The Archbishop of Canterbury isn’t exactly struggling to get the press to notice him at the moment. Of course it always helps to have a royal christening to preside over to gain a decent amount of media exposure. There’s nothing though to indicate that Justin Welby is deliberately trying to court journalists in the fashion of a D list celebrity, it’s more that he is doing what he believes he is called to and people are sitting up and taking notice. In the space of a week along with Prince George’s baptism, Justin Welby has repeatedly been in the papers, taking on the energy companies and bankers (again) as well as flagging up a concern over the proliferation of foodbanks. He also managed to squeeze in trips to Iceland and Kenya for the Global Anglican Future (GAFCON) Conference. Not bad for a week’s work.
The honeymoon period that Welby is enjoying shows little sign of fading any time soon. Even his opposition to the legalisation of gay marriage, which unsurprisingly failed to go down well in some quarters, appears not to have been held against him. Where his predecessor, Rowan Williams continually had the shadow of the Church of England’s attitude to gay relationships and women bishops clinging to him, Justin Welby has been able to avoid getting bogged down in the politics of the church so far. Where William’s great love for theology and academia made it difficult for many to relate to him, Welby’s pragmatic approach to faith and the issues that shape our society has won him many admirers.
Welby’s approach to the position he finds himself in is radical, which explains why many are still trying to make sense of what he is trying to achieve. He is a completely new breed of Archbishop having spent much more of his life working outside of the church than within and it shows. His business experience gives his opinions weight; they are certainly not the pontifications of an uninformed cleric. What is more, he is not content just to comment on the injustices that he sees, he is willing to put words into action, stepping in where he sees a gap that the Church can fill. His commitment to creating a network of credit unions through the Church of England is an ambitious proposal that will offer a far more ethical alternative to the payday lenders who are regularly accused of exploiting the most needy. The Church of England will also be partnering with Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group to conduct an investigation into the rapid spread of food banks and will seek to establish ways of tackling the underlying causes of food poverty.
In the past when Archbishops have delved into the political arena it has often resulted in animosity between politicians and the church. Many will still remember Robert Runcie’s high-profile falling out with Mrs Thatcher’s government, which centred on the Church of England’s publication of the 1985 report Faith In The City, which heavily criticised the growing gap between rich and poor in Britain’s inner cities. Justin Welby has so far diplomatically evaded much of this. Although Iain Duncan Smith was not impressed with his intervention on benefit cuts back in March, more recently John Major and others have lent their support to Welby’s call on big power companies to be “conscious of their social obligations”. Frank Field MP who is well respected across the parties for his work on social equality has said that Archbishop of Canterbury should lead a parliamentary inquiry into the number of families resorting to foodbanks as he would receive cross-party support. Instead of alienating politicians, he is winning many over.
What Welby is managing to do so effectively is speaking into situations with precision and clarity where politicians’ words are so often woolly and meaningless. His aim of approaching issues from a moral perspective makes a refreshing change from the usual party political rhetoric that we are so used to. Some might think that his regular focus on the most vulnerable in society makes him a socialist seeking to attack a government that is reducing the size of the welfare state, but this very much misses the point. Welby made it clear in a Channel 4 interview on Thursday that he has no interest in getting involved directly in party politics. Instead he has said that “a flourishing economy is necessary but not sufficient. A healthy society flourishes and distributes economic resources effectively, but also has a deep spiritual base which gives it its virtue.”
On banking Welby has made a similar point: “One of the things we saw on the Parliamentary banking standards commission most clearly was people were constantly asking what was legal and never asking what was right. Any society that wants to call itself ethical in its finances has to find a way in which it values human beings and cares for them right across the board in every part of the society and not just within the M25,” His approach challenges the areas of society that have developed a moral vacuum or failure He is willing is to take on the issues that politicians have a tendency to avoid.
As head of the Church of England, Justin Welby sees the clear Christian imperative for looking after the poor and needy, but he also believes that for a society to be healthy and function well, morality and religion need to be taken as seriously as economics, politics and the law. This is Biblical stuff. The church has an important role to cover the ground where politicians fear to tread, to ask the difficult questions, but also to offer answers where it sees them.
What those who see Justin Welby as a breath of fresh air must remember though, is that he is not infallible. He most definitely does not have all the answers as his Channel 4 interview suggested. Neither has he become the saviour of the Church of England, or our nation – only Jesus fills that role.
Archbishop Justin has mentioned in the past that he expects to make mistakes and he undoubtedly will. There is also a limit to what one person can achieve even with his position of influence. He has warned against what he termed a “bully pulpit”. “A number of us… have the capacity to make comments, or structure interviews, or preach from a pulpit… We have to be very cautious about the use of that responsibility.”
That responsibility is an important one though in a time and place where our nation faces great challenges ahead. It is right that the Archbishop picks his fights carefully, but there are plenty of situations that need the sort of interventions that he is providing. We certainly need him and others to act as a audible conscience to those who hold power. Sometimes this will be to criticise and sometimes to support, but the crucial point is that it happens.
Justin Welby has reminded many that there is a place for God’s kingdom values in this society – they will never become outdated or irrelevant – and the more we take them on board and realise this, the more hope there is for all of us.