April 6, 2014

Whither Welby?

Ever since he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Episcopalians and other Anglicans have been trying to figure out what Justin Welby believes and how he will use his office. Will his tenure represent continuity with that of his predecessor, Rowan Williams, or will he act quite differently?

Early Indications

It was quickly apparent that Welby is less aloof and more plainspoken than Williams, more down-to-earth, if you will. He is easier to like and to relate to. His support for allowing women to become bishops in the Church of England has been encouraging, as has been his outspoken support for the downtrodden of English society. As far as I can determine, Welby has never made any public pronouncements about the Anglican Covenant, likewise a good thing.

His record on same-sex marriage, on the other hand, has been disappointing. In the House of Lords, he strongly opposed the bill that eventually authorized same-sex marriage in England and Wales. More distressing still was the pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage promulgated by the House of Bishops, presumably under the influence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whereas the Pilling Report suggested that English clergy should be given some significant discretion in dealing with same-sex couples availing themselves of their new right to marry, the bishops announced unexpected restrictions on the ability of clergy to bless such partnerships or to enter into same-sex marriages themselves. The pastoral guidance seemed mean-spirited. (Tobias Haller, with a certain satirical malice,  perfectly captured the ethos of the episcopal directions in his post, “A Form of Prayer for a Same-Sex Marriage.”)

The Talk Show

Two days ago, Justin Welby was the guest on a radio call-in show on LBC radio hosted by James O’Brien. Apparently, no Archbishop of Canterbury had ever been on such a show. (Kudos to Welby for that.) On the whole, he handled his role with aplomb, as one might expect from the clerical leader of the Church of England. Liberal Anglicans can be pleased with Welby’s remarks about women bishops, economic inequality, the cost of energy, the nature of God, and the stewardship of church property. His observations regarding the church and homosexuals were revealing, but only added to the anxiety felt by liberal Anglicans.

The entire one-hour show can be viewed below:

What He Said

The archbishop had a lot to say in response both to callers and to host James O’Brien.  I want first to call attention to some of his remarks and then to offer a general critique of his performance.

Early in the show, Welby declined to comment on whether the same-sex marriage law is a good thing or not. He justified his reticence by noting that the church is in the process of deciding together about same-sex marriage, referring, presumably, to the facilitated conversations called for in the Pilling Report. Having argued so vigorously against the law, however, one can only assume that he is actually not too keen on it, even though he declared that the church would no longer oppose it once it was in effect. (What could the church do that would possibly be productive at this juncture?)

When asked directly whether homosexuality is wrong, he again refused to answer. But then he said this:
People can’t help being gay, and every human being’s dignity has to be respected.
It is encouraging that the archbishop believes that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice. Moreover, he later acknowledged that homosexuals, especially gay teenagers, experience “enormous suffering.” Respecting the dignity of homosexuals, however, runs afoul of the church’s current view of marriage:
My position is the historic position of the church, which is in our canons, which says that sexual relations should be within marriage, and marriage is between a man and a woman.
Of course, an all-male episcopate was also traditional and protected by canon, yet he campaigned against it. One has to think that his invocation of the status quo is, at least in part, a fig leaf to cover his own prejudices.

Archbishop Justin Welby
What is not clear is whether Welby is open to changing the position of the Church of England as a possible outcome of the facilitated conversations. O’Brien asked if the archbishop could imagine a gay wedding being performed in an Anglican church. He replied that he didn’t have to imagine it because it was already happening in some places. Then he said this:
I look at the scriptures; I look at the teaching of the church; I listen to Christians around the world; and I have real hesitation about that because I really don’t [want to?] say no to people who love each other. You have to have a sense of what the teaching of the church is. You can’t just make sudden changes.
Welby stammered uncharacteristically as he said this. His concern for homosexual persons seems genuine, but it is not his only serious concern.

