March 17, 2013

Not Ready for Prime Time?

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did a radio interview last week. It is generally conceded that he softened his stand against gay marriage in the interview, though probably only enough to anger traditionalists and frustrate proponents of marriage equity. (Examples of each response can be found here and here.)

Iain Dale, who conducted the interview, has excerpted what Welby said about gay marriage and posted it on his Web site. I think it must be admitted that what the archbishop said was rather garbled. For example, in response to a question about how he reconciles Jesus’ message of inclusion with the church’s attitude toward gay marriage, Welby said
I think that the problem with the gay marriage proposals is that they don’t actually include people equally, it’s called equal marriage, but the proposals in the Bill don’t do that. I think that where there is … I mean I know plenty of gay couples whose relationships are an example to plenty of other people and that’s something that’s very important, I’m not saying that gay relationships are in some way … you know that the love that there is is less than the love there is between straight couples, that would be a completely absurd thing to say. And civil partnership is a pretty … I understand why people want that to be strengthened and made more dignified, somehow more honourable in a good way. It’s not the same as marriage …
Of course, Welby never answered the question, though he raised others. (What is the inequality in the proposed equal marriage legislation? What does he think about civil partnerships?) Admittedly, Rowan Williams was often incomprehensible, but he did tend to talk in complete sentences.

Welby’s response to another question included this:
The historic teaching of the church around the world, and this is where I remember that I’ve got 80 million people round the world who are Anglicans, not just the one million in this country, has been that marriage in the traditional sense is between a man and woman for life.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
This statement raises rather more serious questions as to whether the new Archbishop of Canterbury is quite up to speed. First, he should recognize that he is not the archbishop of the Anglican Communion. He is an archbishop of the Church of England and has authority only in that church. What he has with regard to the Anglican Communion is influence, not power, and, after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor, his office likely has even less of that than formerly.

A more serious mistake is his citing of the 80 million and 1 million figures. I was unable to find reliable information regarding the number of Anglicans in the world, but some number between 75 and 80 million is usually cited. (Mark Harris took a stab at unpacking the number in a 2008 post. It surely is not “correct” now and wasn’t even in 2008, but the numbers are likely in the right ballpark.) Conventionally, the number of members of the Church of England is given as 25 million. (Mark uses this figure.) Everyone knows this number is a fiction, a product of the entire population’s being counted, at least by default, as members of England’s established church. Welby’s 1 million figure is closer to the number of people attending Church of England services each Sunday. This figure comes nearer to stating the real number of Anglicans in England, though it is a bit of an under-count. The problem, of course, is that the mythical 25 million figure makes the largest contribution to the 80 million figure. In other words, if Welby thinks there are 1 million Anglicans in England, there surely are no more than 56 million Anglicans worldwide. Being generous, let’s say there are 4 million actual Anglicans in England. This would make—again, generously speaking—59 million Anglicans everywhere.

In other words, what Justin Welby had to say about marriage equity was simply an incoherent, ill-informed mess. I hope we may expect more clear thinking from him in the future.


  1. The interview he gave in the Church Times suggests that he is going to give up thinking altogether:

    N THE matter of sexuality, a fierce point of contention within the C of E and across the wider Communion, Archbishop Welby reaffirms the Church's official line: "The Church of England teaches that marriage is a lifelong union of one man to one woman, and nothing we've done has changed that. There is no challenge to that in anything that the Church has done over the last few years. That remains absolutely clearly our position."

    In an interview with LBC Radio last week, he had said that it would be "completely absurd" to suggest that the love expressed in gay relationships was "less than the love there is between straight couples" (News, 15 March).

    If this is so, is it not time for the Church to offer blessing services to same-sex couples? The Archbishop responds: "The House of Bishops made it quite clear there will be no liturgical provision in that area, and that remains very clearly the case, and that's a view that I support."

    1. Erika,

      It seems fair to say that Justin is sending mixed messages. At one level, it would be easy to conclude that he is oblivious to the implications of his own stated beliefs. My working theory is that he is possessed of greater political savvy than Rowan (who was, of course, clueless) and realizes that, wherever he may want to take the church, he needs to begin where he finds it. He may or may not know where he wants the church to go, but, at the very least, he seems willing to discuss it.

      At this point, I may be more influenced by hope than experience, but, for now, I have an open mind regarding the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

  2. Lionel,
    my last post was probably unfair. But I am getting increasingly concerned about the mixed messages he is giving out. One day he is considering blessing Civil Partnerships (and in about 2 years' time when civil marriage becomes legal in Britain, 87% of CPd people have already said they will convert their CPs to marriages, so who will be left to be blessed?), the next day he affirms the official position that there is no liturgy for blessings and no plans for any.

    One day he talks about his gay friends and the stunning equality of their relationship, the next day he wholeheartedly affirms the CoE position on same sex relationships.

    I can see that is is a clearly confused man. I am not really sure how well advised it is to put his confusion out there, each time in very definite terms.
    For an intelligent man who has known for months that he would be Archbishop and that he would be quizzed about this issue from the very first press interview onward, these seem to be very clumsy beginnings.


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