Interview with Archbishop Justin Welby

Abridged from the transcript of an interview between Revd Canon J.John for the Philo Trust and The Most Revd and Rt Hon the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

You’re incredibly busy?

I honestly don’t think I’m busier than most parish priests. If you look at what the vicar does, I suspect that he works more or less the same number of hours that I do. Most clergy work incredibly hard. I’m no busier than anyone else; you just have to manage your time.

What does it mean to be an Anglican?

It first of all means to be a Christian – to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The most important decision any person can ever make is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s the best thing anyone can do. Secondly, they follow in a particular tradition, which varies around the world.

What about the Church of England? If you go to Starbucks in London and then to a Starbucks in Liverpool they are similar, you know what you are going to get. But in the Church of England, you can go to services in London and Liverpool and they are completely different.

That’s because people and cultures are completely different. And the Church is a family, it’s not an organisation. It’s the people of God called by God – to serve him and follow Jesus Christ. And as in any family, bits of it work better than others. So you go to one church and it might not be working brilliantly well at a given moment, to another and it’s really fizzing along and is absolutely amazing. But the wonderful thing is that churches can change very dramatically and when the Spirit of God moves among us – and when people turn afresh to Jesus Christ – even the equivalent of a Starbucks that is all over the shop suddenly becomes the living presence of God in its community. So yes, it is different all over the place, it’s better and worse, it’s up and down – the only thing that is common to every church is that it is full of Christian disciples and it’s full of sinners.

Who monitors quality control in the Church of England?

Well, it depends who you are talking about. If it’s in a parish it will be the area dean, the archdeacon and the bishop. If it’s a bishop it will be other bishops they meet with; we have regular reviews. There is feedback from people and there is a system.

So do you think that system is working?

I don’t know any institution or organisation where it works 100% of the time. But yes, I think it is on the whole. I think people are more held to account than they used to be.

When you first went forward for ordination is it true you were not recommended?

I had this meeting with a bishop and after about three minutes he said, ‘You know, I’ve interviewed more than a thousand candidates for ordination and you don’t come in the top 1000.’ He said, ‘I can tell you, you have no future in the Church of England.’

Were you discouraged on that day?

Well, actually I was rather pleased because I was hoping I would be turned down, but my vicar at the time, a man called Sandy Millar, went round to see him and persuaded him to change his mind.

You were then recommended, but do you think you have changed or has the Church of England changed?

Probably both. The Church is always changing; it has moments when it changes for the worst and moments when it changes for the better. It’s a living thing: it grows, it declines, things get better, and things get worse. The Church has changed, I’ve changed; I’ve no doubt I’ve become more institutionalised, more accustomed to it.

You did have some kind of a church upbringing, but you have said that you had an encounter with Christ when you were at university?

It was 12 October 1975, at the beginning of my second year of university.

What happened?

Well, between school and university I was in Kenya and I met some Christians who just profoundly affected my life and then I tried to run away from that in my first year of university. But at the beginning of my second year, a friend of mine who was a Christian said, ‘Come and listen to this bloke who is speaking.’ So I went along and he was talking about the gospel and it was a really bad address. And so at the end of it, the person who took me along said, ‘Come on, let’s have some supper.’ So we went to have something to eat, went back to his rooms and he simply explained the gospel to me: that Jesus had died for my sins and that I needed to give my life to him. He explained it very clearly and I saw the point – and so I did.

Did something happen to you?

Totally.

Did you find that your mind was illuminated, or your heart?

Someone came into my life; there was a presence in my life who had not been there before and I knew the presence of God. It wasn’t an emotional reaction. I just knew that Jesus was there and I had met him.

How did that change you?

Well, it changed the whole direction of things really, because it was such a clear thing that I knew. A couple of weeks later I was sitting in my room and I was reading John’s Gospel and I got to Chapter 3 verse 16 and I realised that was me – that I was personally, individually loved by God and so was everyone else. If you are profoundly loved by someone who knows exactly who you are, bad and good, it’s got to be very bizarre if you are not changed by that.

And have you always been aware of that love through the years since?

