Change and Continuity at Canterbury…

The new archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

So, it is going to be Justin Welby for Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways the media are signalling a big change in the leadership of the Church of England. They point to Justin Welby’s job before ordination, his skill as a negotiator, his rapid rise up the clerical ranks, his lack of enemies in the church, his conservative theology.

So, is it all change at the top?

Well, I suspect that the answer will be yes and no.

Firstly, taking the theological differences between Rowan and Justin. It is being portrayed that Rowan was a lefty-liberal and that Justin is a conservative-righty (if the latter exists as a term!). But that is trying to put the national political (and even more  importing categories from the US) framework onto the church.  Many have through his 10 years as Archbishop being encouraging Rowan to let his “inner-liberal” out – assuming that he believes far less of the orthodox faith than he professes. In reality Rowan is a man of deep faith and spirituality. I suspect Justin too is a man of deep faith and spirituality (though reminder to self must ask those that know him!). Rowan was critical of the banking world and its excesses and so is Justin (who can speak from his experience from within the City). Terms of left/right just don’t really come into it as it is just lazy journalism.

Secondly, when Rowan resigned in March he stated that the top two elements of his time as Archbishop were the setting up of Fresh Expressions and the setting up of the Anglican Alliance for relief and development. Justin is likely to be an enthusiastic supporter of both. His work in reconciliation in Coventry Cathedral and his negotiating role for an oil company in West Africa prior to ordination suggest that both will be keenly embraced by him.

In terms of Fresh Expressions he was Dean of Liverpool Cathedral when Fresh Expressions started to really start making a difference in the diocese there. He is an enthusiastic supporter of new ways of being church and sees that the church does need to grow. Last year as he was leaving Liverpool Diocese he reflected:

The business of growth encompasses growth in depth of spirituality, growth in engagement with communities and many other things, but in this context I mean growing numbers. If the Church is to meet the challenges of today – not least those that are posed by government funding cuts – we have to have more people on the ground. Jesus spoke of praying for people to go out into the harvest. The fields are white for harvest and we haven’t got enough people to get out there.


Fresh expressions of church are something that need to be calibrated and thought through very carefully rather than just done ad hoc as a sort of knee jerk reaction when we need to have a fresh expression. You need to ask yourself, ‘What do I mean by that?’, ‘Is it genuinely a fresh expression?’ ‘What’s it trying to achieve; in what way does it add to the work of the Church and the Kingdom of God in the area?’

When asked what he will do as Bishop, his answer is that he will pray a lot, listen a lot and test out some principles including,

If fresh expressions is not at its heart involving an encounter with Christ then I’m not remotely interested.

So, Justin is openly saying that he wishes the church to grow and encounter Jesus (as would Rowan).

So, what may be different? Well there is a perception that Justin will be more worldly-wise in terms of tackling the structures of the Church of England.

George Pitcher in the Independent today (he used to be Press adviser to Rowan) says:

Lambeth Palace is like a medieval court. Church House is like an over-weening civil service. Welby needs to grasp the nettle and restructure all of it if a demoralised church is to enjoy a leadership that speaks directly to it, rather than mediated through this crippling bureaucracy. In a society that is increasingly secular, the voice of the established church needs to be direct and relevant to all citizens, believers or not.

Archbishop Justin will need to break the deadlock between Lambeth and Church House. He shouldn’t tolerate duplication of jobs

The problem for Justin (and I suspect for Rowan) is that a crippling bureaucracy is very difficult to change in a structure that values not rocking the boat. Remember that each bishop and diocese is an island unto itself and can ignore the centre (just as each parish is virtually independent as to what it can/ can’t do). This leads to things moving very slowly.

The main role will be for Justin to be able to articulate a common position for the church on key areas that the country may listen to – such as banking and inequality. It will be to try and ensure that there is a real focus on growing the church and not just drifting into oblivion. Part of this has already been put in place by Rowan and I hope and pray that Justin will reap the reward.

One ex-religious affairs journalist told me a couple of nights ago:

I think it’s a great appointment. He’s definitely the best of the bunch.

But we need to beware – the expectations on Justin are far too high at the moment (with the media waiting in the wings to pounce). He is one lone man in a bureaucratic institution with everyone looking to fight their corner. The reward though if he succeeds in unlocking the Church of England are enormous. The Guardian in its editorial this morning notes;

Easy as it is to deride the church, the country as a whole, and not just its believing elements, ought to wish the new man at Canterbury, Justin Welby, the very best. The networks that blossom out of the pews are a kind of bulwark for wider community life, bolstering civic engagement as well as good neighbourliness, as sociologists are documenting. In addition to filling a social gap, the church at its best fills an ideas gap too. These are times that cry out for searching moral questions, not least about our economy, and public intellectuals are not exactly thick on the ground.

The Church of England is one of the largest holders of social capital in the country. It is one of the largest voluntary societies in the country (outstripping all the political parties combined). The appointment is important and it should be the role of those in the Church of England to support and encourage him (even when we disagree with him).

There is another side to the job as well – the international side of things. It may well be the case that he will be able to help keep the African churches on board. A known orthodox position would help them keep in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whilst his ability to negotiate in difficult circumstances may well enable him to keep the US and Canada on board as well. A family can’t choose who is part of it and nor can the Church.

Rowan was a great archbishop badly treated by the Church. I know that when he came to Springfield that many were surprised how good he was and not at all as the media had portrayed him. I hope and pray that history won’t repeat itself.

One thing that may keep him going is a sense of humour. On his staff in the picture above is the image of a Rock Beaver. When reading from Leviticus some time ago at Liverpool Cathedral he got a fit of giggles over the name. The Cathedral congregation bought a new staff when he left for Durham with a picture of a Rock Beaver on it – a great reminder of the absurdities of life!

Pray for our new Archbishop!


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