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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013