Once upon a time the choice of a new Archbishop of Canterbury — the leader, if not the head, of the Church of England, that role being the monarch’s since Henry VII broke with Rome — would have been a cause for national rejoicing once the news had spread slowly across the country. Prayers were said for the new incumbent last Sunday, fitted into Remembrance Day services, asking for wisdom for him in his new role. Today, however, remembrance aside, those churches are mostly ill-attended along the lines of three old women and a dog, that is if the dog is allowed inside. Many of our churches are staggeringly beautiful ancient buildings that have been in existence since long before the Reformation, and the iconoclasm of those times, which is responsible for the headless or defaced statues of saints that still bear witness to the determination to smash popish practice with the corrupt glamour and decorated idolatry of Roman Catholicism into the puritan dust.
So will Justin Welby — a former oil executive, Old Etonian evangelical with leftish political views and a relatively liberal view of doctrine, excluding the endlessly knotty issue of same-sex marriage — be the man to build new congregations? Will crumbling walls and John Betjeman’s red brick be filled again with music and the generally horrible — more ‘accessible’, we are told — contemporary versions of the old rites? Betjeman’s wife, of course, converted to Roman Catholicism, and I should have thought that the most recent and unpoetic changes to common prayers and services might have sent the old poet laureate the same way by now. Perhaps the new archbishop will return us to the good stuff, the beauty of the language of the King James Bible and attendant services, which made it worth the occasional trip to church even for non-believers. But I think that is too much to hope for.
On the other hand, we gather from the people of Durham, whence Welby ascends to Canterbury and where he was incumbent for a bare year (he is on a very fast track indeed), that this is a man with extraordinary personal charm and an ability to get things done. Those who know him suggest that the retiring archbishop, Rowan Williams, is also delightful in private. He is an academic with a brilliant brain but his public image has been of benevolent woolliness and indecision. He appears not to have led his flock, wandered along beside, rather than shepherding, the lost sheep. He has, if anything, increased the air of irrelevance of the church, his abilities and bright eyes hidden behind his episcopal trappings, his beard and bushy eyebrow bursting from under his mitre, making him an instantly recognizable but vaguely undistinguished public figure.
The new archbishop comes from an unusual religious background, finding his faith as an adult via the Alpha Course, an evangelical rebirthing process invented at the church of Holy Trinity, Brompton. The congregation there is strong and highly active — professions of belief and even speaking in tongues quite the normal thing. For the laid-back, private, old-fashioned and low-key church-goers where they still exist at all in this country, HTB and Alpha are not far off the scary world of religious sects and extremists, although they probably bear a far closer resemblance to the evangelical Baptist churches of the United States of America. It seems to work for them, though, and they make a major point of looking after their own, which is rare enough in this world.
The scary stuff aside, there appears to be no one prepared to say a bad word about Justin Welby up to and including his presumably worldly boss when he was an executive of Enterprise Oil. Sir Graham Hearne has said how horrified he was to lose him to the church because he was so quick-minded and knowledgeable. His business background may stand him in very good stead given the requirement and need for an archbishop, this one perhaps in particular, to have opinions and express them properly on secular as well as religious matters affecting the nation and its people. Whether he can negotiate his way through the thorny issues around women bishops (which he is said to be pro), openly gay clergy (about which his views appear not to be known), and the gay marriage question, while holding the church together including the hyper-conservative African and Commonwealth bishops, we shall see.
His ‘orthodoxy’ in some areas may help him there, albeit unpopular with many of those who care in this country. For the rest of us who might think about it at all, it seems obvious that it will happen eventually with or without some sort of schism in the church. Possibly Archbishop Welby is the right choice to hold things together for longer and maybe he will find as yet unseen solutions.
Another Etonian too — they seem to be getting everywhere again after our 20th century flirtations with the products of less privileged alma maters. OE prime ministers are two a penny, nineteen of them in all, leaders in other fields of public life too throughout the last five hundred or so years, but there has only been one other Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Cornwallis, appointed by OE prime minister, Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guildford in 1768. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Cornwallis was also a Cambridge man like Welby and the Kentish Parson reported “consistent, decent and beloved”. Aristocratic connections (he was the 7th son of Baron Cornwallis of Eye and his nephew was 1st Marquess Cornwallis, the Governor General of India who defeated Tipu Sultan) combined with avoidance of theological controversy and general geniality also sped him up the career ladder in the church. His conviviality and enjoyment of ‘merriment’ was not appreciated by all of his more aristocratic flock; at the instigation of the Countess of Huntingdon, he was chided by George III for his intention of holding a ‘rout’, a rather informal party and dance, at Lambeth Palace.
His latest successor may or may not hold parties at Lambeth, the seat of Canterbury in London, but he will have to be more publicly active than Cornwallis appears to have been. He is described finally as conscientious administrator and entirely conventional Georgian clergyman. I suspect we shall need something less hide-bound and sparking a few more fireworks if the Church of England is to continue to exist in any way as a body relevant in the public and religious life of this country. It sounds as if we may be going to get it, made palatable by a hefty dose of the charm that has ensured an extraordinary agreement in favour of Justin Welby across our fractious press. We must really need someone if not something to believe in.