Justin Welby is having a holiday and people are unhappy about it. He plans, in May, to take a three-month break and the general consensus is that this is not what Jesus would have done in a time of plague. Yes, Christ did frequently retreat to pray, but he only once spent more than a few days away from his flock — and it’s not much of a sabbatical if Satan’s trying to lure you over a cliff edge.
It’s such a strange decision to take time off now that I’ve been Welby-watching this winter. I’ve listened to his Christmas and new year messages, followed in his online footsteps — and the conclusion I’ve come to is that he has no choice but to clock off. Of course it’s a demented time for the nation’s spiritual leader to vanish; of course the corona show won’t be over by May. But the Archbishop seems at the end of his tether. He’s a sliver of himself. He can barely smile, let alone summon the zeal to lead. I expected, watching him, to feel the usual frustration, but instead I felt simply sad. So he should go, recover. But what worries me more than his going is what he plans to do while he’s away. It’s been assumed that he’ll be praying and writing, but his own website says he’ll be studying reconciliation — and this is not such good news.
Reconciliation, mediating — listening — is what I think Welby would say was his vocation. It’s the thread that connects his tricky childhood — mediating on behalf of his flamboyant fraudster dad — with life after ordination. As a newish vicar, Welby was given charge of Coventry Cathedral’s centre for reconciliation and travelled across Africa and the Middle East.
To be a reconciler means to be a professional listener — to be attentive and empathetic and practise ‘active listening’, as they say in mediating circles. But it’s my strong suspicion that it’s too much ‘active listening’ to the wrong people that’s sapped the life from our Archbishop, and that if he’s to regain the joy of his early Christian life, he should spend his summer not listening to anyone at all.
Perhaps it sounds mad to be hostile to listening and reconciling. Isn’t that what any good Christian should seek to do? But just imagine being an active listener in this, the age of aggressive victimhood. It’s one thing reconciling tribal factions on the brink of war, but quite another trying to listen, with focus and feeling, to a generation and a political class who feel oppressed by the existence of the liberal West. The more nebulous the grievance, the more impossible it is to resolve. It must be like listening into a black hole. No wonder poor Welby looks like a hollow man.
I hear that he plans to go to America during his summer off to study more about reconciliation there. What happens to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior cleric in the established church, I wonder, when he tries to listen attentively and empathetically to the sort of American activists who feel oppressed simply because his job and his church exist? It’s like a sort of physics problem, an impossible state. Perhaps he’ll evaporate.
I watched as Welby launched his ‘Christmas Together’ campaign in the Sun news-paper. And I watched as his usual online critics replied: ‘You expect to be taken seriously as a Christian appearing in this lying right-wing Tory-scum rag?’ You can listen until your ears bleed, but you’re never going to win over the religious left. And why would you want to? They have their faith.
Of course it’s nice to be a good listener. But to be a leader you have to do more than listen. You must make decisions and tell people things they might not want to hear.
Yes, it’s true the Archbishop is keen to tell government what he thinks of it, but it’s hardly brave to bash a Tory if your peers are left-leaning bishops. And I’m not remotely convinced that he’s really convinced by his own criticisms. You’ll remember how upset he was by the cuts to foreign aid. Now look at this interview he gave to the Treasurer magazine during his short-lived stint as Bishop of Durham: ‘It’s intriguing to see how some companies spectacularly turn countries around by the way they behave,’ he said. ‘It is much more effective through enterprise and the private sector than through state handouts. The dignity for a human being to earn their own money through creative activity, whatever it happens to be, is fantastically important.’
It’s also interesting to me that Welby finds it impossible to praise a Tory even when, by his own estimation, they must be doing the right thing. Early in his career as Archbishop he spoke out about the cruelty of austerity. So where’s the praise for Rishi Sunak and his lifesaving furlough scheme? He has condemned homelessness, so why no support for the government’s ‘Everyone In’ scheme which has housed the homeless during the pandemic? Even the New York Times has praised it. Surely it’s not beyond Lambeth?
My feeling is that he’s listening too much to the wrong people, and not enough to his God or to himself.
I met Justin Welby once, just after it was announced that he was to be Archbishop. A friend had invited him to dinner long before the appointment and it’s to his credit that he kept the date. In my memory, the evening was joyful. Justin didn’t say much but he listened, and in the light of his listening the other guests (three of us) all became open about our faith, or lack of it, or desire for it. I told Welby all about the soup kitchen I helped at (St Patrick’s, Soho Square) and he promised to visit. He was so convincing that, unlikely as it seemed, for months I expected his meerkat head to bob up by the serving hatch. Of course he couldn’t come. He was about to be enthroned as Archbishop. I just wish that as well as the careful, respectful listening, he’d had the gumption to tell the truth.