I’ve always known it. I’ve not always felt it but I think that is very important. We can’t rely on our feelings – it’s lovely when they are there but I’ve known, sometimes more in my head than my heart and other times all together, that I’m loved by God. And there have been moments of great dryness and struggle but actually I’ve always known God was about, that he loved me and that he was there.

You then started going to church and you are part of the Church now. The Church appears to many to be full of rules, regulations and traditions that aren’t always explained to us. One thing that Jesus said to us was that we nullify the word of God by our traditions. Do you think that sometimes traditions can suffocate the presence of God?

There are only two things that matter in the life of the Church, essentially. One is that we worship Jesus Christ as Lord and God and the other is that we share the knowledge of his love with the world. Traditions that enable that to happen better are wonderful but when they are a ball and chain around worship and the sharing of the love of Christ they have to be changed and we have to adapt. Living traditions are never quite the same one year to the next but in tradition we hear the voice of the Wisdom of the Ages.

What if we find that the tradition is becoming a stumbling block to us experiencing God?

The tradition should be growing and changing so, if it’s not, you remove the stumbling block. Secondly, you think very hard about what that means for other people because Christian worship is not ‘me and God’ it’s ‘us and God’.

Did you say, ‘The Church of England must be realistic about dwindling congregations, but a good vicar can still increase the size of their flock’?

What I meant was that growing churches on the whole have very good clergy and very good leadership. That doesn’t mean necessarily that shrinking churches have bad clergy. You sometimes get very difficult situations. I remember one church that had an absolutely brilliant vicar. Whatever he did, the church just went on sliding. He really struggled with it. After about seven years, he moved on somewhere else and the next person came in and the whole thing took off. Now actually what the first man had done was to dig the ground. He’d worked very hard; it was just really hard ground to dig.

We need clergy and lay people of all sorts, who are profoundly convinced about the importance of bringing people to be disciples of Jesus Christ and who have confidence in the gospel – that the gospel is good news for all people, always and everywhere. For that to happen, you need good clergy: clergy who inspire. It may be in preaching, it may be in their lives, it may be in a combination of things so that people look at them and think, ‘If that is what Jesus does, that is what I want.’

But if the churches were a bit like soccer teams, most of the managers would have been sacked by now wouldn’t they?

Yes, but the Church is a family, it’s not a business, it’s not an organisation; we can use these analogies, but we need to recognise their limitations. The Church is a collection of sinners; it’s a refuge for sinners, not a home for saints. What happens if you put lots of sinners together? You get lots of sin. If you get lots of sin, you need to work it out. Let’s be real about what the Church is! It’s full of sinners, saved by grace and that is the miracle of the Church: that God looks at us and still loves us and draws us together. It’s incredible!

Are you like the Protestant Pope?

No!

So are you not able to tell the Commissioners or the bishops what to do?

No, I can’t tell them what to do.

Can you tell anyone what to do?

Well, I can tell them, but they don’t usually pay any attention. My dog sometimes does what she is told.

Does the pope have more authority than you do?

About a million times more.

And the reason that the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t have that kind of authority is because … ?

It’s because we have a reformed tradition which says that decisions about the Church are made by the whole people of God, by the laity, that we have to be rather cautious about people laying down the law from on high. And I quite like that. It’s slower, it’s less tidy, it’s sometimes really frustrating, but the reality is, I think it’s the right way to do things. Read the New Testament: Paul really struggled with some of the decision-making processes, but he accepted that was the right thing to do.

The Council of Jerusalem – exactly the same thing – they had to struggle through to find the right answer.

I think we need to hear more of the good stories. I’m not sure people are aware of the good the Church of England has done and is doing – the parishes that are doing great work. I think it’s because people like to report bad news, they don’t like to report good news.

Absolutely. In 2008 there was the financial crisis. Around that time there may have been 150 food banks in the country. Now there are well over 2000. More than 99% are run by churches, usually in groups in an area. We are educating more than a million children. We take the vast majority of funerals and take care of and love the bereaved – regardless of whether they came to church or not. We love them because God loves them. We seek to bring them to faith, but we don’t do it in a manipulative way, we do it because we love them. We have chaplains in the hospitals and in the prisons. We are working in some of the toughest environments on the face of this earth. The Church is doing more socially today than at any time since the welfare state was invented, and we are doing it better.

