This post is the first in a periodic series that will focus on the actions of the current Archbishop of Canterbury.
Around this time last year, I wrote a post on this blog titled Abp. Welby’s priority: prayer, in which I noted that relatively few people were listening to Justin Welby when he talked about his goals, his plans, and his thoughts. Everyone was still trying to speculate about who he was and what he was about. Those outside the Church seemed rather excited about him, due to his statements on payday loans and “the War on Wonga,” for instance. But a lot of those on the inside were just expecting a corporate man, ready to tackle some of the Church of England’s perennial problems, especially those of public image and internal management.
What no one seemed to notice was that Archbishop Welby wasn’t really focusing on any of these points when given the opportunity to speak his own mind. Rather, he had made the revival of prayer his clearest initiative, and he practically had a set of talking points that he repeated again and again, especially about the importance of fostering the life of religious communities such as Benedictine monasteries.
Well, maybe people will start to listen up. There’s been quite a buzz in the Anglican world about the founding of the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace. Young people aged 20–35 are invited to apply to join a community of common prayer, study, and practical service: 16 living full time on site and 40 part time in London. The webpage of the site also makes it clear that the Community is seeking a full-time prior to lead and manage the community for three years, while Welby will serve as the Community’s Abbot. All this fits quite neatly into what I noted last year. Or to use the words of another:
“Archbishop Justin is passionate about prayer and about community,” said the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, chaplain to the archbishop. “The renewal of prayer and religious life is the first of his three priorities, and that is what the Community of St. Anselm is all about.”
So, what to make of all this? Well, a few things, I think, regarding Welby’s approach to Christian life, his style of leadership, his vision for the Anglican Communion, and his ability to surprise.
First of all, Welby is serious about drawing on the fullness of the Church’s varied traditions, both in his own life and in the whole Church. As has often been noted, Welby is an evangelical of somewhat classic pedigree, yet he engages in various practices of prayer and here he is founding a monastic-style community. This is the sort of thing that makes some evangelicals nervous about Welby, but (frankly) leaves me more than a little delighted. We’ll have to see what the life of this community looks like. Last year, I had predicted that Welby would do everything he could to foster prayer but that he would not attempt to force a single style of prayer — such as the Daily Office — on the whole Church. Instead, he would encourage all sorts of movements and styles: a bit of the old and a bit of the new. We’ll have to see, but this may be the case here. The Community of St Anselm looks as if it will be a mix of the traditional — the common life together, deliberate “monastic” language, priors, abbots, etc. — but perhaps with a touch of the new in its actual style. We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled to see what happens.
Second, Welby’s follow-through is slow but sure. He’s spent over a year talking about a priority that most people did not notice, but, in the end, he put his money where his mouth was and did it. I find this particularly interesting since it was one of the areas I’ve been most personally curious about. My daily work as a historian partly concerns the material conditions that were required for early medieval monasteries, communities of canons, and cathedrals to establish themselves as houses of prayer. And, the fact is, this kind of activity takes a great deal of money and effort. Common prayer doesn’t just happen. Somebody needs to make sure people are gathered, fed, and directed into the life of prayer. They need a place to meet. Something I continued to ponder, then, was whether our Archbishop of Canterbury would actually go about founding communities himself or asking others to do the same. And the answer seems to be that Welby is going to lead by example. He’s starting the movement in his own house. The big question now is who will join him and who will follow his example.
Third, it seems Welby’s vision for the unity of the Anglican Communion is personal. Part of the founding of the community is about drawing together young people from across the world to live together and learn “what it means to be one family in Christ.” We haven’t heard a lot about some grand strategy for reuniting the churches of the Anglican Communion, but we can perhaps get a sense of how he’s going to do things in the future by keeping our eyes on this project. As his chaplain, Jo Bailey Wells, has said in the announcement: “Archbishop Justin longs that Lambeth Palace be not so much a historic place of power and authority, but a place from which blessing and service reach to the ends of the earth.” Thus, the Community of St Anselm.
Fourth, though, is that Justin Welby is going to keep surprising people. Many have commented to me personally that they’re “not too excited” about him or that they see him as a simple transitional figure, someone to hold the reins while the Church looks for a more permanent and dynamic replacement. They think they’ve got Welby all figured out, that he’s just some kind of management type. I think this is dead wrong, and I’m really excited to see what the future holds. And, hopefully, actions like the founding of the Community of St. Anselm will wake people up to the archbishop’s real priorities.