in the biography, most bishops from Africa boycotted the Lambeth Conference of 2008 and attended GAFCON instead. Do you think there will be a Lambeth Conference in 2018?
I’m not a prophet, but I think it’s unlikely there will be another Lambeth Conference. Historians will look back on the conference as a brief 140-year experiment from 1867 to 2008. The bishops of the Global South will simply refuse, on principle, to come to Lambeth if revisionist bishops from North America and elsewhere are also invited. Instead Justin Welby has set the goal of visiting each of his fellow Anglican Primates around the world, to get to know them personally and build one-to-one friendships. He is working publicly and privately to build bridges with conservative leaders.

How important will the archbishop’s self-deprecating humor be in helping him keep the affection of the British people?
No one likes pomposity, and pompous bishops are the worst. Welby has won over the crowd by being deliberately down-to-earth. There have been some wonderful snapshots of the archbishop, like swapping his miter for a nearby policeman’s helmet at a photo shoot. He has joked in the House of Lords about standing before them in robes that look like a nightie.  But sometimes his love of irony doesn’t translate well on the printed page, especially for an American audience. Pope Francis, too, has made a point of downplaying the trappings of his office.

The parish of Holy Trinity Brompton has played a significant role in Archbishop Welby’s life, from his baptism as an infant to the crucible of grieving for his infant daughter, to his sense of calling to the priesthood. In what ways does he defy preconceptions about Holy Trinity Brompton?
Certainly the archbishop was nurtured in the faith at Holy Trinity Brompton, but he calls himself a spiritual magpie, seeking spiritual riches wherever they can be found. He is an oblate with the Anglican Benedictines. His spiritual director is a Roman Catholic monk in Switzerland. This seems rather strange for someone converted through a conservative evangelical Christian Union at university, and probably raises a few eyebrows amongst his evangelical and charismatic friends. Although he’s good friends with the vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton, he’s not a carbon copy of Nicky Gumbel.

What do you think has made Justin Welby so attractive to deeply different people within Anglicanism?
It’s partly his winsome personality, certainly, and his ability to understand and relate to a wide variety of people. He’s built good friendships and high respect in Nigeria and North America, on both sides of the theological divide. So he can attend a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, as he did before his appointment, to listen and learn, affirm what is good, but also express his disagreement at some crucial points of difference. The key question will be how much the archbishop’s able to challenge these different Anglican audiences around the world, and even rebuke them if necessary.

Considering his lack of interest when he’s interviewed for new positions, how do you account for his meteoric rise through the Church of England’s ranks of leadership?
It’s partly the benefit of the unknown. Most of the better-known bishops under consideration for Canterbury came with baggage or would have proved divisive. There was a sense of bringing in someone new from outside. He’s also risen quickly because so many projects he’s touched have flourished and grown, in the parish, or the cathedral, or the Diocese of Durham. Quick change is a good start; the test for Justin Welby now is long-term change. Being Archbishop of Canterbury is a ten-year project, not a two-year project, and it’s vital to keep going strong when the honeymoon’s over.

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