Leading article

The defender of faith

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

If the secret of success is to follow failure, then Justin Welby has had the perfect start as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was appointed at a time when the Church of England’s efforts to reach a conclusion on women bishops have collapsed and when its pews were emptying at the fastest rate in recorded history. It has fallen to a former oil company executive, a softly spoken Old Etonian with an unusual appetite for danger, to move to Lambeth Palace. His mission is not to run the church, but to save it.

By some measures, Britain is the least religious country in the developed world. Some 64 per cent of us do not set foot in any place of worship in a year, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world. Only half of us say that religion is important in our lives, compared with 85 per cent of Americans, 89 per cent of Indians, 97 per cent of Brazilians and 99 per cent of Indonesians. Europe’s godlessness has little to do with the modern world. Beyond our secularising continent, the world is still very much at prayer.

In his first few days in Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop has shown that he not only realises that he has a fight on his hands but that he has no qualms about bringing the Christian challenge to a secularised country. In a sermon in Nottingham’s Trent Vineyard church, he declared that ‘we are at the greatest moment of opportunity for the Church since the second world war’ because ‘the state has run out of the capacity to do the things it had taken over’. It is hard to imagine his predecessor, Dr Rowan Williams, making the same point — he was more interested in levels of state spending.


The lesson of the post-war years is that the welfare state does have the power to undermine the family. It can make people poorer when they marry and thereby rob marriage of its economic function. But the government cannot pick up the pieces left by the dissolution of the family. Study after study shows that the family is the first and best source of health, wealth and education: it provides something that the state has never been able to replicate. The horizontal ties that bind people to each other can never be properly replaced by the vertical ties that connect individuals to the state.

But what role does the Church have? Archbishop Welby is most interesting on this question. The first step is to acknowledge the problems of living in a society in which the state increasingly acts as the only moral authority. This he has done. The next is to emphasise the Church’s duty of pastoral care, caring about its parish and occupying a space in public life that government can never occupy. Given that social conservatism has been abandoned by all political parties, as Charles Moore points out on page 11, there is a vacancy for someone to campaign on behalf of the family — an institution still under attack by an unreformed welfare state.

The gay marriage debate this week has shown how acute the problem is. Lifting the ban on same-sex marriages should have been a technical issue: if Unitarian churches and liberal synagogues want to marry same-sex couples, it is their concern. Religious freedom in Britain should be absolute. But this was the perfect moment for the Prime Minister to enact the tax breaks for marriage which he promised in the coalition agreement. And yet, during his tour in Africa, he said that he felt unable to do so. He feels brave enough to send troops to Mali, but sending help to low-income married couples is a mission that terrifies him.

When asked about gay marriage, the Archbishop says it’s not something that is discussed by most Anglicans. ‘I have to look at the whole communion, not just this country.’ Precisely so: there are twice as many Anglicans in Nigeria than in England. The Archbishop is a globally minded leader for a worldwide communion that happens to be based in a part of the world where Christianity is in decline. He sees Britain’s relative godlessness as an anomaly, ripe for correction, and his mission to evangelise. He wants the Church to bring the message of the Gospel to a generation that has not heard it.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton counts five times in history where Christianity was thought to have died due to its irrelevance to the modern world. But Christianity keeps renewing itself, often in the most -unexpected ways. A few generations ago, it was the Oxford Movement. Now we see the Alpha movement, an introductory course to Christianity with which the Archbishop is closely associated, which has converted hundreds of thousands. There are arguments, hearts and minds waiting to be won — but that will take initiative, courage and energy. These are qualities which the Archbishop has in abundance.

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Show comments
  • Radford_NG

    NOTTINGHAM’ S TRENT VINEYARD CHURCH!!!!!!!!!???????.Hhhhhaaaaarrrrrgggghhhh[if that’s the correct spelling].This is an American group in a tin-shed wharehouse./……What about St.Paul’s in muslem valley /St. Catherine’s [3 mins walk from the site of which 16 yr.old Brendan Lawrence was shot dead & in another direction a 14 yr. old girl shot dead.]Both closed long ago;their real estate sold off to pay Welby’s salery & pension. My current parish of All Saints were a minister is sent in once on a Sunday to do a service.[Why this is wrong was said 200 years ago by Jane Austin in Mansfield Park:a parish needs a constant presence ;not somebody sent-in once a week.]And the parish buildings also sold off./………/What do you mean efforts to reach a conclusion on women bishops have collapsed:WHICH PART OF THE WORD “NO” DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?/……../Welby supports priestesses and women bishops;he declares the C of E will have no truck with `homophobia`.This A-B Cant. has no support in what is called `The Global South`;most of Africa,S.America and Asia./………./The Alpha movement is essentially a neo-liberal,common-purpose group./When I read all this I reach for my revolver…….then recall that unlike Watson & Holmes we are no longer allowed such.

