The BBC and the Church of England are two rather similar institutions, both designed for the comfort and consolation of modest, well-meaning Englishmen who don’t like to be shaken about or threatened by anything disagreeable or jarring. The BBC is in trouble because it allowed a major current affairs programme, Newsnight, wrongly to accuse a ‘leading Conservative politician’ of monstrous sex crimes against children without even the most basic of traditional journalistic checks. In the midst of this crisis came the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, in the person of Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham. Welby seems like a very decent fellow, but could he nevertheless constitute a threat to the essential character of the Church of England?
Such a threat, if it exists, wouldn’t be from any improper impulse on his part but, quite the contrary, from a keen enthusiasm for the Church’s mission. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Welby’s faith; the worry is the enthusiasm. For he has come out of the evangelical movement associated with the church of Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge, which since the 1980s has developed its own highly successful style of popular, rock music-backed worship and an eagerness to make converts comparable to that of any American television preacher.
Alastair Campbell once famously interrupted an attempt by Tony Blair, as prime minister, to answer a question about his religious faith with the remark: ‘We don’t do God.’ Bishop Welby unquestionably does do God, but that, paradoxically, is what could put him at odds with many of the Church of England’s traditional supporters. The Church has been in vertiginous decline. Only about one million people now go to church at all regularly, pathetically few compared with the numbers who go regularly to the cinema or to football matches.