Big challenges ahead for Archbishop Justin Welby

By Simon Barrow
March 21, 2013

Justin Welby is enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury today, in a service the scale, pomp and circumstance of which considerably exceeds the true cash worth of the Church of England at the moment, many may feel.

That, in one sense, sums up the challenge he faces. Yes, 'women bishops' and 'gay priests' will continue to make the headlines, but the real, underlying issue is how the Church negotiates a changing place in an increasingly mixed-belief culture where many people identify only as residually Christian - and where both non-belief and diverse spirituality have been growing at the expense of inherited, top-down religion.

The evidence so far is that Archbishop Welby will offer sure-handed but un-anxious leadership. He is someone who is more interested in practical than theoretical approaches to problems. That doesn't mean unthought-out ones, but it does mean that he will want to build on strengths and opportunities (rather than getting bogged down in intractibility), and that he will use his personal persuasiveness and laid-back skills in management and conflict handling to move people forward, rather than getting buried in technical arguments.

The new Archbishop inherits a church which is surprisingly strong at the grassroots (a million or more people are involved fairly regularly in church and community activity), but which as a national and Established institution is under increasing pressure - both because a diverse society will not simply do what it says, and because top-down institutions of all kinds (but perhaps especially ones based on religious ideas which an increasing number of people do not understand or relate to) are viewed with suspicion and hostility right now.

Justin Welby understands that. His answer, I reckon, will be to encourage local church visibility and the telling of the Christian story at a human scale, and to seek to make the structures and culture of the 'national church' more responsive to that. This would be a good move. Unestablishment rather than disestablishment, perhaps; though I believe the latter has to come, for the spiritual health of the Church, too.

On women bishops, the Church of England will agree to them, and given the furore the last PR debacle caused, probably sooner rather than later. The question is how and on what terms. Welby is a supporter, and will encourage people both to grasp reality in this tangle, and also to see that a traditional faith can resource a necessary (indeed vital) change in gender balance.

Will the same principles be applied within the much more ferocious debate on sexuality? This morning Archbishop Welby said both that he supported the position of the C of E (which does not recognise 'homosexual relations'), but also that gay couples he knew exhibited extraordinary qualities and deserved the deepest respect.

To the onlooker this seems a bit of a contradiction. To put it in traditional terms, if LGBT people are demonstrating holy lives, how can they way they are in their relationships really be automatically deficient?

It's clear that Archbishop Welby has not yet 'crossed the Rubicon', like the evangelical Baptist leader Steve Chalke, on this issue. But he is prepared (simultaneously) to stand by the existing theological polity, to engage in genuine conversation, and to recognise that the "other side of the argument" is people's lives, not some theoretical "position". That bodes well for a positive style of handling what is going to continue to be contested within the life of the Church.

Again, I believe change is right and inevitable. Excluding LGBT Christians goes against the spirit of the Christian Gospel, which is about how all our relationships are transformed in Christ, not about how some are "in" and some "out" because of who and what they are - that was precisely the argument Jesus had with the religious leaders of his time, and partly why they ended up conspiring to kill him.

However, there is still much fear, hostility and misunderstanding to be negotiated before faithful change is possible in a foot-dragging Church of England. Archbishop Welby may not alter his own underlying view on some contested questions while in office, but he might nevertheless help to shift the culture in the Church of England to the extent that it gets better at handling its differences and internal variety, by understanding that the Christian faith offers unity in diversity, not conformity. That is what Communion means: that and dwelling where the life-giving of God in Christ is, rather than being mired in the fear-swallowing of an ideology.

This, after all, is the Easter message. I hope the new Archbishop (in spite of the fact that he is bound to disappoint or annoy us, including me, at some point) will hold Christians to this message, in practical rather than purely theoretical terms.

* I am contributing to a BBC World Service (Voice of Russia) segment on the new Archbishop and the Church of England, to be broadcast a couple of times between 4pm and 8pm this afternoon/evening, Thursday 21 March 2013.

* More on Archbishop Justin Welby from Ekklesia:


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church (with strong Anabaptist theological leanings, and a penchant for Catholic spirituality), he worked and worshipped within the Church of England for many years, and edited Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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