None of the foregoing made news. What caught everyone’s attention was Welby’s explanation of why the Church of England’s embrace of same-sex marriage would be problematic. Many have assumed that the Archbishop of Canterbury is reluctant to offend conservative African primates who have threatened to distance their churches from Lambeth and, implicitly, from the Anglican Communion. Although Welby denied it, consideration of—as O’Brien put it—“conniptions” that a more gay-friendly policy in England might give Global South leaders must surely factor into Welby’s calculus of constraints under which he must operate. (I suspect that the archbishop was none-too-happy with the use of “conniptions,” and he took immediate exception to O’Brien’s referring to “less enlightened people in Africa.”)

In any case, Welby told this story:
I’ve stood by graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America. And they were attacked by other people because of that, and a lot of them have been killed. And I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago, and the church leaders there were saying, “Please don’t change what you’re doing because then we couldn’t accept your help, and we need your help desperately.” And we have to listen carefully to that.
O’Brien asked this question:
So a Christian on the ground in Africa could end up being on the receiving end of violence and abuse because of a decision taken at Lambeth Palace about sexual equality, about gay marriage?
Welby answered, simply, “Yes.”

(For readers unwilling to watch the entire LBC program, the most newsworthy excerpt is here.)

Welby and the Anglican Communion

I don’t doubt for a moment that the archbishop was told what he reported when he was in South Sudan. I have serious doubts about the candor of his informants, however. There have been numerous massacres in Sudan in recent years, but, although these have generally been Muslim-on-Christian violence, I have seen no credible reports suggesting that they have had anything to do with any event in the U.S. Archbishop Welby did not hint at what might have sparked the killings he reported. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are far ahead of the Church of England in their fair treatment of gays and lesbians, but it isn’t obvious that this is responsible for the deaths of Anglicans elsewhere. One might argue that the Church of England is a special case, but it isn’t as special as it thinks. See below.

This is not to say that violence in one country cannot be inspired by events elsewhere. The infamous Danish cartoons and the laughably amateurish Innocence of Muslims trailer each led to deadly violence in Islamic countries, but these were extreme cases in which the “provocation” was construed as a frontal attack on Islam itself. Surely the embrace of marriage equality by the Church of England would be less inflammatory.

As an aside, I should note that, although many commentators have suggested that Welby is acceding to blackmail, he is actually bowing to extortion. Not that this matters—neither would represent capture of the high moral ground on his part. The Archbishop of Canterbury has declared himself willing to continue the actual harm being done to members of his own church in the hope of staving off hypothetical evil actions of foreigners over which he has no control.

The Rev. Susan Russell described Welby’s stance as pathetic, rather than prophetic. Certainly, the Church of England has the opportunity to demonstrate a more humane and, many would say, a more Christian way of responding to the challenge of homosexuality than is commonplace in the Anglican Global South. The archbishop is unwilling to take that opportunity.

As for churches such as that of South Sudan’s being unable to accept aid from the Church of England if England embraces marriage equality, that is South Sudan’s problem. That country is already accepting aid from Episcopalians in America, so I view the argument that South Sudan would need to eschew English aid as pure extortion.

Whatever the “real” reasons Welby might have for fearing the effects that actions taken by the Church of England might have on conservative churches of the Anglican Communion, the fear itself is the product of the arrogant self-importance that seems to afflict Archbishops of Canterbury. Holders of the office seem to view the Communion as the last remnant of empire, to which they must cling to retain any semblance of English self-respect.

Consider a few selected quotes from the LBC program:
But the problem we face … is that everything we say here goes around the world, for reasons of history and media and all that, so we don’t make policy on the hoof … .

Ninety-eight percent of members of the Anglican Communion who are regular churchgoers are not in England. The average Anglican is an African woman in her 30s—a sub-Saharan African woman in her 30s.

We are the most incredible multinational organization. The Anglican Church is in 143 countries, 37 provinces.

What we say here is heard round the world.

