What’s the verdict on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s first five years?

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

It is now exactly five years since Justin Welby was elected to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. On March 13 he will mark the fifth anniversary of his enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral.

Unafraid to pontificate on political or social matters, Archbishop Welby, 62, enjoys a high media profile has made use of such mediums as Twitter to get his message across.

Justin Welby was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral

So what is to be made of little, unassuming man who wandered off the territory of the oil industry and to that of Christianity?

Mark Fox, a Church of England priest, offers this insight: “He is good with people and knows how to work a room. He radiates an impatience for doing, and expects to see results. He is restless in his pursuit of renewal.

“There is talk of a temper, but if it exists it has never been on public display. Archbishops are only human beings after all.

“He is not afraid to make decisions and is willing to use his office to push through the changes he wants. The speed at which women have been appointed Bishops testifies to that.

“The enormous amount of money the church is investing in projects he supports is another. His establishment of a permanent praying community at Lambeth Palace is a huge success, and it is a powerful presence at the heart of the national church.

“His robustness in dealing with the issues of historic abuse has been clear. There is much to respect and admire.”

The sections of Archbishop Welby’s Wikipedia page demonstrate the variety of issues he has involved himself with: Islam, refugees, ordination of female bishops, fuel, poverty, inequality, tax, general elections, high-interest lending, food banks, modern slavery, persecution of Christians, sexuality and same-sex marriage.

It reads like a list of today’s most fashionable discussion subjects at the middle class dinner table.

Dr Rowan Williams

Archbishop Welby is no scholar, unlike his immediate predecesor Dr Rowan Williams – or Reverend Beardie, as Private Eye unaffectionately called him.

Rev Fox points to other differences between the two men: “Widely respected and much loved, Rowan Williams’s intellect is beyond question, but his ability to communicate in the media has often been questioned.

“Welby has never made any pretence about being an academic, but he can, and does, communicate well.”

Others, however, have asked whether Welby and his church have communicated too much – and strayed into areas they have little place to be, fuelled in large part by an obsession to sound relevant to the modern world.

Ahead of the 2015 general election, for instance, the Church of England made a clumsy to speak to those about to visit polling booths.

Its pre-election message read: “We should focus on the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another.”

Journalist Stephen Glover dismissed its intervention as “empty meaningless rubbish”.

But far more damaging to the church – especially in the eyes of many of its own members – is the way it handled an unproven allegation that the former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, had molested a five-year-old girl in the 1950s.

The church effectively convicted Bell, who died in 1958, of the crime in what observers condemned as a “rush to judgement in a kangaroo court”.

Media heavyweights Charles Moore, former Daily Telegraph editor, and Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens campaigned vigorously to have Bell exonerated, arguing that his reputation had been trashed on the basis of a single accusation.

An investigation into the affair by Lord Carlile found the church’s procedures wanting. The judge said: “The church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case.

“The church concluded that the needs of a living complainant who, if truthful, was a victim of very serious criminal offences were of considerably more importance than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was no longer alive.”

The Kashmir in Palace Street

Despite being a central figure in the Bell farrago, Archbishop Welby remains a popular  and likeable public figure.

He admitted to enjoying curries from the Kashmir Tandoori house in Canterbury’s Palace Street during spells in the city.

And he has found time to welcome choristers from Canterbury Cathedral to his headquarters at Lambeth Palace in London.

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that he will oversee the marriage of Prince Harry to the American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle in May.

He is instantly recognisable to the millions of members of the worldwide Anglican communion. His central role in ceremony will guarantee that many millions more watching around the world will come to know his face and the unique position he occupies.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here