The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talks testimony, trials and triumphs with Patrick Forbes.
The new incumbent at Lambeth Palace speaks French, likes sailing and has occasionally had to look under his car to check for bombs while working on peace and reconciliation missions abroad. There is much more to Archbishop Justin Welby than meets the eye. He was the dark horse in the Canterbury stakes, having only been a bishop for a year. He worked in the oil industry for 11 years before leaving a highly paid executive post to train for ordination.
The press often highlights his Eton education, but overlooks the less traditional aspects of his upbringing. His father traded wines and spirits during prohibition in the USA and later died from alcoholism. His mother was Winston Churchill’s private secretary in the post-war years. They divorced when Welby was three. After leaving Cambridge, where he became a Christian, Welby went to church at Holy Trinity Brompton in London and witnessed its charismatic renewal in the mid-70s. This church is also where he met his wife, Caroline. The Welbys’ first child, Johanna, died after a car accident when she was only seven months old, a time the Archbishop described as the most utter agony.
He has already crossed swords with the government over welfare reforms. He isn’t afraid to talk about money and the Church’s involvement the social wellbeing of Britain. In the House of Lords he has openly critiqued the failures of the financial market; and he is a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, set up in the wake of the Libor scandal. He says that being political is necessary; being party political is something to avoid.
Far from seeking his own advancement, each move up the echelons of the episcopal ladder has been met with surprise by Justin Welby, perhaps influenced by the fact he was told there wasn’t ‘place for him in the modern Church of England’ when he first applied for ordination. Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis, Welby opted for a pared-down enthronement service. He was met at the door of Canterbury Cathedral, not by the Dean (as is traditional) but by a 17-year-old girl.
With his astute mind, a willingness to laugh at himself and his passion for reconciliation, Justin Welby will be an Archbishop to watch. A safe pair of hands? Who knows, and perhaps we shouldn’t care too much about ‘safety’ when it is clear that God is doing something new.
How did you first bump into God?
The only thing I remember from school chapel, apart from when the headmaster fell out of the pulpit, was one remarkable speaker, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. It wasn’t exactly bumping into God, but it was absolutely mesmerising. When I was 18, I went to Kenya, influenced by him and by Simon Barrington-Ward, who then was running the Church Missionary Society. I had met him and went to Kenya – between Eton and university – on a scheme run by him, even though I wasn’t a practising Christian. I shared a small house with a Christian, Phillip Kelly. He said he would be spending half an hour praying and reading his Bible every morning, I said, ‘Fine’ and let him get on with it.
There were two books in the house; Bagehot on The English Constitution and the Bible. I read Bagehot about two or three times to avoid the Bible. Eventually I began reading the Bible from beginning to end. I felt everyone around me in Kenya knew this Jesus person in a very different way to how I did.
I went to Trinity, Cambridge, to read Law; a great mistake. I went occasionally to the college chapel because I liked the music. I kept meeting Christians, particularly people who had been at school with me who had become Christians. I met John Hamilton, now an Anglican vicar a few years older than me. He said that God had done a great deal for me in my life, what was I going to for him? I didn’t have an answer so I avoided him (and other Christians) thereafter. At the beginning of my second year, a friend, Nick Hills, asked me to a service and a talk. Afterwards Nick suggested that we go for supper. We talked about faith. He had become a Christian about 18 months earlier, and he explained the cross to me. At about ten to 12 that night, 12th October, he said, ‘So what now?’ I said, ‘I think we need to pray’ and I opened my life to Jesus. I was aware then of something changing completely. When I said, ‘Come into my life, take charge of my life’, God answered. It wasn’t very emotional, I didn’t burst into tears or fall over or anything like that, but I had a strong sense that something had changed.
What attracted you to the oil industry?
There was a chance to work in Paris with Elf Aquitaine and it just seemed too good to miss. I moved to Paris in August 1978.
What was it like, working in that industry?
Not half as pressurised as being a parish priest; not even a quarter. I loved it. The oil industry, at its best, is an absolutely phenomenal mixture of cutting-edge science and really profound thinking about how you do things. I was based onshore and I found it a tremendously enjoyable experience. I worked for Elf from 1978 to 1983 in Paris, and then they moved me back to England where I was the treasurer of their UK subsidiary. I was recruited by Enterprise as their group treasurer which meant that I was running not just their finances but their financing, looking at both the short and long-term strategies.