When you took over as Archbishop, you had three priorities and the first was the renewal of prayer and the religious life. Can you just explain that?

We need a renewal of prayer in our churches and people, living in communities or separately, but meeting to pray together, usually under some common discipline. The fact is that since the early sixth century and St Benedict there has been no renewal of spiritual life in the Church without a renewal of religious communities. There’s Benedict, there’s Francis and what did Wesley do? He formed groups. Now they didn’t live under one roof, but they met together under a common rule.

Prayer is the point that stops us being an NGO with a pointy roof. Prayer is the point where we do something that to the non-Christian makes no sense whatsoever and to the Christian we know changes the entire world, completely. If you want the nation to be converted, you pray. If you want people to be healed, you pray. If you want churches to be renewed in the Spirit, you pray. I met someone at a Christian conference shortly after I was converted who said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He knew my grandmother and I said, ‘I’ve become a Christian.’ He said, ‘I’ve got to go and ring my wife. We have been praying for you once a week since we knew your mother was expecting you.’ If someone said to me, ‘Who led you to Christ?’ I suspect he’s pretty near the top of the list.

Your second priority is reconciliation, what do you mean by that?

There are lots of ways of defining reconciliation but if I’m going to give you a very short definition it is ‘good disagreement’. The Church is full of people who differ. We are not all the same, we are all different. One could say the gospel is reconciliation; it’s reconciliation between human beings and God. But God gives us far too much reconciliation for it to be contained within the Church. If the Church is doing its stuff it’s reconciled reconcilers: it sets an example of love in diversity and in the community, it’s the go-to place for people to find out how to love each other and live in community and when they do that as they watch the Church they begin to find Jesus Christ. It’s the greatest blessing we have for the world. God copyrighted reconciliation on the cross and in the resurrection and he has given us the licence to operate it and we’d better do it.

And your third priority?

Evangelism and witness.

My area of expertise – tell us more about that.

Indeed. It’s the overflow of the love of God. What is the last thing that Jesus tells us? Go and make disciples – we are there to worship God and make disciples; everything else is decoration. Making disciples means so overflowing with the love of God in action and word that people see the compassion and love of Christ and are brought to know and love him. They need to have it explained to them and they also need to see it.

You have written and spoken about risk-taking, so what kind of risks should we be taking?

Well, first of all we need to risk our lives. Secondly, I think it was Stanley Hauerwas (a theologian in the US) who said, ‘The Church should act so that what it does is meaningless if God does not exist.’ That is risk-taking! We bet our lives literally and metaphorically on the existence of God and we get up the next day and we do it again. Risk-taking means going to the worst places on the face of the earth with the love of Christ. We take the risk of the church starting projects, which, if God doesn’t show up, aren’t going to work.

Caroline and I were in the South Sudan recently. The Archbishop down in South Sudan is an amazing man. There’s a civil war going on and he rang up two days before we were due to get to Juba in the South Sudan and he said, ‘Will you come with us to Bor?’ Bor is a town of about 1/4 million people, 100 miles north of Juba, which had been taken and re-taken four times; it’s on the Foreign Office list of places you absolutely mustn’t go to under any circumstances ever! And he said we’d go with Missionary Aviation Fellowship, so we went in a single-engine plane. Now that was theoretically a risk, but why was it the right thing to do? Because he’s a Christian, I’m a Christian; you stand alongside people in suffering and by the grace of God it was a profoundly shattering experience. I had to consecrate a mass grave – it’s a pretty extraordinary place to be. And the two of us met the people who were suffering and by the grace of God we were able to encourage them, but you find the grace when you take the risk. I remember John Wimber saying, ‘One of my favourite prayers is, “Oh God! Help!” ’ And we’ve all been there, we know that feeling. We need to be a risk-taking Church. The signs of being a risk-taking Church are that you have plenty of failures. If there aren’t failures, you aren’t taking risks. Go and take risks and fail – it’s better than not taking risks at all.

Archbishop, there appears to be a global persecution of Christians. What should our response be to that?

