It turned out that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s biological father was the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne, following a drunken liaison with his mother, Jane Williams, before her marriage.
As the press went to town on the story, the response from the archbishop was steadfast and mature: ‘I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes’ .
But in discovering that his paternal situation is complicated, Archbishop Justin finds himself in good company. It’s evident from the New Testament that Jesus himself was beset by controversy about who exactly his real father was.
Joseph, the man who bought Jesus up, had originally intended to break off his engagement with Mary, his mother, after he discovered that she was pregnant – and not by him (Matthew 1:18-25).
She claimed that her pregnancy was a result of divine intervention. You can imagine how that story would have gone down in a culture where fornication was punishable by death. The original ‘holy’ family must have lived a life filled with sideways looks and whispered rumours.
Early opponents of Christianity such as Celsus also used the story of Jesus’ birth against the fledgling religion, spreading the accusation that Jesus was the result of a liaison with a Roman soldier. In John 8:41 we even see a hint of these accusations as the Jewish leaders, arguing with Jesus, say, ‘We were not born of fornication’ (NKJV). The implication of their snipe is: ‘unlike you’.
As such, Christianity is a religion that was born in scandal. But the first followers of Christ embraced that scandal, because Jesus himself seemed to attract a scandalous following, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors – the scum of the first century Jewish world.
Even Christ’s crucifixion, the most shameful form of death imaginable in their culture, was held up by the first Christians as its central emblem.
So Archbishop Welby finds himself in good company, as does anyone with a less-than-perfect past. The history of Christianity is filled with the stories of saints who were once sinners. And let’s face it, most of us remain a mixture of the two for the whole of our lives.
Like Welby, I’m glad that those who follow the scandalous Jesus aren’t defined by a dodgy past, but by the hopeful future they’ve inherited from the true Father of all.