Theo Hobson

Justin Welby needs to get off the fence

Justin Welby needs to get off the fence
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My opinion of Justin Welby has been rising over the last few years. At first he seemed a text-book public school Evangelical, a sad contrast to the Welsh wizard Williams. But he proved himself good at the job, which is largely about seeming a good egg while evading awkward doctrinal questions.

Having read his book Reimagining Britain, my opinion of him has not exactly fallen, but it has ceased to rise. The book doubtless has its virtues. Its discussions of practical matters such as housing and finance are acute and helpful. But Welby’s treatment of the question of Christianity’s relationship to secular culture is a predictable mix of evasion and muddle. He sounds like a man who is not allowed to say what he wants to say. What he seemingly wants to say is this: things are bad because society has moved away from its shared Christian values. But you can’t say this without sounding like a reactionary. So he says that there are lots of great values around – fantastic values, in some ways better ones than ever, like diversity and equality. But they need setting in order, and the only way to do that is to return…no, no, can’t say that.

He cheerfully admits that we can’t recreate a Christian-based social order – which was always a flawed thing anyway. But he cannot quite affirm our post-Christian social order, which privatises faith, and ‘leaves a vacuum’:

‘That is not to say at this stage that the answer is to reverse the privatisation of Christian faith (which is anyway not something within human gift) but rather that there is a need for a generous and hospitable meta-narrative within which competing truths can be held. It will be the suggestion of this book that Christian faith…provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’

Is there an alternative to such awkward fence-sitting? As the leader of a Christian church he must say that Christianity is what the nation needs in order to reimagine the common good, but as this is the established Church of a liberal state he must also sound respectful of secular diversity. The problem is that his respect for secular diversity never quite sounds sincere. As I say, it sounds like he is reining in his dislike of it, forcing a cheerful smile.

I think that the Church of England can make a clearer affirmation of the secular culture around it without fearing it is selling out. It can say: we affirm the post-Christian ethos of our culture – it is simply the right public ideology. Isn’t this a sell-out, for the Church to say that secular humanism is the right public ideology? No, for it also says that this ideology is just the bare minimum, too thin to provide people with meaning. And it also says something else: because secular humanism has Christian roots, we can affirm it without fear. It is not a false god but our own bold child.