I’ve been reading Andrew Atherstone’s “brief biography”: Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury. It’s better, I suspect, to regard it as a well-researched piece of extended journalism than the kind of biography we might normally expect from an academic church historian.
Read in that light it’s a usefully concise romp through the new archbishop’s life to date, and assembled in a remarkably short space of time. It seems that Welby himself has remained neutral about it, having “allowed” Atherstone to approach friends and colleagues, while not giving any interview himself. The author therefore has to rely much on other people’s interviews, as well as on a wide sampling of Welby’s writings in his parish magazine and later equivalents.
In all sorts of ways Atherstone has done us a service by putting so much together so quickly, and I learnt a lot from it. I’m slightly less sure that he has done Justin Welby a service, except in perhaps two very important respects.
First, Atherstone places a considerable emphasis on Archbishop Welby’s impeccable evangelical pedigree, and continuing commitment to the core basics of that as personal faith in Jesus Christ, adherence to the primacy of the Scriptures, and trust in the sacrifice of the Cross. In that light he also in several places emphasises the new archbishop’s attachment to traditional sexual morality. That pedigree may actually give Welby the chance of a hearing by some of those who are trying hard to exclude others from the church.
The other thing is the emphasis Atherstone gives to at least one aspect of Welby’s ecclesiology: that the church is the place where we have to learn to love those we don’t like and live in peace with those we with whom we disagree violently. That underpins rather a lot of what the archbishop seems to see himself to be about.
That said, I wonder whether Welby may be terribly happy to have so many of his fifteen year old parish magazine articles recycled as though they are a fair reflection of where he stands now. There is not much sense of an intellectual journey in the book, and much more of one in which his CICCU and HTB faith, refined by suffering, is still essentially as it was in the beginning, is now, and (one senses a “please God” here) ever more shall be.
In this book, Welby is shown to appreciate some of the riches of catholic spirituality for himself, and to pick up some key ideas about human flourishing from Roman Catholic social teaching, but there seems to me to be rather more begging to be said about a growth in theological breadth and depth (from other traditions as well as in his own) under the surface of the text. For Atherstone, there is a personal spiritual discipline in Welby choosing to receive Holy Communion every day. I wonder if there isn’t also for Welby something of a rather more catholic ecclesiology in the practice of a daily Eucharist than a sacramental version of a more intense “Jesus and me” experience. I think some of what he says elsewhere about ecclesiology may say there is.
It has to be said that there is little opportunity for more reflective analysis of the archbishop’s story, no doubt driven partly by the timetable for publication. One might wonder (however gifted Justin Welby is, and however much he is providentially called from one role to the next by the Lord), whether being connected by family to the ruling classes of England, and by friendship to the most influential evangelicals of the day might not also have something to do with a meteoric rise.
I think a biographer might also want to tease out the connections between a ministry of reconciliation, a theology of gracious acceptance, and a broken home with an attractive rogue for a father. One day, I hope there might be space and time for a rather more analytic and reflective narrative of how Welby’s life and ministry interrelate.
In part, as hinted above, I suspect some of this may also come down to the author’s own conservative evangelical faith shaping the story in a particular way: it sometimes seems a little hagiographical. Failures, such as the collapse of the International Centre for Reconciliation finances after a short period of stupendous income, or the inability to bring any real change to the relationship between Holy Trinity and Coventry Cathedral, are mentioned but quickly left behind. That may pay tribute to Welby’s resilience, but I’d like to know how he learned from the experiences.
One suspects as well that the biographer does not share his subject’s enthusiasm for the gifts and work of his predecessor in Canterbury. The subtext “Justin is not Rowan” sometimes seems a little too noticeable, and I suspect unhelpful. It was, after all, Rowan’s greatest fans who created some of the greatest fuss when he acted as an archbishop for the whole church. I would hate to see the same process happen again for the new archbishop.
In brief, this is a book well-worth reading, but best regarded as an interim write, in which the author has done a good job of amassing useful information, but perhaps ends up in danger of burdening Welby with too many evangelical and managerial expectations. Every archbishop starts as the answer to the church’s prayers and problems. Few end that way, and this book may simply contribute to the already over-high expectations with which Justin Welby starts his job.