November 11, 2012

Hope for the New Archbishop of Canterbury

Like many Anglicans around the world, I have been trying to figure out just what we have gotten in the newly named Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I surely won’t aspire to writing a profile of him, but I would like to share a few thought on what I’ve found.

First, although Welby seems firmly in the Evangelical camp—I was not happy to read of his association with Holy Trinity, Brompton—I count it as encouraging that he has spent much of his adult life in the “real world,” namely, as an oil industry executive. He may be more sensitive to the effects that statements and actions can have on actual people and groups of people than academic Rowan Williams, who seems curiously lacking in that sort of perception.

For the sake of the Church of England—really for the sake of Anglicanism generally—I am pleased that Welby is supportive of women bishops. In his post-appointment news conference, he said, “I’m deeply committed to the ordination of women to the episcopate and believe that is key in the future of the Church of England.” It is perhaps unfortunate that the vote on the women bishops legislation to take place just over a week from now is not taking place under Justin Welby. Perhaps the legislation might not have contained the potential poison pill whose inclusion the incumbent archbishop championed. If the legislation does pass, Welby may have a benign influence on what becomes the code of practice regarding requests for male bishops.

In his news conference, Welby was asked about his work in reconciliation. He spoke of bringing people together where they can listen carefully to one another and recognize one another’s humanity and integrity. Even if the people do not come to agreement—this usually doesn’t happen, he said—people can go away with a sense that they can deal with one another. This sounds a lot like the Indaba process and not very much like the Anglican Covenant approach to dealing with conflict in which the “offending party” is not even guaranteed a hearing. Welby said that this sort of reconciliation is “something that will very much be a part of what I do.” I take this as a hopeful sign.

According to Fox News, Welby has described his thinking on marriage equity as “evolving,” though he has so far been an opponent of the idea. It is unclear whether Welby realizes how Americans will understand such a position in light of the fact that President Obama’s “evolving” views led him to support gay marriage. In any case, this is another hopeful sign, though perhaps just less so.

At the aforementioned news conference, John Martin, representing The Living Church, asked a pointed and actually rather nasty question: “Have you firsthand experience of the Episcopal Church USA, and what are your thoughts about how to contain its differences from other parts of the Anglican Communion within the body of the 77 million Anglicans?” Happily, Welby expressed no interest in putting the American church in quarantine. He noted that he had met with Episcopal Church bishops at their March 2012 meeting. VirtueOnline published his address at that meeting, where Welby said, in part:
I have found some myths demythologised. For example the myth that TEC is only liberal, monochrome in its theological stand, and the myth that all minorities of view are oppressed. There is rather the sense of a complex body of wide views and many nationalities addressing issues with what I have personally found inspiring honesty and courage, doubtless also with faults and sins, but always looking to see where the sins are happening. The processes are deeply moving even where I disagreed, which I did on a number of obvious issues, but the honesty of approach was convincing, the buy into and practice of Indaba superb. In summary, there has been a sense of calm confidence and expectation, and of facing the vast challenge of the next 10-15 years. You have a better pension plan too.
He also said, “What is clear too is that in in the Communion we need to fit our structures to the reality of our changing and complex relationships, not try and shape reality to structures.” Perhaps this presages an emphasis of what the churches of the Communion need as members of the Communion, rather than what roles should be played by the so-called Instruments of Communion. This is another hopeful sign. (I recommending reading Welby’s entire, though rather brief, address to the American House of Bishops.)

In completing his response to Martin’s question, Welby said this: “It’s not for me to tell them [The Episcopal Church] how to do their business, and I don’t intend to do that.” This is yet another hopeful sign, although Welby did refer to statements he made about homosexuality at the time and chose not to elaborate upon. I don’t know to what, precisely, he was referring.

On the whole, I am encourage by what seem to be the views of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Of course, I had been encouraged by statements made by Rowan Williams before he was made archbishop. I have learned my lesson, will contain my enthusiasm, and will adopt an attitude of wait-and-see.


  1. I think a "wait and see" attitude is the wisest. His strong statement on the equality of women in the church does give me hope that his description of his position on LGBT equality as "evolving" is an accurate reflection and not just a political dodge or clever soundbite.

    We shall see.

  2. It seems to me that wait and see makes sense. The question is at some level who shapes whom. Will the bureaucrats or the archbishop be the one in charge. Hmmmm..



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