Dear Justin Welby…

5th February 2013 Articles Featured

This open letter originally appeared in The Times on 5 February 2013

Dear Justin,

You won’t be short of advice now that you have been confirmed as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. My only qualifications for adding to it are that I hold no religious office and have no axe to grind beyond that of a layman who is anxious to see a stronger and more socially relevant Church of England.

I also write because I admire you and believe you have what it takes to be a great leader of what has become a virtually leaderless institution. Douglas Hurd observed that often the politicians who do best are those who sound least like a politician. Your business background and your clear and direct manner give you a rapport with the wider world and an ability to comment cogently on today’s fractured economic system and how it should be reformed to serve the people.

It is good that you have remained a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It makes far more impact to promote solutions than to strike poses, which is what church leaders generally do on economic and social policy. How about the Welby Commission on apprenticeships and youth unemployment? Your greatest modern predecessor, William Temple, Archbishop towards the end of the Second World War, had been the founding President of the Workers’ Educational Association. Alongside William Beveridge he helped to build consensus for a postwar welfare state. You have the chance, if you seize it, to become a national leader rather than simply a church spokesman like your recent predecessors.

I hope you will promote education reform. The C of E figures largely in the state school and academy systems, but it is a little-known fact that many of the country’s most exclusive private schools — such as Westminster School and King’s School, Canterbury — are in effect wholly owned subsidiaries of the C of E. If the Church were to break down the Berlin Wall between its own private and state schools, others might follow.

Leading the Church itself is altogether tougher. I don’t begin to understand the labyrinthine processes of the C of E — does anyone? — although after 18 years in the Labour Party I have an inkling. And it is from that experience that I offer this advice. You are likely to fail if you try to lead from the inside, by seeking to build majorities in shadowy, inward-looking bodies like the “House of Laity”, of which most of us had not even heard until it vetoed women bishops. Rather, you need to lead from the outside, appealing to the body of churchgoers, and the wider public that regard themselves as Christian, to support you and fellow reformers in bringing the Church into full communion with the society it is dedicated to serve.

Introducing women bishops is your first challenge. The public looks on with incredulity as this keeps being blocked, particularly as the majority of new clergy doing the day-to-day work of parish ministry are now women. A “back me or sack me” position is surely the way to resolve this. Whether it is a special Synod, or a referendum within the Church, you need to break the logjam immediately.

Progressive leadership is also the only way to resolve the issues of gay clergy and gay marriage. Do not heed those who say that these matters are best left alone. The Church cannot preach love and strong relationships if it ignores the reality — a thoroughly moral reality — that same-sex love and relationships are a building block of modern society.

Leadership is urgent because of the Marriage Bill recently published by the Government to permit same-sex marriage. The current draft of the Bill not only allows the Church to decline to license same-sex marriages; it prohibits Church of England premises from being used for such marriages.

A long and probably bitter argument about this will now start within the Church. On past form the Church will ultimately join the social mainstream, as it did on divorce and women priests a generation ago, but only after a decade or three of ripping itself apart during which you and fellow bishops devise ever more abstruse formulae to paper over the fissures.

Yesterday you confirmed that you supported the Church’s position against same-sex marriage. However, if the issue is rightly regarded as one of conscience then why should individual clergy and parishes who wish to conduct same-sex marriages not be able to do so? This is what happens in the case of divorcees seeking to remarry in church. Surely this is way forward: to respect the consciences of individual clergy, and by doing so avoid a long debilitating battle for a uniformity that simply cannot be maintained given the passionate diversity of views among church leaders, local and national.

Perhaps it is too difficult to get to this position in one leap. But at least you should ask Parliament to remove the proposed ban on churches being used for same-sex marriage, to make change hereafter easier. Why not, in a dramatic act of leadership, move an amendment to this effect when the Marriage Bill reaches the Lords?

None of this will be easy. But the true followers of Jesus Christ never had it easy. As William Temple put it: “The Christian cannot ignore a challenge in the name of justice. He must either refuse it or, accepting it, devote himself to removal of the stigma.”

Yours,

Andrew

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