Thursday 8 November 2012
The appointment of Justin Welby as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury will be formally announced today. The Times welcomes it. Though Bishop Welby’s episcopal experience is brief (he was appointed Bishop of Durham less than a year ago), his personal and intellectual qualities make him an outstanding choice as the spiritual leader of 77 million Anglicans worldwide.
The tasks facing Bishop Welby are legion. There have long been differing strands of Anglicanism. Since the earliest days of independent Anglican ministry, part of its identity has been to maintain the strengths and validity of its evangelical, catholic and liberal traditions. But the Church in the 21st century has distinctive challenges.
Shifts in mores and the decline of religious observance in the developed world have put the Church on the defensive, intellectually and institutionally. The question of how to respond in an age of scepticism and pluralism has created deep and possibly intractable divisions in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The difficulty of the task may explain the unusually protracted deliberations of the Crown Nominations Commission in making a recommendation to the Prime Minister.
The choice of Bishop Welby, however — first reported, as was the resignation of Dr Rowan Williams, by Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent of The Times — meets two essential criteria. His spiritual leadership offers hope of holding the disparate national Churches together within a single Communion. And it does so without sacrificing intellectual integrity or diminishing the theological principles of the Anglican tradition.
Bishop Welby comes from the evangelical wing of the Church of England, which emphasises the role of scriptural authority. This is not to be confused with fundamentalism: it is more a modernist application of biblical orthodoxy.
Bishop Welby was baptised as an adult and came to his ministry in his maturity, after he and his wife suffered the tragedy of the death of a young child. He is unusual as a Christian leader in having come to faith through the Alpha course, a form of evangelism pioneered by Holy Trinity, Brompton, an evangelical church in London. He has thought and prayed about the dilemmas of faith when it is assailed by secular culture and articulate advocates of atheism. It is a strength to the Church that he can explain and advocate its theological axioms from a position of discovery rather than unquestioning authority.
In this respect, the new Archbishop may prove a worthy successor to Dr Williams, an outstanding theological scholar and gracious debater but with a tendency to obscurity. Bishop Welby has a more demotic approach; his experience encompasses commerce more than the academic seminar. And, having castigated social irresponsibility among bankers, he is accustomed to speaking in the public square.
Where Bishop Welby will find his talents for leadership peculiarly exercised is in bridging the gulf of opinion among Anglicans on matters sacred and secular. The Times supports the consecration of women bishops and the ordination of gay priests, and — in wider society — the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Liberals within the Church have long maintained that Anglicanism finds strength in a disinclination to be bound by a single confessional formulation, or to regard Scripture alone as the criterion of doctrine.
The Church, in our opinion, needs to accommodate itself, even at the price of internal dissent, to the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sex and sexuality. Whatever Bishop Welby’s stands on this and other matters, they will be closely reasoned. His leadership will enhance public debate. He has a right and a responsibility to defend the Established Church and enrich the role it plays in the nation’s affairs. We wish him well.