How did you meet your wife?
We met in 1976. Sandy Millar was the new curate at Holy Trinity Brompton. Caroline’s sister had invited her to a Bible study at Sandy’s house. Instead of doing a Bible study, he did a little gospel address and asked whether anyone wanted to pray as a result. Caroline said yes and she prayed with him and that is when she came to faith in Christ. A few days later, I saw him and he mentioned that there was this lovely girl called Caroline who had just gone up to Cambridge to read Classics and he asked me whether I would look her up to make sure she was getting on ok, which I did. We married at the back end of 1979.
How did the question of ordination arise?
There was a guy called John McClure who was preaching at Holy Trinity Brompton, one Sunday evening. He described how he was called to ordination. I felt that was what God wanted me to do, very suddenly and clearly. I discussed it with Caroline on the way home, and we decided that this was something that we needed to think about. It took a couple of years, thinking and praying, pondering and talking to people in the church and going through the processes.
And the reaction of those at Enterprise Oil?
Some were surprised, others not so much. There was a good deal of humour, some teasing that was quite witty. One colleague at my leaving do said, ‘This is the only occasion where a rat has joined a sinking ship.’
You went on to study theology at Cranmer Hall. Did you enjoy that?
No. No fault of the university. It was the loss of responsibility, giving up a career that was going well. It was a real adjustment for the first couple of years, and a challenge.
Did you sometimes think when studying theology that it didn’t have much to do with real life?
I never thought that. Being aware of thinking through the basis and traditions of what we believe was essential to develop a framework for the situations that we knew that we were going to face as Christian leaders.
In lectures, the bad lads sat at the back, and most of the ordinands sat at the front. I sat at the back, partly because I fell asleep in most of the lectures and I preferred to be slightly out of sight. I sat next to Chris Russell, now a vicar in Reading. I met his dad once and we invited them to tea. I came from Holy Trinity Brompton and I wasn’t wholly familiar with the structures of the Church of England I think it would be safe to say. He asked me what I was going to do about my curacy. I said, ‘Oh, don’t know really, I have no idea.’ He said that he had a few ideas because he was Archdeacon of Coventry. He introduced us to a parish near Nuneaton, All Saints Chilvers Coton, where the incumbent at the time was John Philpott, an exceptionally good trainer. We went to see Simon Barrington-Ward, the Bishop of Coventry, whom I had met before I was a Christian. It is amazing how he keeps popping up through life; the providence of God, the right people at the right time. He said, ‘You have always lived with people who do things. It’s time you were somewhere where people have things done to them.’ So we went there and they were just the most wonderful people. Challenging and very difficult, it was very busy, 13,000 people with a general hospital in the middle of it, lots of visiting, funerals, weddings, baptisms. It was just wonderful.
I was then asked to see the bishop, and he said that he wanted me to go and look at a parish called Southam, about 15 miles south of Coventry, called St James. When Caroline and I went down to meet the churchwardens, it was a cold grey day. Caroline was expecting our fifth child, and the church had no functioning heating at all. But we felt that God had called us there. The bishop and his staff had prayed about it, and they were godly people so we trusted them. We spent seven years there.
Then Bishop Colin sent for me. He had a job for me as Canon of Coventry Cathedral and he wanted me to think about it seriously. I always said that I wouldn’t do cathedrals. He said that he wouldn’t be able to pay me, and I would be travelling in areas of conflict. Caroline said that an offer that mad could only be a call from God, so we thought we had better do it. We moved up to Coventry and I started working a lot in Africa, mainly Nigeria, also Kenya, Burundi, Sierra Leone and in the Holy Land with one trip to Iraq with Andrew White.
I am quite strict about days off and family time. We said that the only thing that can interrupt family life is life-and-death stuff. We moved to Coventry and it was all life-and-death stuff. It became very difficult to prioritise.