Why can’t we just do it [make major changes] now? Because the impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Pakistan, Nigeria, and other places, would be absolutely catastrophic. And we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here.

We are one of the great international groups that there is in this world; we are massively majority, not in England.
When I attended my confirmation class thirty years ago, the Anglican Communion was described as a fellowship of independent churches that had little effect on the day-to-day operation of The Episcopal Church or of its dioceses and parishes. Bishops got together every decade to discuss matters of concern to them at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who acted as a kind of party host. I was pleased to learn that I could find churches throughout the world related to the one I was about to join, but no one suggested that the fellowship was the sort of monolith of which the Roman Catholic Church was the prime example (and one I wanted to get away from as far as possible). It was made very clear that there is no “Anglican Church,” only Anglican churches (or provinces). Yet, despite the protestations of Welby (and other Archbishops of Canterbury) that he has no desire to be the Anglican pope, he does seem to possess some deep-seated papal envy. He wants to be (or, at the very least, believes himself to be) very important in the Christian world.

If the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), say, wants to avoid any local unrest due to actions of the Church of England, or of any other Communion church for that matter, it can invoke plausible deniability. The Nigerian church is an independent organization having neither control over nor obligation to follow the lead of the Church of England. End of story.

In fact, it has been the primates of the conservative Global South and their fellow travelers (and bankrollers) in the West that have promoted an exulted view of the Anglican Communion and the notion that all our churches are somehow bound at the hip. Why? Precisely so they can play on raw numbers and colonial guilt to extort money, prestige, and support for their own traditionalist beliefs from the liberal churches of the Anglican world. It is high time that Western churches—and especially the Church of England—condemned that extortion for what it is. Neither the Church of England nor the Archbishop of Canterbury is half as important as Justin Welby imagines them to be.

There are only two ways that widespread change happens in the world. Either (1) it is imposed by a dictatorial leader or through a more-or-less democratic process by a body possessing agreed-upon authority or (2) early adopters implement change, and others, seeing the wisdom of their actions, eventually follow along. Serious change almost never comes about by simply waiting for everyone to come to the same conclusion as to what needs to be done. The Anglican Communion as a whole is not going to come to a uniform policy regarding homosexuality in our lifetimes. (Not all Communion churches even accept women priests!) The churches that can, need to end the treatment of homosexuals as second- (or third-) class members and show the way of Christ to others.

Welby the Conflicted

Justin Welby is, I think, a perfectly decent chap, but he is clearly suffering from cognitive dissonance, that is, he holds, simultaneously, mutually contradictory ideas. On the one hand, he believes that homosexuals have been persecuted by the church and deserve to be treated like anyone else. Yet he heads a church that, at least on paper, holds otherwise. Moreover, he sincerely believes that treating homosexuals fairly at home will result in death to innocent Christians elsewhere. He is, from his point of view, between Scylla and Charybdis.

It is easy to sympathize with Welby’s dilemma. Even though he has constructed a temporary rationale for inaction, he surely must realize that he cannot forestall his church’s decision on same-sex marriage forever. One way or another, the facilitated conversations can only end badly. I suspect that he will try to export the sexuality conversations to the entire Anglican Communion in a vain attempt to achieve consensus or at least avoid a crisis. In the meantime, however, life happens, and God, not Justin Welby, is in control.

Welby’s problems are of his own making. First, the problem of the Church of England’s stance on homosexuality is really no problem at all, at least from an institutional viewpoint. Citing the church’s current doctrine is but a rationale for avoidance. The church has changed its views on divorce, ordination of women, and other matters, and it can surely change its view of marriage without the world’s coming to an end. Of course, even taken in isolation from other churches, he may not consider this a good outcome, but it almost certainly will be demanded by the English people, and, if he is still in office, he will be forced to go along.

