Justin Welby conducted his very first radio phone-in on LBC this morning and from the outcome one wonders why this has taken so long to come about. Spending an hour answering questions he covered plenty of ground and it was refreshing to hear him talking freely on a range of subjects firsthand including women bishops, welfare reform, the morality of fuel costs, foodbanks and a Christian attitudes to the environment without his words being reduced to the usual media soundbites. It was very easy to get a taste of his personality, the way that his faith has moulded him and why he is the right person to be the Archbishop of Canterbury at this time. His mixture of honesty, pragmatism and theology were thoroughly engaging, profound and at times entertaining.
Predictably the main topic of conversation was the Church of England’s attitude to homosexuality and equal marriage with Ann Widdecombe calling in early on to happily stir things up. There was a great moment when the Archbishop was asked: “Does the Archbishop seriously believe that after three and a half billion years of evolution including over two million years of the human species, God chose to reveal the truth of His existence and the afterlife to a small tribe of semi-literate shepherds around four thousand years ago?” His simple answer was, “Yes!”
The most revealing point though came right at the very end. A vicar called in to ask why clergy should not be left to their own consciences to decide whether to bless gay marriages or not. Welby continued to defend the rights of gay people, as he had done throughout the show, but also added this:
“I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact,” Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, “the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world. It’s not a simple issue”
There was a brief stunned pause by the host James O’Brien followed by the comment, “That’s not something I’ve heard before.” Welby continued:
“I’m afraid it’s only too sadly true… What was said was that ‘If we leave a Christian community in this area’ – I’m quoting; this is obviously not something I think – ‘we will all be made to become homosexual and so we’re going to kill all the Christians. The mass grave had 369 bodies in it and I was standing with the relatives. That burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country.”
It was a reminder that actions that might appear benign and good in one part of the world can have unforeseen consequences elsewhere.
When politicians are taken out of their comfort zone and put on the spot to be subjected to unplanned questioning by the public there can be great instants of revelation as the public facade is briefly stripped away. What made Justin Welby’s appearance different is that right from the start he demonstrated a level of humility and vulnerability that we rarely see from our nation’s leaders. This is was the human side of the Church that is seldom portrayed in the media. Justin Welby’s appearance on LBC Radio was a great advertisement for him as an individual, for the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus and even possibly the Church of England.
Hopefully this will be the first of many similar opportunities to come.