Justin Welby: archbishop amidst fallen idols

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
9 Nov 2012

Justin Welby is to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, it has been confirmed. The current Bishop of Durham has been in post for less than a year but, when he takes office in 2013, his inexperience may overall be an advantage, giving him a broader perspective than some longstanding bishops.

Welby studied at prestigious private school Eton and Cambridge University and became an oil company executive. His life changed radically after one of his children was killed in an accident, and he sought ordination. As a canon of Coventry Cathedral he got involved in international reconciliation, including sometimes risky trips to Nigeria.

He served as a cathedral dean in Liverpool before being appointed to Durham. He is an enthusiastic evangelical, but has impressed Anglicans across a wide spectrum, combining organisational competence and imagination with deep pastoral sensitivity. He is also a keen critic of economic injustice, including financial exclusion, and has served on a commission looking into the LIBOR banking scandal.

“The idols of our age are fallen, toppled in successive economic and political tempests,” he preached when he was installed at Durham Cathedral in November 2011.” All the great institutions (including the institutional church...) in which we have trusted seem to be caught flat footed with changes in mood and temper so rapid that leaders are constantly running to catch up. As in the days of Jesus, and of Micah, our Old Testament reading, those who claim authority and power are seen as hollow”.

The Church of England has various strengths, not least theological diversity. However its organisational culture (especially at the highest levels) has sometimes been insufficiently critical of political and economic power structures, inward-looking and complacent about the institutional churches’ capacity for wrongdoing.

Preaching at the Anglican Consultative Council in October 2012, current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested that “God’s love for the world is extraordinary, without cause, absolutely free, absolutely overwhelmingly unreasonable – and that’s the kind of love we are invited to become part of.” The ‘world’ in John’s Gospel does not “mean them out there as opposed to us in here, it does mean every bit of ourselves and our society that seeks to close itself off from love, that seeks to close itself off from universal belonging.”

Commenting on Paul’s image in 2 Corinthians 4 of God’s treasure in earthen vessels, Welby said in a sermon in April, “If anything was clay-like at present it is the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion. We are divided, often savagely. We are battered. We are weak... But God pours treasure into these jars, the treasure of God's mercy.”

He argued for a decentralised approach, which has been reflected in his style of leadership. ”We are all to serve the weakest, and that service must be reflected in our church structures, because the more we give up power and look to serve the more we will find the Spirit of God empowering us... we serve by evangelism being decided locally and supported from the centre, not by centralised top down initiatives. We believe in subsidiarity, in taking people at the value of their vows, baptismal, and ordinal.”

Of course he will face many challenges, including tensions around inclusion. While he has been supportive of women’s ordination, his stance on including lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people has been weaker. However, if he is willing to keep listening and reflecting, and use his conflict resolution skills, he may be able to help to move the Church of England forward.

If the soon-to-be Archbishop Welby can hold on to his emphasis on enabling ‘ordinary’ Christians, and those of their neighbours who are seeking a more just and compassionate world, he can offer the kind of leadership needed at a time when idols have been falling. “The world is changed by the resurrection, and we are invited today to meet the God who made the change, join [God's] side and be transformed with the world,” he said at Easter. “There is nothing beyond the possibilities of a human being fully human, because fully open to God.”

* More on Justin Welby from Ekklesia - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/justinwelby

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© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics with a strong interest in Anglican affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate and contributed to the 2008 book, Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard).

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