Gentle Justin, the archbishop who has steered the CofE through a troubled decade

Image credit: World Council of Churches

By Tim Wyatt

Justin Welby was virtually unknown outside Anglican circles when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in March 2013. Ten tumultuous years later, the mild-mannered Old Etonian has become a globally recognised figure, having helped the Church of England navigate troubled times, ranging from bitter theological disputes over women bishops and gay relationships to the Covid pandemic and the death of Queen Elizabeth.

His leadership style, achievements and legacy were reflected upon during a Religion Media Centre briefing on Tuesday to mark 10 years since he took up the post.

One recurring theme that has unavoidably marked the decade was the deep divisions with the Anglican church, both in England and globally, over sexuality. Under Justin Welby, the CofE embarked on a six-year process of consultation, discussion, and research under the heading of Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This reached a head last month when the General Synod — the elected national assembly of the church — approved proposals from the bishops to allow gay couples to be blessed in church for the first time.

Paul Bayes, the recently retired former Bishop of Liverpool, said while LLF under Archbishop Justin’s leadership had not found a compromise solution to neuter the divisions, it had helpfully clarified what exactly the “irreconcilable differences” between progressives and conservatives were.

He praised the archbishop’s commitment to try to hold together the global Anglican Communion, but lamented that this had come at a cost for mission here in England, where the “church seems to be squabbling about things which the overwhelming majority of people in the nation have simply accepted as a done deal, namely, the equality of people in marriage and in relationships, no matter what their sexual orientation”.

The threats of schism now emanating from some conservative evangelicals in response to the LLF gay blessings simply underlined the impossibility of reconciling the different factions within the CofE. “Certainly, the archbishop has great skill in in trying to bring together those of different view, but in this case I think the task is rapidly proving to be impossible and intransigence is emerging,” Bishop Paul concluded.

Prof Helen King, a synod member, agreed that sexuality had been the “dominant theme” of the past 10 years and expressed her surprise and regret at how no common ground or even agreement to disagree had been found during the years of LLF. Now, it looked as if the entire enterprise may have been a waste of time and money, “kicking the can down the road” without achieving very much, she said.

However, another contributor, the Lancaster University theologian Dr Anderson Jeremiah, noted that Justin Welby had begun his archiepiscopate by steering successfully through reforms to allow women to become bishops, an issue that had bedevilled his predecessor, Rowan Williams.

Throughout his tenure, Justin Welby had been utterly consistent in being unafraid to grapple with “very difficult, divisive issues” and always trying to get those who disagree into the same room to try to find reconciliation, Dr Jeremiah said — pointing to his background in conflict mediation and peace-making before he became a bishop.  The supposed failure of LLF was simply symptomatic of church divisions that stretch back 2,000 years.

Prof Alison Milbank, a theologian at Nottingham University and key figure within the Save the Parish pressure group, also valued the archbishop’s “fearlessness” in public engagement and heart for the poor, but said his tenure had seen centralisation and managerialism take over the church, at the expense of parishes.

“Particularly the policies put in place for the church’s Vision and Strategy has had catastrophic and will have catastrophic implications for the parish system,” she said. This issue, which had been rumbling under the surface for most of the past decade, erupted into a public row in 2021 after the CofE unveiled plans to start up to 10,000 new worshipping communities outside the traditional network of parish churches.

In the face of plummeting attendance figures, the archbishop has mobilised the resources of the central church institutions for a bounceback programme called Reform and Renewal, which has seen large sums of money ploughed into innovation and creative new types of ministry, as well as beefing up and professionalising national teams to try to kickstart growth.

But Professor Milbank said it was “bizarre” that the church had not chosen to try to respond to secularisation by “working outwards from your core activity [parish churches] and instead set up this parallel system, that kind of competes with it”.

Paul Bayes defended Justin Welby’s record on church decline, noting it had begun long before he was in post and quickened considerably during the Covid lockdowns, when the church hierarchy ordered clergy to shut all church buildings even for private prayer.

“They may or may not have been the right decisions but the blow that the pandemic struck to church attendance is universal across the churches in this country and has been radical.” That was why the archbishop had made evangelism one of his three stated priorities and used his influence and power to focus attention on church growth, he added.

He also dismissed suggestions that Justin Welby, or those around him, had contempt for the parish church, noting his own background as a parish priest before he became a bishop. He said new “resource churches” set up with central funds outside the parish system remained a tiny part of the ecosystem compared with the 12,000 parish churches but were helping to attract newcomers to Anglicanism.

“The sense in which a fast-changing England needs a responsive church is something with which I would identify, but I don’t see the zero-sum game that Alison has portrayed.”

Another critical issue in the past decade is safeguarding, as case after case of awful abuses inflicted by clergy and bishops emerged. The failures of the church, both historically and in recent years, to protect children and stop perpetrators were laid out by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which reported back last year. Professor King said the inquiry had been utterly damning for the CofE, but noted that under Archbishop Justin Welby’s tenure, huge sums of money had been invested in beefing up safeguarding processes and training.

At a local level, churches were much safer than before, but she said there were still big problems with the national institutions, pointing to a review into the John Smyth case that was long overdue. “And of course, that one is very relevant because Justin Welby knew John Smyth, and so there are questions there about what he personally knew about Smyth’s abuse, and how that was handled,” she added.

Bishop Paul agreed that safeguarding had been a scandal for too long in the church, but praised the archbishop’s ability to offer humility and genuine contrition in the face of failures. While excessive deference and inappropriate defensiveness remained, the archbishop had always tried to tell the country the CofE was not perfect and was sorry for its mistakes, including his own.

He was not a “Boris Johnson-style larger-than-life personality” who communicated with the nation in a “lordly nostalgic” way, but was instead a humble and self-deprecating man much akin to Pope Francis, he added.

Dr Jeremiah agreed, noting his work behind the scenes to bring warring factions together in reconciliation in South Sudan and other flashpoints, and efforts to heal fractures in the global Anglican Communion. He also said Justin Welby had made some progress in tackling racism and discrimination within the church, including bringing forward an ever-increasing number of ethnic minority bishops.

He had himself taken part in several reviews and commissions looking into racial justice, but noted that committees had been set up on this issue for more than 30 years without making much difference. It would take time to dismantle ancient prejudices and colonial history, Dr Jeremiah concluded, but praised the recent decision by the Church Commissioners to make £100m available as quasi-reparations from the CofE’s endowment.

Justin Welby, who turned 67 in January, is now three years away from the mandatory retirement age for all CofE bishops, but said last year he had no plans to stand down before 70 as long as he remained in good health and “people are happy” he was in post.

The job of archbishop was undoubtedly “attritional”, Paul Bayes said, and Justin Welby had been worn down by the role as anyone else would. But because he was a “gentle leader”, he had not been afraid to ask for help or admit the job could be a burden, which is what had undoubtedly helped him to survive the past decade and however many more years he had left in post.

Anxious Anglicans battered by church decline and safeguarding crises might be tempted to look for a “big, strong leader” who could “rally the troops”, but this would be a mistake, he argued. “I do think that that self-deprecating humility is just that little bit closer to the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

View the briefing on our YouTube channel here


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