After Coventry I went straight to Liverpool. On my middle daughter’s birthday, this letter was sitting on the mat saying, On Her Majesty’s Service. I thought it was a tax demand. It was an invitation to go and be Dean of Liverpool. So we weighed that up, there were a few options at the time and it was a big decision. In the end you pray and you seek advice, you spend a lot of time talking to each other and in the end you seek the voice of the Spirit of God and good counsel and then you choose. It turned out to be extraordinary in Liverpool and was absolutely wonderful.
Moving to Durham must have seemed like the madness being carried a bit further?
I resisted putting in my papers to be the bishop. I had various interviews and to my astonishment was invited to become Bishop of Durham. It was a very tough decision because it meant moving the children again. So Caroline stayed in Liverpool with them. I moved to Bishop Auckland and commuted at weekends, not a whole load of fun.
You hardly settled there before the bombshell.
Yes that bombshell which was completely extraordinary. Just extraordinary.
How difficult was it to decide?
This won’t make any sense at all. It felt absolutely unlikely and in a strange way the right thing to do. So it actually wasn’t that difficult at the time.
You are not just responsible for the Church of England but also for the Anglican Communion. How do you sleep at night with that resting on shoulders?
I sleep rather well on the whole. This job is not a papacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury is one among the diocesan bishops. The Church of England is episcopally led, but synodically governed. So it isn’t even the bishops who decide. It is a very different type of job where it is about building relationships. I don’t sit here and say ‘I want parish x in Karatina in Central Kenya to do y’ because we don’t work that way. In the Anglican Communion I am a facilitator, not a dictator.
By the grace of God, I hope to be. But that is the grace of God.
There is a lot of reconciliation to do with women bishops and gay marriage.
Yes there is, but it is really important to know what reconciliation looks like in the Christian community. There was a conference called Faith in Conflict in Coventry. It was years in preparation, and I think it was one of the best Christian conferences I have ever attended. We need to understand reconciliation within the Church as the transformation of destructive conflict. That doesn’t mean unity, it doesn’t mean that we all agree; perhaps we still disagree with each other passionately, but we still love each other.
Gracefully, and deeply committed to each other – that’s the challenge to the Church. And that is also the challenge to the Church looking towards society, because we are deeply divided at both home and abroad over huge issues. We have to look at this and say there are ways of doing this without hating each other.
It is as if, ‘If the Church of England can do this, then the world can do this.’
Yes, but it is the Church’s calling. The Church is called to proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Saviour and Lord and to worship him with adoration and passion. How we carry that out to the world is about being a sign of peace and reconciliation, of hope, optimism, love, and the fruit of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. It is a massive challenge; we are all sinners and we mess up constantly. But we must remember that God is bigger than our sin and our stupidity. The cross and resurrection demonstrate that.
How did the cross and resurrection help when your daughter died?
The verse we came back to at the time was ‘In everything God works for the good of those who love him.’ I remember another verse was from the Psalms, that God stores up our tears in a bottle. God is aware of our suffering, of the suffering of the broken world. Our suffering was nothing compared to that of many people in the world, and he is at work even in the darkest places. I think that the cross is the great point at which all the suffering, sorrow, torture and sin and all that yuck of the world ends up on God’s shoulders out of love for us. The resurrection is, in Tom Wright’s great title, Jesus and the Victory of God; the demonstration of the overcoming by Jesus, by God, of all the stuff.
I was going to ask what you make of Easter. But maybe you have already answered that question.
I hope I have – the victory of God: Easter as the victory of God; Easter as transformative of not only ourselves and our individual lives, but also of the whole cosmos; Easter as transformative of how we look at the future; where we are going and what we should do, and how we deal with suffering and prayer.
How do you pray?
I am like a magpie. When I see a bit of gold I take it. I start the day with devotional prayer, personal prayer just by myself. I am learning to pray more when I wake in the night. We pray together before we go to sleep. I go for a run in the morning, and I use that time for prayer. I think that over the years I have grown to value very, very deeply contemplative prayer, the Lectio Divina, meditative prayer, the importance of being in silence in the presence of God.
And the Bible?
I don’t have words to describe how important it is to me. I read it slowly. I have a personal time when I read carefully and slowly what God is saying to me. I use an up-to-date commentary to challenge me afresh, give me a different approach to a passage. I stay with a passage until it stops speaking to me.