In the leafy seclusion of the Lambeth Palace grounds, Archbishop Justin Welby goes for his daily jog. He used to run along the Thames and over the bridges until Canon David Porter, his Chief of Staff, put a stop to it. David Porter grew up in Belfast in the 1960s and he knows how easy a target a lone high-profile jogger can be.
As well as being Welby’s physical protector, Canon Porter has taken on the role of his bureaucratic gatekeeper. ‘No one comes to Justin except through David’ — that’s the impression I get from everyone I’ve spoken to who has tried to contact the Archbishop recently. ‘Nothing happens without David’s knowledge and permission.’ If you’ve ever wondered why and when Lambeth Palace chooses to weigh in on political matters, remember the influence of Porter, a member of the Labour party. Think of the Archbishop’s most recent protest, against the proposed cuts in the foreign aid budget. It’s Brownie-points Lambeth in action: putting the obvious moral case without having to address the complications and balances that the cabinet has to consider and resolve.
Hardly a month goes by without a political intervention of this kind, be it a planned citizens’ assembly in Coventry to avert a no-deal departure from the EU, or an intervention in support of Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign. You can be sure of Porter’s involvement when any of these initiatives contain his watchword: reconciliation.
So who is this bald man with a smile, a paunch and a sense of humour (Twitter name @baldynotion) who shapes Lambeth’s agenda? Aged 63, he has a BA in theology from the London School of Theology and an MA in peace studies from the University of Ulster, but he is not ordained. He’s not even an Anglican. He is an Anabaptist. He and his theologian wife, Dr Fran Porter, worship at a Baptist church near their home in the Midlands. Porter commutes, spending weekday nights in a bachelor pad in Lambeth Palace.
He was drawn to the Anabaptists when he heard John Paul Lederach, a professor of peacebuilding studies at a Mennonite college in Indiana, talking about enabling reconciliation through conversation and deep listening. That inspired his own career as a reconciliation-facilitator and by all accounts he did good work in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, getting Protestant evangelicals to take Catholics seriously during the peace process. He has said that the kind of reconciliation he aims for is ‘not the smooth, dove-of-peace, hands together, spell-of-peace approach; more the hard-edged, jagged, confrontational, in-your-face, honest-to-God struggle with all that drives us apart as human beings’.
How’s that going at Lambeth? It started well, with Welby and Porter jetting off together to Anglican provinces all over Africa, where music and dancing greeted them wherever they went as they did their best to prevent the most extreme anti-gay African Primates from breaking away from the Anglican Communion in disgust at the behaviour of the gay bishops in the US.
So far, so good: the Anglican Communion is still holding together, just. No Archbishop can countenance it breaking apart on their watch. And the next Lambeth Conference, where 880 disagreeing bishops will convene at the University of Kent, is safely postponed to next year, thanks to the pandemic. Meanwhile, below the surface, a running sore is festering. When it comes to this, Porter’s reconciliatory work is not going so well.
In 2019 Justin Welby said that ‘as soon as it can be arranged in the diary’ he would personally meet the victims of John Smyth, the abusive C of E barrister who chaired the Iwerne summer Christian camps in the 1970s and took boys home to cane them in his shed till they bled. This meeting has still not taken place. Welby knew Smyth at Iwerne and they exchanged occasional Christmas cards. What Smyth victim Graham (whom I spoke to; not his real name) desperately wants to know is: what really happened after he’d reported the abuse to the Diocese of Ely in 2012? Did Welby, as he claims, tell the bishop to tell the police, and follow this up to make sure he had? The victims want answers, but nothing happened after the abuse was reported and this question hangs unanswered over the Archbishop: what did he do or not do in 2013 that allowed Smyth to continue abusing for another four years?
What better reconciliatory challenge for Porter to get his teeth into — to enable the seething, bewildered Smyth victims to sit down with the Archbishop, who seems reluctant and terrified to face the situation. Yet it seems to Graham that Porter has been stringing them along for four years. Porter emails them suggesting quiet reconciliatory side-chats with him: not the point at all. At one point he said that a victims’ meeting with Welby could go ahead, but only with a list of pre-agreed questions, and not at all if they accused Welby of lying; and that there must be a ‘dry run’ of the meeting first, attended by several senior figures including bishops who were at Iwerne, plus a QC, who would then be at the real meeting with the Archbishop to witness it and make sure they didn’t deviate.
This is not quite the ‘hard-edged, jagged, confrontational, in-your-face, honest-to-God’ style of thrashing out that we would expect from the master-reconciliator. But then, it’s not a political matter; there are no Tories to attack here and no opportunity for moral grandstanding. So perhaps that’s why this matter is fairly low down in his inbox.