Damian Thompson

The new God squad: what Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis have in common

Evangelicals have taken charge in the Vatican and Lambeth Palace

The new God squad: what Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis have in common
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It’s a few weeks after the election of Pope Francis, and a notoriously leaky church source is talking about the revolution to come. The new leader of the faithful is a sharp operator who finds himself surrounded by ‘a medieval court system of hopeless characters, each jealously guarding their own silos of activity. There’s lots of crap people in key positions.’ Meanwhile, away from the court, bureaucrats churn out windy memos. They may not know it yet, but the process of ‘clearing out the weeds’ will start soon — possibly as early as this August.

That might seem over-ambitious, but we’re not talking about the sleepy Vatican. The source is an Anglican cleric and the ‘medieval court’ is Lambeth Palace; the shinypants bureaucrats are mostly in Church House, Westminster, headquarters of the General Synod. And the new man who can’t abide flummery is, of course, the Most Revd Justin Welby, oil executive turned Archbishop of Canterbury.

The similarities between Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis are almost spooky — once you get past the fact that one is an Old Etonian evangelical Protestant and the other a South American Jesuit who prays in front of garlanded statues of Mary. Archbishop Welby was enthroned two days after Francis was inaugurated. That’s simple coincidence, but the other parallels tell us a lot.

Both men were plucked from senior but not prominent positions in their churches with a mandate to simplify structures of government that had suffocated their intellectual predecessors, who also resembled each other in slightly unfortunate ways. Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI seemed overwhelmed by the weight of office; both took the puzzling decision to retreat into their studies at a time of crisis in order to write books — Dr Williams on metaphor and icon-ography in Dostoevsky, Benedict on the life of Jesus. When they retired, early and of their own volition, their in-trays were stacked higher than they had been when they took office. Their fans were disappointed and the men charged with replacing them thought: we’re not going to let that happen again.

Enter the God Squad. In Britain, this is a term used to describe Christian Union types who talk without embarrassment about Jesus (albeit often in an embarrassing fashion). Justin Welby found his vocation at Holy Trinity, Brompton, whose public-school-educated worshippers had an unnerving habit of mentioning the Lord just as the guests were digging into the stilton. But these days ‘HTB’ has refined its evangelising and forms part of a global network of Christians who preach the Gospel without worrying too much about denominational boundaries or liturgical niceties.

This supercharged evangelicalism thrives in Argentina, where its opposition to secularism and its embrace of Pentecostal ‘gifts of the Spirit’ captured the imagination of the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio. The future Pope Francis was never a typical Latin American Jesuit. He distrusted Catholic liberation theologians, preferring the company of evangelicals who entered the slums to preach about God and Satan rather than models of economic justice.

Francis feels very much at home in the company of the local God squad. In Buenos Aires, he would read the Bible with one of the diocese’s Protestant employees without trying to convert him to Rome. He also scandalised Catholic traditionalists by kneeling at a charismatic worship meeting while assorted Protestant pastors blessed him and laid hands on him.

Perhaps you have to be a Latin American to understand the seeming contradictions in the new Pope’s spirituality. His intense devotion to the Virgin Mary is deep-rooted: he has dedicated his pontificate to Our Lady of Fatima, to the dismay of liberal Catholics who regard the 1917 apparitions, with their warnings of divine retribution, as melodramatic and superstitious. But Francis also favours a literal interpretation of the New Testament — which means that, like Protestant Pentecostalists, he believes that Christians are stalked by the Devil. Almost every day since becoming pope, Francis has warned Catholics that Satan lurks in activities as apparently trivial as gossip — a ‘dark joy’, as he called it. More starkly, he told the cardinals who elected him that ‘whoever does not pray to God, prays to the Devil’.

Such language, coupled with the Pope’s simple lifestyle, has delighted evangelical Christians. Timothy George, the Southern Baptist dean of Beeson Divinity School in Alabama, describes him as ‘our Francis, too’ — a man up to the challenge of ‘energising Catholic leaders for the New Evangelisation — to study the Scriptures, renew the disciplines of the faith, and boldly proclaim the love of Christ’.