  • Widggget

    I’m afraid that Radford_NG spells out all too clearly what is amiss with parts of the CofE as represented in his parochial attitude.

    The Vineyard church in Nottingham, (whom he accuses of being an American group, when they are all Brits with a strong UK leadership) is a fine growing church where people are finding the reality of God’s love, and that Christianity is relevant to their modern lives.

    Being snide about the ‘tin shed’ they meet in because it’s not some grand cathedral misses the whole point. The early church met in each other’s homes and in publicly hired meeting rooms, so it could be argued that Jesus and St Paul would have felt perfectly at home in the Vineyard warehouse!

    The Alpha course is not some sinister conspiracy, but a Biblically based course that has introduced thousands to the Person of Jesus Christ.

    Why is it that the part of the church in decline has to sneer at the success of the parts that are growing rapidly as people come to a living faith in Jesus Christ, just as in the New Testament?

    Unless Mr Radford changes his mindset, I can guarantee that his All Saints will be shut within 10yrs.

  • David Lindsay

    The Members of the House of Commons should elect, from outside their number, 12 guardians of religious and spiritual values, and 12 guardians of secular and humanist values. In each category, each MP would vote for one candidate, with the 12 highest scorers elected at the end.

    Furthermore, from each of the 12 regions (which, for all their other imperfections, have nothing to do with the EU; the one here in the North East was literally invented by ITV in 1959), let some means be found of appointing a leader of the largest community of the religiously observant, which in at least nine cases is the squarely traditional marriage-upholding Catholic Church, and a leader in secular thought. Yes, nine: Scotland Wales if you look it up, Northern Ireland, the three in the North, the two in the Midlands, and London. In all of these cases, a 10-year term would be appropriate.

    Nothing requiring Royal Assent could be submitted for it, nor could any Supreme Court ruling have effect, unless approved by a simple majority in each of the four categories: religious and spiritual, secular and humanist, elected by the House of Commons, and appointed from the regions. No legislation to apply only in England could be submitted to the monarch unless already approved, both by the majority of the religious and spiritual leaders from the nine parts of England, and by the majority of their secular and humanist counterparts.

    In this age of electronic communication, costs would be minimal. As they would be in having each of the member-states of the EU ought to nominate for life one guardian of the religious and spiritual roots of its culture and polity, and one guardian of the secular and humanist roots. In addition, each of the so-called Europarties, one of which has Daniel Hannan as its Secretary-General, ought to nominate for a non-renewable 10-year term one guardian of the religious and spiritual roots of its ideology and support, and one guardian of the secular and humanist roots.

    Nothing requiring a Qualified Majority could proceed to the Council of Ministers without the prior approval of the simple majority in each of the four categories of guardian: nominated by the member-states, nominated by the Europarties, guarding religious and spiritual values, and guarding secular and humanist values. Nothing requiring unanimity could proceed without the prior approval of all four of the two-thirds majorities.

    Nothing requiring a Treaty change could proceed to the European Council without the approval of all four of the three-quarters majorities. No ruling of the European Court of Justice could have effect, nor could any ruling of the European Court of Human Rights have effect within the EU, unless ratified by all four of the simple majorities.

  • Jim Fraser

    Radford, dear boy, chill. The thought of you not being allowed a Smith & Wesson was one of the few positive thoughts inspired by your piece. You have some serious points to make, but they get lost in the fog of your anger.

    Archbishop Welby (God bless him) did say his Church of England will have no truck with homophobia, but with twice as many Anglicans in Nigeria as England that might be easier to say than to live up to (from what I hear of Nigerian attitudes).

    A minister being sent in to All Saints to do a service once a week IS a problem. Perhaps persuading some Nigerian Anglican ministers to come and run your parish might be a solution?