Welby's Christmas message sends out the right notes

By Simon Barrow
December 27, 2012

Though the job he has in hand is widely regarded as impossible, the Archbishop of Canterbury-elect, Justin Welby, has done more than enough already to suggest that he has the capacity to nudge the Church of England through the decidedly choppy waters of change.

His strong evangelical and charismatic roots will gain him credit in sections of the Church that would not give much of a listening to Rowan Williams (whose nuanced, imaginative take on traditional Christianity was lost in the din of tribalism). His background in senior management and business gives him a handle on organisational, change-agency and administrative issues which his predecessor was weak on. His particular skills in (and understanding of) conflict transformation are likely to prove vital. He is willing to engage on issues like equal marriage, even if his initial disposition is against. He is personable and understands well how the media (both new and old) works. Plus, like Dr Williams, Bishop Welby is a person of prayerful integrity, and has a wry sense of humour.

Not that this should raise expectations beyond reasonable levels. The Church of England remains, in key areas, a disparate, argumentative and dysfunctional body. It is stuck with a self-image rooted in the establishment mentality that makes it hard to move forward in the flexible, mobile, adaptable and more modest ways suited to a post-Christendom environment -- one where "because we say so" won't wash. Equally, the temper of the new Archbishop is likely to be ameliorative towards the lesions of the world, rather than structurally radical.

But there is genuine hope in his appointment. Not least because Archbishop-elect Welby seems to understand the basic dynamic of the Christian Gospel as countervailing traditional power systems; and because he appears committed to its disposition towards those pushed out by such systems, rather than those clinging on to power and influence. At any rate, that seems to be the evidence of his initial comments when the announcement of his appointment was made, and from his quietly encouraging Christmas sermon.

There, on Christmas Day, he declared that the narrative of God coming to us in the human vulnerability of Jesus amounts to "the triumph of God’s wisdom in the face of our despondent hopelessness or cheap victories. This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength."

He continued: "[T]hose truths make this such good news ... The work of God is not done through strength and efficiency, but through those who, having seen the baby, leak out the love that they receive.

" It is very easy to be despondent about the church. Some speak of division and even of betrayal. The processes we go through are agonisingly wounding for many. ...

"It is even easier to be despondent about the world. From the horrors of forgotten Goma in the DRC to the atrocity in Connecticut, and from Aleppo in Syria to tribal struggles in Burma, and in so many places between, there is the usual diet of tragedy and loss. ...

"One answer to being despondent is to look inwards and fight our own small battles. Sixty per cent of people in a recent poll wanted to cut foreign aid, which goes in the main to the poorest countries in the world. In the church we dig into our trenches and hurl modern day anathemas at each other, determined to win.

"But the baby in Bethlehem calls us to a different response, one which is utterly transforming of the world in which we live. ... [T]his baby is the one who saves us, who is the goodness and loving-kindness of God. ...

"The main job of the church is never self-preservation, but glorifying God... leaking into the world the love that [God in Christ] leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives, is a severely practical and down to earth activity. In that sense we do in the world what God does in us."

* The full sermon is reproduced here: http://durham.anglican.org/news-and-events/news-article.aspx?id=369


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He now lives in Scotland, but was an active member of the Church of England for 40 years. He was adviser in adult education and training in the Diocese of Southwark from 1991-1996, and edited a collection of essays on that experience entitled Expanding Horizons: Learning to be the church in the world (SBCS, 1995). His essay 'Beyond the rhetoric of establishment' is published in (ed.) Kenneth Leech, Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2001). He has also edited and written several chapters in Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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