Well, support! Presence. Contact. Support in prayer. On that same trip we were then down in the Congo in an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp of 25,000 people. This group of people had had no food delivered for quite a long time and were extremely hungry. The place was shatteringly awful. The people gathered round and the bishop who was with me said, ‘Say something that will encourage them.’ No pressure! When I don’t know what to say, I talk until I work out what I need to say, so I started off by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,’ and they all cheered and clapped. And I suddenly remembered that the gospel is good news for the poor and I went on to talk about Jesus and that seemed to be all that was needed. The gospel is good news for the poor and the persecuted. It’s about presence, when we can go there or support other people who can go there and stand alongside the suffering. The biggest characteristic of persecuted areas is the sense that everyone has forgotten that they exist. That’s what people feel, because quite clearly people are out to get them and they wonder if anyone knows they exist and if anyone cares. The fact that they get contact from people is amazing. We want to do something; we want to change the situation. Well that may not happen straight away, but you change it by letting them know you haven’t forgotten about them and you are praying for them.

How was it when you went to meet Pope Francis? Did you enjoy that?

Oh Yes! Who wouldn’t?

He comes across as a really nice man.

Yes, that doesn’t do him justice, I think. He’s an extraordinary man and he’s witty as well.

Did you laugh together?

It was the first thing we did when we met. We were sitting across the desk and there was an interpreter there and we looked at each other and we laughed for a minute. I think what we both felt was that it was so extraordinary we were both there, because neither of us expected to be there. Then he leant across and said, ‘I’m senior to you.’ And I thought, ‘How disappointing. I thought you were not going to be that kind of person.’ So I said, ‘Well, of course you are, Your Holiness,’ completely missing the point as usual! He said, ‘By two days!’ And the interpreter laughed. But he was great; we then talked about really profound things – enormously significant things.

God is re-positioning people for a time such as this.

He is. It seems to me there is more opportunity for the Church now than I can remember in my lifetime. There is more space for us to tell our story, to serve our communities, to change the world, to proclaim in word and deed who Jesus is. At the end of time, God is not remotely interested in whether I was Archbishop of Canterbury, but did I worship Jesus Christ as Lord and God with every part of me? Did I trust in him for my salvation? Did I seek to share his love with others? Did I obey God and walk with him through my life? That’s all he is interested in for any of us.

So Archbishop, what are your hopes for the Church of England, your hopes for Britain?

My hopes are for a Church that learns much more to disagree well and to cope with diversity, that is incredibly flexible, that holds to the traditions where they serve the gospel and is incredibly flexible about living in a rapidly changing culture and learns how to deal with that. A Church that grows in the number of the faithful, committed disciples of Jesus Christ, year in and year out, and has a new confidence in the gospel and, above all, a Church that is consumed by love for Jesus.

So you are quite optimistic and positive about the future?

I’m absolutely not optimistic, but I am profoundly hopeful.

What do you do to relax? Do you take a sabbath?

Oh golly, yes, if I can. Except in emergencies, I have a day off a week. If I lose it, we’ve developed a system where every few weeks we have a long weekend to make up for the days we lose. Family relaxes me. And I read economics, I love reading economics. I read a lot – that relaxes me. We do watch TV: we are West Wing fans, Borgen, politics. We go out for a meal, we sit and chat.

But now, being a public figure, is it difficult for you to go away?

No! The really reassuring thing is that my face is so utterly forgettable that if I’m not wearing a dog collar, almost nobody notices who I am.

I gather that you sometimes use public transport in London?

Yes, normally.

And people don’t recognise you?

If I’m wearing a dog collar they sometimes do. One of the great privileges of the job is there is a bus stop called Lambeth Palace. So if you are wearing a dog collar and a cross round your neck and you get off at the bus stop marked Lambeth Palace, on the whole people know.

Archbishop, how can we pray for you?

You can pray first of all for wisdom to know what to do, because it’s sometimes very difficult. Secondly, for patience, to know when to do it, because timing is often everything. And thirdly, for courage to do it even when it’s going to be really difficult.

Archbishop, I will be praying those things and I know many people who have listened to what you have said will be as well. We think that you are a man for such a time as this and I’m personally privileged and delighted to call you my Archbishop. Thank you very much.

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