Can Companies Sin? Is The Archbishop Anglican?
By Stephen CrittendenNovember 9, 2012
In the hours immediately following the announcement of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, the British press has made much the fact that he is an Old Etonian. But probably that’s an indication that few people in Britain know very much about him.
Justin Welby, 56, is presently the Bishop of Durham and he’s only been a bishop for a year. Some say that inexperience may count against him.
The most interesting thing about Welby’s CV is that he spent 11 years as an oil-industry executive, working first for the French company Elf Aquitaine, and then for Enterprise Oil, before changing course and seeking ordination at the age of 31.
He told the BBC in a recent interview that on the rare occasions he was stationed on an oil rig in the Niger Delta, “I didn’t get contemplative very often.” In those kinds of places that’s probably just as well. But he says he did have a kind of “white light” moment when he was attending an evening church service suddenly felt the call to ordained ministry: “Twelve or fourteen hundred people in the Church, and listening to someone preach, and a sense of God saying ‘This is what I want you to do.’”
He says he kicked and screamed his way through the two-year selection process that followed: “They ask a lot of hard questions. And the more they asked, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t get away from that sense of call.”
Since then he has had a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Church of England — rector of St James Southam in Warwickshire from 1995 to 2002, then director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, Dean of Liverpool in 2007, and Bishop of Durham in October last year.
Those who do know him are very enthusiastic about his appointment. Christina Rees, a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, says, “He is known to be wise, collaborative, a man prepared to take risks, someone extremely astute.” The Dean of York, Vivienne Faull, worked with Welby when she was chair of the English Cathedrals Executive. She said he was “utterly supportive, enthusiastic in enabling me to do my job. Everyone in Coventry has said how effective he is. He has a disarming self-deprecation: he is always assuming the best of other people.”
Archbishop Welby is an evangelical — a Bible Anglican — which would suggest he is more in the theological mould of former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, than Rowan Williams, whom Welby replaces. His appointment has been described as a move to the right for the Church of England. The former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr Giles Fraser, describes Welby as “very conservative” on gay marriage, but “very strongly in favour” of women bishops.
But he is also apparently very open to accommodating opposing views – an essential trait in any contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury. His acumen may be tested as early as this month. The governing body of the Church of England, General Synod, is due to vote on November 20 on a highly controversial bill to allow the ordination of women as bishops in the Church of England.
Welby has described himself as “one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England”, which seems extremely unlikely. As Bishop of Durham he was appointed to the UK Banking Industry Commission where he apparently shone brightly.
Like his predecessor, Rowan Williams, Welby appears to be attracted to aspects of the Catholic Church – specifically to Catholic social doctrine on poverty, justice, and the dignity of the ”human person”. In conversation he cites Pope Leo XIII’s great social encyclical of 1891 on the relationship of capital and labour, Rerum Novarum, and he has described the social teachings of Pope John Paul II as “the best kept secret of the Church”. My hunch is that, if you asked him, he would readily tell you his decision 20 years ago to enter the Anglican priesthood was partly inspired by JPII.
His dissertation at theological college, on the topic “Can companies sin?” (he answered in the affirmative), was presumably inspired at some level by his experiences working in the oil industry in West Africa. That topic suggests he is attracted by the idea of “structural sin” formulated by Liberation Theology in Latin America in the 1970s. Which makes a difference from the obsession with personal – usually sexual – sin of so many other Christian religious leaders.
Back in July, Welby told The Guardian’s Giles Fraser that “When one group corners a source of human flourishing, that is deeply wicked. It applies to the City, to commodities traders, and to churches who say only this way is right.” So at least we can be sure he’ll have something interesting to talk about when he meets Pope Benedict XVI.
On the other hand, writing in the UK Telegraph, Church of England priest and curmudgeon Peter Mullen places Welby on the Left of the Church. He suggests that Welby’s views on climate change and banks are drearily predictable and that he will turn out to be “just another Left-wing establishment bureaucrat”. More interestingly (and here he may prove to have a point), he places Welby on what he calls the “excitable wing” of the contemporary Church, citing by way of illustration something Welby wrote about “…a youth group on a week away who dared a short time of prayer…and prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon the youth. The response was utterly dramatic. They fell to the ground, spoke in tongues – you name it.” Urk. Pope Benedict’s diary may suddenly be full up after all.
Archbishop Welby will have his work cut out being a symbol of unity in the Church of England. But the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as visible union of the worldwide Anglican Church is likely pretty much over. The communion is more or less in schism and the various national and regional groupings aren’t all that interested in kind of compromise that reconciliation would require.
In March, Rowan Williams announced his resignation as Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of two major policy failures (his project to secure approval for a kind of lowest common denominator Anglican Communion of Covenant, and his compromise proposal for male co-bishops to be appointed in dioceses with women bishops for those who don’t want to accept the headship of a woman). At the time I suggested that the big question now facing the Church of England is whether being Archbishop of Canterbury is now an impossible task, or whether a new appointee with a different temperament and a different set of skills may change everything.
Williams was a woolly academic who, when the chips were down, wasn’t prepared to advocate for the views he held in private. By comparison, the consensus seems to be that Welby is a low-key pragmatist, and an excellent communicator who speaks to people in language they understand. He may well prove to be a more nimble and subtle pair of hands than his predecessor ever was.