A new Archbishop of Canterbury is selected and received much in the way as a new vicar expects to be. They will be someone who fixes what we think is wrong and they will have the skills, sensitivity and talent to address everyone and everything. They will be a person who will create a church we are comfortable with and which looks like what we would want to be associated with.
I suspect that Justin Welby has been selected because he has proved himself to be very able and capable and up to date and excellent at all he has done so far. He’s worked in commerce, knows the city, is comfortable with the establishment. He’s punched all the right tickets in the church as he has steadily climbed the ladder. He punches lots of subconscious tickets for the selectors who must have thought he could pacify angry conservatives here and abroad, calm down frightened evangelicals and yet be acceptably progressive and reflective on the direction of the church towards uncharted waters.
For those who measure clergy on a success or failure, someone must have been thinking: “here’s a guy who will make it all better.”
However, the church, like all organisations and institutions, has an internal spirit that drives it and shapes its life. That internal spirit doesn’t seek to be changed and so it will not. Changing the head does not change the organisation deeply and comprehensively. Justin Welby, like all before him, will fail at satisfying all our hopes. Faced with a career on the throne of Augustine that will be strewn with disappointment and missed opportunities the most important and autonomous thing he can do right now is choose what he will strive to not fail at.
There have been millions of words analysing Rowan Williams. The consensus seems to be that he was a great guy but not really up to the task. Apparently, he could not sort us out because he was either too liberal or not liberal enough.
However, I think that he was quite successful at what seemed to matter most to him: being a priest at the head of a church full of priests. When he spoke and wrote he seemed to have this belief that it would wonderful for people to meet Jesus and hopefully the church would not hinder that meeting and even possibly make it more possible. That’s pretty much what priests hope for.
I always feel more secure when my bishops operate out of their priesthoods rather than with their “head of” title. They are more fun, thought provoking and more inspirational when they act and speak from their most fundamental role. I’ve had the feeling the Rowan has always tried to speak from his priesthood and his main “disappointments” have come when he has been asked or demanded to act less as a priest and more as a chief executive. I look forward to the freedom he will now have, freed from the big mitre, in his writing and speaking.
Justin Welby will need to think deeply about what he cannot fail in. It will be the most important discernment he does. He must know right now he will fail to keep us happy. Fail to unite us. He will fail to make the church “great” again and will fail to halt the decline of popularity and numbers. But if he fails in what he knows can be done, that will be bad for us all.
It is hard to do this foolish task we have agreed to: speak the truth when it isn’t the consensus, telling people truths about themselves and the world they don’t want to hear and hardest of all we need to discover these truths for ourselves and act on them. Worst of all, we do it in public for all to see.
Please pray Justin and all clergy that we might do the tasks he names a the most important,
Our task as part of God’s church is to worship Him in Christ and to overflow with the good news of His love for us, of the transformation that He alone can bring which enables human flourishing and joy. The tasks before us are worship and generous sharing of the good news of Christ in word and deed.