The Spectator

Justin Welby on imposter syndrome, American exceptionalism and what makes churches grow

Justin Welby on imposter syndrome, American exceptionalism and what makes churches grow
Text settings

In the Spectator's Christmas treble issue, Michael Gove speaks to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Below are some outtakes from the interview.

On the supposed decline of religious belief

I don’t believe that that was then or is now an accurate perception. Church attendance in this country has fallen hugely both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population. The number of Christians around the world has risen hugely since the nineteenth century and continues to rise at an extraordinary rate: it is over two billion now. So we’re seeing a change in the pattern of where the church is: the Anglican Communion is essentially global, as much for a sub-Saharan woman and not just someone in a church in England.

On growing churches

You can find a vast range of churches in the Church of England with examples of growth and examples of decline. Sometimes it is simply circumstances: populations move.  Sometimes it’s that people feel the church is not welcoming, there is not an ethos which makes them look outwards to those around them. Where they grow it will usually be because they relate extraordinarily well to their communities and that the circumstances are there, there is a clear spirituality, there is a clear sense of what they are about.

This is one of the most interesting changes from the 50s and 60s and 70s, where social gospel was for one part of the church and evangelism for another. The two are absolutely inextricable now.

On the church’s main mission

Increasingly it is clear to me that the main mission of the church is to enable people to grow and develop spiritually in their relationship with God and their love for God. The most important thing is around prayer, depth of spiritual life and emotion, time spent with God, the reading of the scripture, the basic disciplines.

A prayerless church, if that’s not an oxymoron which it probably is, I suspect lapses into vague generalities along the lines of, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all nice?’  Going back to scripture, the prophets and St Paul, Jesus himself, his engagement of the world around springs out of engagement with the heart of God, being touched by God, being gripped by God’s passionate love for the world; and that pulls people out into action and into a prophetic voice that speaks to situations around the world.  The capacity of people like Canon Andrew White to speak into the situation comes from his profound spiritual life, and that has led to his deep commitment to the people of Iraq and the Holy Land; and therefore he speaks out and because of his experience and the clear spirituality, people pay attention.

On the difficulty for Christians of speaking about their faith publicly

I think there is a deep cultural inhibition about that, I don't think it’s a recent thing. You only have to go back to the nineteenth century to the way Gladstone was often mocked for, in modern terms, ‘doing God’. It was rather too obvious for Victorian tastes.

There’s a loss of confidence – but I think that’s changing.  One of the key things we’re seeing is that more Christians are saying, I am going to be clear about my Christian faith not as a way of bludgeoning people but simply because it is part of me, it is core to my identity.

I am very struck that people like Richard Dannatt, the former Chief of Staff, is a very clear Christian: it’s not thrown around but it clearly guided his value system and the way he operated through some extraordinary turbulent times.  Another friend of mine is General Tim Cross. Again, a very strong Christian whose framework of understanding the world is shaped by Christian faith, which is on the other hand not swung around at people but simply informs the way he lives.  One could quite easily think of a number of people in the judiciary… I meet numerous doctors, senior doctors similarly. That’s why I question the assumption about the 'long withdrawing roar'. There is still within British society a deepset stream of commitment to Christian faith expressed in national service and business service. I can think of a number of business people who again are shaped by their faith. They get things wrong like we all do, but there are also wealth creators and people who do admirable things.

On political dramas

I like House of Cards but I can’t watch more than one episode every few weeks because it is so dark, I just can’t cope with it. As for The West Wing, I don’t particularly admire President Bartlett, I’m not very good at the American exceptionalism which comes through so strongly.  That is going to get me in trouble isn’t it, all over the United States.

On politicians

The more I see of politicians the more I think the vast majority of them whether one agrees with them or not, are actually trying very hard to deal seriously and sensibly with insoluble problems and very often, very aware that there isn’t a clean answer.  Obviously they have to present it in that way, but particularly when I listen to people who are involved in some of the hardest decisions they have to take, particularly around foreign policy, I am invariably struck by the realism that there is no good solution, that they probably don’t have all the information that I would have thought they would have and probably never will have.  To decide not to decide is not an option: they have to decide something.

On changing attitudes to gay people

I was struck quite recently when a family friend who is gay said to me, ‘I long for the day when my sexuality is not my primary identifier. I want to be identified as me, not as the gay whatever.’ I think we’re getting there, and it’s something I think is wonderful.  Attitudes have changed so momentously, so extraordinarily over the last ten years - far more than anyone could have expected - that I think it is almost impossible to predict where it will go.

We are in the middle of what we call the shared conversation, which is a process of encouraging groups of people across the dioceses and next summer in the General Synod, in a safe environment, to sit down together and discuss with each other: from those who would strongly want to see that through to those who would feel this would really be the end of the church.

My hope and prayer is a recognition of our mutual humanity and the influence of a deep concern and love for one another, and a commitment to listening with intensity and hearing well.

On the Church of England

I find it endlessly interesting, endlessly fascinating and endlessly challenging, endlessly amazing.  Every time you think you are getting frustrated by something or aggrieved, you bump into someone who is doing stuff that blows your socks off because it is so beautiful.

On imposter syndrome

I suppose I struggle with a sense that I’m the wrong person for the job. An imposter syndrome, that’s the phrase I’m looking for.