It’s been officially unofficial over the last couple of days, but the truth is now out; Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, will be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. John Ingham and Jonathan Wynne-Jones’ article in the Telegraph finally gives sufficient weight to the rumours.
Sometimes we wait the best part of a lifetime for God to lead us into a particular calling and sometimes he grabs the reigns and puts everything into top gear. Welby only began studying theology in 1989 having felt a call on his life to train as a Church of England ordinand. 25 years later we will become the head of the Church of England. He has only been a bishop for less than a year. By church standards his rise has been rapid and remarkable.
Having worked for the French oil company Elf Aquitaine for 11 years prior to his theological training, Justin Welby has the benefit of understanding the ‘real world’ (as I put it) away from ecclesiastical circles that the leader of the Church of England needs if they are going to be an effective voice reaching beyond the faithful. His appointment to the committee overseeing the parliamentary inquiry into banking standards and the Libor fixing scandal has demonstrated the respect he has received from political circles. Yet he has not pandered to those in the UK banking industry. He has called it the “most concentrated and cartelized banking industry in Europe.”
“Coming from a Christian point of view on human sinfulness and failure, the efficient market system doesn’t work. But one principle seems to me to be clear, we cannot repair what was destroyed in 2008, we can only replace it with something that is dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.
“Repair would be as inadequate a solution as beginning to put the stones of Coventry Cathedral back one on top of each other, to try and recreate what had been obliterated [during World War II].”
“Too much effort is going into putting Humpty back together again, and it can’t happen.”
Things will now be changing considerably for Welby as he moves into his next position. No longer will he be focusing his energies on a diocese and a parliamentary enquiry. His job all of a sudden has become much more diverse and challenging. Now he faces the thorny subjects of women bishops, gay marriage, a fractured and divided international Anglican communion and a church in England that is seeing its influence and identity within society waning. It’s no wonder that his predecessor, Rowan Williams, said “I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”
Welby certainly has a tough job on his hands, but he has two ways to approach his role; to see this as a time of crisis or a time of opportunity. He can let the old agendas dictate his path or he can set his own and forge a new way ahead. He is undoubtedly an educated and intelligent man having studied at Eton and Cambridge and that will serve him well. But more importantly, what will be his perspective on the purpose of the church he will oversee? HIs Twitter blurb says, ‘Anglican Bishop of Durham, with others encourages flourishing, reconciled churches which love and worship Jesus and seek to change the world.’
Having been baptised at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) church in London, the home of Alpha, and attended it for a number of years he is well versed in reaching out to the unchurched. In an interview last year at HTB just before he left his post in Liverpool and to become Bishop of Durham he said this:
‘It’s a very, very strange feeling. We didn’t want to move but were sort of called into it. We do feel, my wife and I – and others seem to feel – that it’s of God, and so we trust that it is because otherwise it’s not going to go very well at all.
‘So we’re off in the autumn. We’ll be very sad to leave Liverpool. I suppose it’s a mixture of astonishment that it’s happening, of a great sense of excitement, because I think the thing I believe most passionately is that however big out weaknesses, God’s capacity – if we make ourselves available to him – is bigger. He will grow in us if we really put our trust in him.
‘If we preach the Gospel, if we make it straightforward and simple, make it easy for people to find Christ, don’t put barriers in the way, churches will grow. And the point about growing churches is that as people are converted and are transformed by the grace of God, that grace overflows into the world around them, and will transform the world around us.
‘And, my goodness, we need it.’
Hopefully he will be feeling exactly the same sentiments as he becomes Archbishop of Canterbury. The worst thing for the Anglican church will be to have a leader whose energies get sucked inward dealing with fractious disputes and internal issues that have little relevance to the outside world. This will only lead to decline and despair. Instead Welby needs to remain true to his roots, encouraging the church to reach out to the world, to engage with it effectively and reveal God’s message of love, hope and reconciliation.
The hope for the church does not lie in tradition and structures but in the living Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now is the time for Justin Welby to step forward and follow his calling, sticking to the path that has taken him this far and lead by example. The Church of England needs this, but the world needs a church that lives out the Gospel even more.
Please pray for him.