This is the second in a periodic series that will highlight the activities of the current Archbishop of Canterbury. The first concerned his foundation of the Community of St Anselm.
Twenty-one months into his tenure, the jury obviously is still out on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. I for one haven’t taken the time to study his work in enough depth, nor has he shown us enough, for me to have a fully formed opinion on him, his leadership, or what I hope for or worry about from his archepiscopacy. That said, when he talks about the future of the church, his insight and his hope are beautifully faithful — and deserving of a wider readership than I’d imagine his comments receive.
A couple weeks ago, he did it again. While speaking in London to the Church Army (an evangelistic organization), Welby again outlined not just the centrality of evangelism to the Christian life — a welcome reminder but not particularly unique — but he also insisted that he had “no fears about the future of the church of God.” Such a comment was an echo of his inaugural sermon when he concluded by insisting “there is every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world and in this country.” Despite evidence to the contrary, Welby seems to have an (absurd?) confidence that the future of the Church is not one of certain irrelevance and demise.
One can’t help but wonder — where’s he getting such an idea? After all, attendance numbers in the Church of England, as well as the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and others seem to be in free fall. And other leaders seem more intent to focus on near-certain doom rather than confidence. For example, one recent report includes Truro Bishop Tim Thornton’s assessment that “the Church of England will struggle to exist in ‘five or six years.’” He goes on to argue that analysis of attendance figures are “all showing one thing … I fear that we are on a steady decline at the moment.”
So again, where’s Welby getting his optimism? He never explicitly tells us, but he provides at least one implicit answer.
When Welby talks the future of the Church, he often talks about God and, specifically, God’s faithfulness. Whether Welby’s focus is on evangelism (as it was last week) or on a call to the Church to heed Christ’s call (as it was in the inaugural sermon), he insists that his conclusions and his optimism are grounded in nothing more and nothing less than God’s faithfulness to his people. Such a conviction about God continuing to work in the world seems to drive Welby’s rosy picture of the future.
No one imagines that this former oil executive is out-to-lunch on the statistical realities of the Church. Nor does he seem to imagine some secret solution that will lead the Church to gain ground. His comments on evangelism last week, for example, are actually fairly cautious and repeatedly encourage Christians not to think of evangelism primarily as a church-survival program.
Rather, Welby insists over and over and over that God is simply not done. He’s not done in England, not done in the Church, not done in the world. And as a priest who sees parishes growing, who has friends planting new churches, who helps younger Christians pursue ordained ministry, who watches the hungry be fed, who witnesses the old and young alike develop new and deeper relationships with Christ every week if not every day, I think Welby’s on to something. God’s Kingdom is coming; that much is certain. One question remains. Do we want to be a part of it?