The term ‘New Evangelisation’ is a Catholic one: it was adopted by Pope John Paul II in an attempt to persuade his flock to pluck up the nerve to preach the Gospel to non-Christians and lapsed Catholics, and it was so central to Benedict XVI’s ministry that he set up a Vatican department to promulgate it. But it took much of its inspiration from Protestantism — and especially the evangelical Americans who have made common cause with Catholics in their fight against abortion and gay marriage.

The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals is the most important and surprising development in global Christianity for decades. It goes beyond questions of sexual ethics. If you read the evangelical magazine Christianity Today or the Catholic Herald newspaper, you will find an exchange of ideas and expertise: Protestants dip into the Catholic tradition of contemplative spirituality while Catholics try to learn the evangelical knack of ‘planting’ prayer groups and congregations in hostile terrain.

Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis both bear the marks of this exchange. When Welby first attended HTB, some Anglican bishops regarded it as a sort of entryist sect, taking over moribund churches in the same way as Militant Tendency was colonising Labour party branches. No one makes that charge today. Under its remarkable vicar, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, HTB has toned down its fire-and-brimstone theology while forging new links with Roman Catholics in the great cause of spreading orthodox Christianity. Justin Welby is an admirer of Catholic social teaching and the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuit founder St Ignatius Loyola. When he visited Pope Francis last month, he knelt and prayed before the tomb of Blessed John Paul II — until recently, an unthinkable gesture for an evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury or a graduate of HTB.

The Pope, meanwhile, often gives the impression that he’s addressing evangelicals as well as Catholics. At the Pentecost Vigil Mass, for example, he told the crowd in St Peter’s Square: ‘All of you in the square shouted out “Francis, Francis, Pope Francis”, but where was Jesus? I want to hear you shout out “Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst.”’ Calling out the name of Jesus is the stuff of revivalist meetings, not papal Masses.

To some conservative Catholics, these gestures seem contrived, evidence of Jesuitical cunning. ‘Frankie is less Assisi and more Howerd,’ one of them told me. ‘All those nay-nays and titter-ye-nots are scripted, not spontaneous.’ But most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, are delighted by the Pope’s conscience-pricking soundbites, accompanied by French-waiter shrugs. More significantly, perhaps, the world’s media — which conspicuously ignored Benedict XVI’s reforms to liturgy and priestly discipline — have already cast Francis in the role of Catholic pest controller, just the man to exterminate clerical paedophiles and money--launderers.

Francis does indeed need to play this role, and there are signs that he’s more than happy to do so. Since his election, the Pope has been dropping hints that the Vatican’s scandal-ridden bank was top of his hit list. This week its director and deputy director fell on their swords; another senior monsignor, a former banker, was arrested.

The Guardian, invariably spiteful in its treatment of Benedict, reported this story in glowing terms. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to it is that, if Francis does swing into action, he’ll do so in a wider context of spiritual warfare. For him, Vatican corruption is evidence of Satan’s assault on the people of God — and so is the worldwide campaign for gay marriage. When the Pope met the Archbishop of Canterbury, the first thing he did was to congratulate him on his stance against same-sex weddings.

The new leaders of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion face similar challenges. As structures collapse, albeit for different reasons, old-style church attendance is falling off a cliff. It’s fortunate, then, that Francis and Justin are what are politely termed ‘practical theologians’ — that is, not really theologians at all, but men whose faith involves rolling up their sleeves.

Archbishop Welby has already disappointed some churchgoers by the wetness of his clichés: they expected better of a former City high-flier than the familiar sanctification of government spending. But my Anglican source insists that this is misleading. ‘Through HTB, he has access to an amazing network of city boys and posh movers and shakers who’ll always help him out,’ he says. ‘If he needs to raise £100K for some special initiative from outside of the Church’s coffers, he’d have no trouble getting the right people to cough up. That’s something Rowan couldn’t do.’

The Pope’s challenge is even more daunting. The rottenness of the Roman Curia was never more evident than during the pontificate of Benedict XVI: heads of major departments ignored any papal instruction that didn’t take their fancy, secure in the knowledge that the former ‘Rottweiler’ was by then a gentle and weary soul. His successor is neither. And, like Justin Welby, he will not shrink from using worldly techniques to advance a distinctly aggressive spiritual agenda. If either man fails, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Damian Thompson is editor of Telegraph Blogs and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. His book The Fix: How addiction is taking over your world is out in paperback.