Welcome to the new Archbishop
The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury marks the ascendency of bold, socially engaged evangelical faith within the Church of England. In some ways Justin Welby has the background that has marked many primates of the Church before him. He studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and is related to a former prime minister. But Justin Welby is a different kind of educated gentleman from those of a previous generation. His faith is rooted in Christ who came to serve, not to rule, and while his background has opened doors, his ambitions have been for the growth of God’s kingdom, not for personal aggrandisement.
Welby’s previous experience in the oil business and in the world of high finance has marked him out as the man for the job, but it is his worldly-wise gospel commitment that continues to encourage many in the Christian community. What has been mentioned less often is Welby’s international role as a peacemaker – particularly in central Nigeria where he was a major factor in the successful peace negotiations between fighting factions. And don’t forget that the Church of Nigeria is now second only to the Church of England in the size of its membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head.
Justin Welby’s appointment also marks the rise and rise of the influence of the Alpha Course. When he worked in London, Welby was a member of Holy Trinity Brompton, and is still close friends with Nicky Gumbel, whose work leading and promoting the Alpha Course has made such a mark on British Christianity. The faith that arises from Alpha is unashamedly evangelical, founded on a belief in the Bible. It is also charismatic, depending on the Holy Spirit’s works and gifts. It is at the same time socially engaged, taking seriously the material needs of the world and the place of Christian faith in the political and economic structures of society.
Welby lives by what he calls a “confidence in the gospel”. The gospel he bears is the gospel of personal salvation and the gospel of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit and the gospel that can speak into the problems of the whole of society.
Welby prefers words to music, but the music he does enjoy demonstrates the breadth of his experience and spirituality, from Handel to Wesley to Matt Redman and Stuart Townend.
Another reason that Justin Welby is the right man for the job is his ecumenical experience. His strong working relationship with Roman Catholics in Europe and in Liverpool will encourage those who want to see the Church of England retain its ties with Rome even as it sets itself apart with the appointment of women as bishops.
On a personal level, Welby has a knack of relating to everyone at their own level, a skill he has found very useful in Durham and one he will need to draw upon as Archbishop. He has recently become a grandfather and is “acquainted with grief”, as the first of his six children was killed in car crash in 1983.
Twelve months ago, when he became Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby said that his first priority in the new role was “to listen”, and then to encourage the work of the church in its worship of God and in its growth in numbers. As Archbishop of Canterbury he will need to raise his sights again to a wider role in the nation, but it is likely that he will be more interested in leading the church to growth and working behind the scenes, and will feature less in the media that his predecessor has done.
Welby’s appointment will not please everyone in the Church. He represents a move to an open evangelical position that some at the liberal end of the Church will not be delighted about. Neither will he please the most conservative of evangelicals. But he stands in a strong place to represent mainline evangelical opinion in the Church and may just be the man to hold the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion together.
Christians of all denominations and none should now get on their knees and pray for Justin Welby – pray that the job won’t squeeze him into its own mould, and that he will have the strength to be the Lord’s man for this calling and for such a time as this.