Welby and Wonga: A Book Recommendation image

Welby and Wonga: A Book Recommendation

The new Archbishop of Canterbury is certainly making an impression. In a matter of months he has gone from being someone who, while well known in Anglican circles, enjoyed very little public recognition, to dominating the headlines. As I drove into work today the discussion on the radio was all about Welby and Wonga.

Yesterday I read Andrew Atherstone’s Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury and would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand who Welby is and why he carries the passions he does. This is not an authorised biography of the Archbishop, and Welby declined to be interviewed for it, but Atherstone has trawled the sources and spoken to those in the know and paints a vivid portrait of the new man at Canterbury. A lot of this story has been told in the media in recent months: Welby’s deeply privileged yet deeply troubled background; immersed from birth in the British establishment but with an absent and alcoholic father. His business success in the oil industry and personal tragedy with the death of his first daughter. His conversion to Christ as part of the Eton and Cambridge set dominated by ‘the Nickys’ (Lee, Gumbel & Co.). The influence of John Wimber, and also of the Catholic monastic tradition. Genuine courage displayed in working for reconciliation in such troubled regions as the Niger Delta and Iraq. Atherstone’s recounting of the story reveals an interesting and impressive man.

This backstory also explains why it is that Welby feels so strongly about financial ethics, and his current public spat with the payday loan companies. I should imagine that some powerful people will be muttering to themselves, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ It strikes me though, that Welby is more than capable of looking after himself.

Atherstone’s brief account also highlights some of the things that those of us who stand outside Anglicanism might find both attractive and confusing. Welby’s commitment (and ability) to reach out to, engage with, and win over those from a wide range of perspectives has been demonstrated not only with Islamic warlords, but in the vicious infighting that has plagued the Church of England in recent years. This means that Welby regards as ‘Christian’ those who others of different traditions might struggle to regard as such. Of course, this is the defining fault-line between Anglicanism and a Baptist ecclesiology. For the former, membership of the church equates to membership of Christ. For the latter, conversion to Christ needs to be demonstrated in order to be admitted to the church. Welby’s massive commitment to mission and enthusiastic championing of such evangelistic initiatives as the Alpha course (and his own conversion story) demonstrate that he wants people to have a personal, saving, experience of Christ’s grace – he believes in the necessity of being born again – but his ecclesiology might appear to blur the edges on this. With my baptistic ecclesiology I find the Anglican model both strangely compelling, and deeply troubling.

Perhaps that is what will define Welby’s time as Archbishop – and it is certainly something I would pray for: That he might be compelling in helping many find Christ, and that he might be troubling to some powerful institutions that need the fearless intervention of a turbulent priest to challenge them.

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