Does the present Archbishop of Canterbury ever wonder if he will meet the same fate as Thomas Becket? Probably not. But in some ways he is heading towards the same point.
By offering to chair a Citizens Assembly on Brexit he has attracted the wrath of the current government. Iain Duncan Smith, the MP who chaired Boris Johnson’s election campaign, responded by telling The Times: “I generally don’t criticise the Archbishop but he shouldn’t allow himself to be tempted into what is essentially a very political issue right now.” The Prime Minister has not said “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?” but it is clear that Justin Welby is not the most popular man in Downing Street.
As someone who believes in freedom of speech, I was therefore pleased to be able to bring him a message of support. Sir Norman Lamb MP is one of the five chairs of parliamentary committees who invited the Archbishop to carry out this role. I spent a couple of days with the MP last week, touring the villages in his North Norfolk constituency — listening to concerns about bus timetables and noisy neighbours while our national political crisis spread into a constitutional one. When we left the village of Northrepps we knew Boris Johnson was asking the Queen to prorogue Parliament. By the time we arrived at Trimmingham Village Hall, the Queen had agreed.
I asked Sir Norman what he would feel about Justin Welby actually getting this Assembly going. and he said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury is a community leader. He sees the destructive debate we have in our country and sees the need to bring people together. I applaud him for being willing to stick his head above the parapet.”
And, explaining why an Assembly might work, he added: “We need to think of how to create solutions to help bring the country together again. Parliament has palpably failed to find a way forward that unites people. I’m very attracted by the idea of Citizens Assemblies. You tend to find that people who come into them with dramatically opposed views can talk through the issues and find a solution.” The biggest question mark over this idea now must be that we are running out of time. But the Archbishop is willing to run the forum whether or not Brexit is delayed. A specialist in reconciliation, he has learnt about bringing people back together in very dramatic situations — including, on more than one occasion, at the end of a gun in conflict zones in Africa.
When he accepted the suggestion from Norman Lamb and the other parliamentary chairs, the Archbishop specified that such an Assembly must not be used as a way to stall Brexit. He explained why he wants to do it: “The need for national healing and, eventually, for a move towards reconciliation, is essential, and will take much time, a deep commitment to the common good and contributions from every source.”
The Archbishop is used to being attacked for hypocrisy and bias and power-grabbing each time he makes a pronouncement that has an effect on our ordinary lives. He is often told to keep to the spiritual stuff. And Iain Duncan Smith’s criticism is just the latest such remark. Mr Duncan Smith seems to suggest that issues of morality and spirituality should be kept totally separate from politics. But, as an ordinary Canterbury citizen, I do not why we benefit from making politics a morality-free zone. Of course, politics and morality are totally linked.
The Archbishop is extremely well-placed to run an Assembly. He reaches through to ordinary people. When he gave a public lecture at Christchurch University in Canterbury last year, the largest lecture theatre had to be used because all the tickets sold out for the smaller one. He talked to the 450 of us in there about every day issues — from student debt to poverty. And he knows what he is talking about. No-one left early, no-one found him turbulent. But we are living through a time of turbulence now — and it is hard to think of someone better than Justin Welby to help help us talk to one another again.