Thursday, 8 November 2012

The new archbishop - a random vicar's view

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Justin Welby is set to be appointed
Archbishop of Cabterbury

So there I was cycling down London's Borough High Street when I spot a vicar. Having just heard on the Today Programme that the Church of England – or whatever strange star chamber they get to decide these things – are poised to appoint Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, I thought I'd grab the opportunity to find out what this man of the cloth made of the new guy.

So I flagged him down. Turns out it was "Father David" from St John The Divine in Kennington, a church on the (usually quite conservative) Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism (all the popery without the Pope). He was very nice and willing to talk.

Here's a précis of what he said: He didn't know too much about Welby – Welby has only been a Bishop for a year – but he was aware that he has a background as an oil executive, and that he is from the evangelical wing of Anglicanism. Though this could seem to be a step toward conservatism, after the relatively liberal days of Rowan Williams, Father David thought it was to be expected: appointments usually follow a pendulum pattern, swinging between liberal and traditionalist to keep all the factions happy. Father David told me that Welby was very much a "product of Holy Trinity Brompton" meaning he really is an evangelical Alpha course type of guy. This, plus his business background, makes him, in Father David's view, a "thoroughly modern man" and therefore a good thing for the church (slight implication that Williams was too other-worldly,  not cut out for the cut and thrust of being a CEO of GodUK Inc? I think so).

I asked him whether he thought that having someone like that at the head of the church, someone associated with the success evangelical churches have had bucking the trend for dwindling congregations. He went into defensive mode (I felt I might have touched a nerve regarding his own not-full pews), suggesting he didn't judge the success of the church on the criteria of bums on pews (my words not his).

And on the hot button issues threatening to tear the Anglican communion apart? Welby is pro the ordination of women – which pleased Father David as he is too – but not gay marriage. So he's a compromise candidate. But will he be strong enough to hold together the fractious communion? "The church", Father David told me, "has always enjoyed schisms". (Nice use of the word "enjoyed" I thought).

So there you have it, the thoughts of a random vicar on his new boss. For my part I know little about him but look forward to seeing how he fares, and of course, I'm delighted that one more senior position in the British establishment has been bagged by an old Etonian.
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