As for the effect of change on the rest of the world, the archbishop needs to realize that neither he nor his church is as important to the world as it thinks they are. He is a primate like any other, and whatever moral authority he has is hardly advanced by bowing to extortion that hurts those under his care in the hope that doing so will inspire right behavior in others who have no incentive to pay him the slightest attention. A little humility will greatly reduce the current cognitive dissonance the archbishop is experiencing.

A Word about The Episcopal Church

Wherever Archbishop Justin Welby chooses to go, The Episcopal Church and perhaps a handful of like-minded churches, should assert their need to follow Christ as they understand they are called to do. Our church should be willing to work with other churches of the Communion, but it will not be bound by their theologies. We must let the Anglican world know that following the lead of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily mean following the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, or the GAFCON primates.

It is clear that Justin Welby has set himself up for failure. We should not follow.


  1. Andrew Goddard has a commentary here:


    1. Thanks, Bruce, for pointing out the Goddard essay. It has been difficult to keep up with everything being written about Justin Welby’s radio performance. Somewhat to my surprise, Goddard and I are not as far apart as I might have expected. I would urge others to read what he has to say.

  2. The Goddard piece links to a transcript of the program here. Readers may find it helpful or convenient to read that transcript. You may find minor differences between its renderings and mine above; it is always difficult to transcribe ordinary speech. In any case, I believe that any differences in our transcriptions are inconsequential.

  3. I couldn’t deal fully in my essay with all issues raised by Welby’s call-in performance. For some ideas I did not fully explore, I recommend reading “Rebel Rev lives up to her name,” written by the priest who asked the question that sparked much of the news and commentary on the radio program.

  4. The problem I have with everyone who says that the Anglican Communion is not one church is that they are the same people that use Nigeria's membership to bolster TEC's miniscule membership roles. Every time I see that "70 million members" number on a church, diocese(including mine), or national church web page, and in every article ever written in a newspaper, it's claiming to be the same church. TEC doesn't include ELCA or other churches that it has full communion with in its member roles, so why include Nigeria's if they aren't the same church? If TEC is going to use Africa's membership for its own gain then it should also admit that it is forcing those people to be tarred with its beliefs. If TEC and other branches are going to follow their own theology, they should leave the Communion and start their own. Let's face it, TEC already is one with so many dioceses outside the U.S.

    Why would the embrace of gay marriage be less inflammatory than a cartoon? It's still promoting a lifestyle completely against their moral definitions. And let's face it, even with proof that those people died because their killers associated them with TEC, etc. TEC itself isn't stop doing what it wants. I find those who call Welby cold hearted about LGBT's sufferings just as cold hearted in their "Those people were going to die anyway; the Muslims would just find another excuse" excuse for why TEC has no responsibility in this. TEC supports and promotes gay rights world wide and as you mentioned, some churches in Sudan are accepting money from TEC, probably making them guilty of accepting its morals according to those around them.

    Chris H.

    1. Chris,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The reputed size of the Anglican Communion has been widely used throughout the Communion to inflate the apparent importance of the local church, diocese, etc. Reporters are partly responsible for any resulting misunderstanding, but Anglicans should be more careful about how they describe the Communion. I’m not sure what the ideal description of the Communion might be, but something like “voluntary association of independent churches” might do. “Communion,” “fellowship,” and “federation” all suggest more integration that is strictly justified. Of course, “independent” is politically incorrect these days, but I consider it an essential element of an honest description.

      I am uncomfortable with your use of “lifestyle.” If being homosexual is a lifestyle, then so is being heterosexual.

      As to the provocation of same-sex marriage, it may be offensive to Islamic morality, it is not as offensive as a slight against the Prophet. That would be something like an attack on Jesus for Christians, except that Western Christians are not nearly so sensitive to blasphemy as are Muslims.

      Part of the upset over Welby’s remarks is the fact that he did not condemn violence. See Rebel Rev’s post I mentioned above.

  5. Whenever Justin Welby speaks, he seems ever more feckless. Do read the latest interview from The Telegraph.


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