First in a series of World Religion News articles on great religious leaders of our time.
As the head of the 85-million member Anglican communion across the world, he is the spiritual leader of the Church of England and a network of churches historically linked to that institution in terms of its beliefs, methods of worship and organizational structures.
A former oil executive and member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, Welby is thoroughly modern and progressive in his outlook. His meteoric rise to leadership comes at a time of contentious debates over gay marriage and women bishops, inspiring hopes that he will be able to use his personal charm and ecclesiastical power as well as political connections to reconcile the conservative and liberal camps within the Anglican Church.
Welby made history when he was enthroned on March 21, 2013, at the age of 57, by a female cleric, Archdeacon of Canterbury Sheila Watson. It was a culturally diverse event that featured Punjabi music, African dancers and Anglican hymns.
“There is every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world and in this country,” Welby said in his sermon, adding his vision: “The Church transforms society when it takes the risks of renewal in prayer, of reconciliation and of confident declaration of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
It’s a vision that is echoed in Welby’s three key priorities. According to the Church’s official website, these are Evangelism and Witness; Prayer and Renewal of Religious Life; and Reconciliation. Besides supporting women bishops, he has condemned profiteering energy companies and pledged to put payday loan companies out of business by allowing credit unions to operate in church halls. His toughest challenge, however, still lies ahead—persuading his Anglican flock to love thy gay neighbor.
In His Own Words
“I think this is the most extraordinary moment of choice in my lifetime. It’s a choice. We had a choice in 1945 in Western Europe and the better choice was taken to seek reconciliation, peace, democracy and freedom. That led to what in France was known as Trente Glorieuses, the thirty glorious wonderful years. I think we have a choice now of a default option, which is that the most powerful and the richest in our societies re-establish things much as they were before the pandemic. Or we can choose — and we have that real reality now — to redevelop our societies with much more emphasis on human dignity, on human equality, without shutting down the economy or adopting particularly unpleasant measures, but in seeking a much more humane society that reflects the Christian roots of Europe.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, responding to a question in a March 30, 2021 interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica about how to fix the global inequality starkly highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Because of history, we are one of the largest landowners in the country. Collectively, we hold over 200,000 acres of land as well a large stock of historic and many other buildings. But more than that, with 12,500 parishes and 18,000 clergy, we have a committed and continuing presence in every community in this country. We incarnate Christ’s promise of love and hope, not just through our worship services, but by offering foodbanks, debt advice centers, night shelters and much much more. Worship reaches people online. There is precedent also for the Church’s involvement in housing — from almshouses to housing associations, the church has for centuries been involved in the provision of decent places to live. We do not do this to be ‘nice’ — we are not an NGO with a pointy roof. We do this because we believe that Christ commands us to love our neighbor. The Church can and should make a substantial contribution to the housing crisis, using our resources well to serve others. That is why I have submitted a motion to the Church of England’s General Synod, calling them to recognize that ‘addressing housing need and strengthening communities is an integral part of the mission and ministry of the Church of England.’” — Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking to the House of Lords on March 24, 2021, about the need for a long-term housing strategy in Britain.
“Today Christians celebrate with faith and certain knowledge that Jesus was raised from the dead. While I disagree with Prof Alice Roberts of the Humanists, I thank God that we live in a country where she can speak freely.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, in an April 4, 2021, Easter Sunday Twitter message, referring to Alice Roberts, a biological anthropologist and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, who evidently neither believes in the existence of God nor in the resurrection of Jesus. On April 2, 2021, Roberts tweeted: “Just a little reminder today. Dead people — don’t come back to life.” (It was unclear whether she was denying the belief in life after death or urging dead people not to come back to life.)
“We can go on as before Covid, where the most powerful and the richest gain and so many fall behind. We have seen where that left us. Or we can go with the flooding life and purpose of the resurrection of Jesus, which changes all things, and choose a better future for all.” — Archbishop Justin Welby in April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday sermon to Britons at the Canterbury Cathedral.
“The overwhelming generosity of God to us should inspire the same by us, in everything from private acts of love and charity to international aid generously maintained. We have received overwhelmingly, so let us give generously.” — Archbishop Justin Welby in April 4, 2021 Easter Sunday sermon to Britons at the Canterbury Cathedral, where he criticized the British government’s plan to reduce its international aid, even as a global pandemic rages.
“For the Royal Family and the millions who have themselves suffered loss, we can know that the presence of Christ will bring peace, and the light of Christ will shine strongly, and it is in that light that we can strengthen one another with eternal hope.” Archbishop Justin Welby paying tribute to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral April 17, 2021.
“The lion of our time has many faces, some of them modern, many of them as old as the church itself. The lion, as I say, has many faces, but they are not the faces that we see around us.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, in his 2020 address to the General Synod, the Church of England’s General Assembly and legislative body, highlighting what he believes are the dangers of social media platforms.
“In one of the climactic passages of the New Testament, Paul says to those who follow Christ that their ‘love must be genuine, that they hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.’ He asks them to ‘serve the Lord,’ exhorting them to ‘rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.’ None of this is easy. Especially not at the moment. But it is our calling.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, in a November 1, 2020, letter jointly written to the clergy of the Church of England following yet another pandemic-related lockdown ordered by the government across the United Kingdom
“We don’t want people to lie, to act with cruelty, or to use religious jargon in a way that ontologically results in some epistemological confusion — to use some religious jargon … it’s the golden rule that Jesus Christ talks about: treat others as you would like to be treated.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking in 2019 to Nicola Mendelsohn, the European head of Facebook, about so-called alternative facts and the poisonous nature of social media.
“The scale of waste in this country is astonishing. As a nation we discard about 15 million tons of food a year, at least four million thrown out by households.” — Archbishop Justin Welby, quoted in a 2014 Reuters article about an opinion piece he wrote in The Mail on Sunday, in which he observed he was more shocked to see the hungry in Britain than the plight of those starving in parts of Africa.
The Stories Others Tell
“With an astonishing range of understanding and a perspective both global and granular, Justin Welby identifies values that are true to our heritage and fertile for our hope. … Archbishop Ramsey once told priests to be ‘with God with the people on your heart;’ … Archbishop Welby is with God with the nation on his heart, and the result is rigor and compassion in equal measure.” – The Rev. Dr Sam Wells, vicar of St.-Martin-in the-Fields, an Anglican church in Westminster, London, in his review of Archbishop Justin Welby’s 2021 book Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope.
“Welby exhibits a remarkable sense of humility and a genuine self-deference. This arises in part from his own honest opinion of himself; when invited to write a letter to his 14-year-old self, he started like this: ‘Dear Justin, You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry — it does not measure who you are.’ It offers a small window into someone who has genuinely wrestled with issues of achievement and self-esteem, who is very aware of inner struggles but who has managed not to allow these to hobble him. And it means he is able to speak his mind on an issue — and apologize if he has got it wrong, which is both refreshing and endearing.” — Theologian, author and speaker Ian Paul, in a 2014 book review of a noted biography Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-Taker and Reconciler.
A Life in Brief
Archbishop Justin Welby was born on January 6, 1956, in London. His parents — Gavin Welby and Jane Welby (née Portal) — divorced when he was three years old. The young Welby had a fraught childhood, not least because both his parents were alcoholics.
Welby studied at Eton College and at Trinity College, Cambridge — both elite institutions that are believed to have played a pivotal role in his spectacular 2013 rise to lead England’s top church. After graduating in 1978 with a master’s degree in history and law, he worked as a financial executive in the petroleum industry, initially for Elf Aquitaine, a French corporation, and later for Enterprise, a Houston, Texas-based company.
Welby left the corporate world in 1989 and entered the seminary. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a diploma in theology from St. John’s College, Durham, revealing a talent for issues surrounding banking and corporate ethics as well as conflict resolution and reconciliation. His 1992 diploma dissertation, which later became a significant pamphlet, was titled “Can Companies Sin?”
Welby is the author of several critically acclaimed books, the latest of which is a revised and expanded 2021 edition of Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, initially published three years earlier. “The fundamental message of that book remains as urgent as ever,” notes the work’s publisher, Bloomsbury, adding: “Welby has taken fully into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and all the social and political unrest that has ensued. … Here is a radical vision for 21st-century Britain.”
Achievements We’ll Remember
1992: Welby begins his clerical service by being ordained as a deacon in the Church of England’s Coventry diocese.
1993: He becomes a priest.
1995-2000: Welby serves as rector of St. James Church in Southam, and St. Michael’s and All Angels in Ufton, revitalizing both churches and expanding their congregations.
2002-2007: Welby serves as a canon and subdean of Coventry Cathedral where he also co-directs the cathedral’s International Center for Reconciliation. He works with Anglican missions, often under the threat of violence, to help resolve conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.
2005: Welby helps negotiate a peaceful settlement between Shell Oil Company and the Ogoni tribe of Nigeria against the background of allegations that Shell had polluted local groundwater and conspired with the Nigerian military to violently suppress protests. He also holds frequent meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and plays a key role in the reopening of the Anglican Church in Baghdad.
2007: Welby becomes dean of Liverpool Cathedral, England’s largest cathedral. He substantially expands the cathedral’s outreach to the poor and to asylum seekers, while continuing his overseas reconciliation work as well as writing on a range of ethical and financial issues.
2012: Welby serves on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. He advises legislators on corporate ethics issues and assists in an investigation of banking standards in the aftermath of a scandal surrounding the manipulation by major British banks of worldwide interest rates.
2013: Welby becomes the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Rowan Williams, whose tenure was marked by a widening theological rift between traditionalists and reformists within the Anglican Church over the issues of the ordination of women and openly gay bishops as well as same-sex marriages.
2019: Under Welby’s direction, the Church of England announces social media guidelines aimed at countering “alternative facts” — the first such step ever taken by the historic institution. Welby outlines the campaign’s three precepts—truth, kindness and welcome.
The Church He Serves
The Church of England — The Anglican Church
Considered something of a fusion — or a middle way — between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the Anglican faith is the third-largest Christian denomination in the world, after the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Despite its global communion, Anglicanism does not have a worldwide juridical authority, and each province governs itself. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in the United Kingdom, is however, the Anglican Communion’s spiritual leader and “focus of unity.”
The foundational prayer book of Anglicanism is The Book of Common Prayer, first authorized for use in the reign of Edward VI of England. It was first published in 1549 and underwent considerable revision in 1552, with minor revisions in 1559, 1604 and 1662 . It is the first prayer book to include complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English. Considered one of the great works of literature, the book has influenced the English language as well the liturgies of other Christian denominations, especially marriage and burial rites.