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Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury

By Stephen Sharman

LAST YEAR when I was visiting Winchester Cathedral, I had some time before Evening Prayer so I visited the Cathedral bookshop. There I found Andrew Atherstone’s brief biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. I began to read the book in the empty nave of the Cathedral and, after Evening Prayer, continued to read it on the train back to London. I finished it on the train to Norwich where, among other things, I attended Evensong in Norwich Cathedral. So, for me, the book is now associated with cathedrals and trains. This biography is a very welcome addition to the extensive literature about recent archbishops of Canterbury. In just one hundred and fifty-two pages, Atherstone outlines Welby’s life until his election to the See of Canterbury. The titles of the six chapters describe the successive stages of a life which is truly a ‘meteoric rise’: ‘A Silver Spoon and a Broken Home,’ ‘Conversion and Calling,’ ‘Growing Churches,’ ‘The Ministry of Reconciliation,’ ‘Liverpool Cathedral’ and ‘Durham.’ The title of the epilogue, ‘A Time of Spiritual Hunger,’ aptly describes the time in which we live. Atherstone describes Welby’s childhood and education at Eton and Cambridge, institutions that are not unconnected with the leadership of Church and State.  It was at Cambridge that he met his wife, Caroline. Another crucial moment during his university years was his conversion to evangelical Christianity. This, for Welby, was a life-changing experience. His evangelical Christianity was nurtured by the Round Church in Cambridge and later Holy Trinity Church Brompton in London. Atherstone continues the story of Welby’s life with an account of his very successful business career in the oil industry. At the same time he experienced the sorrows of an unhappy relationship with his father and the sudden death of his baby daughter, Johanna, in a car crash. He and Caroline have five surviving children. Welby experienced a ‘second conversion’ with his vocation to the ministry of the Church of England. It takes courage and a strong sense of vocation to leave a successful career and enter training for the ministry. He studied at Cranmer Hall in Durham and, following his ordination in 1992, he served in the Diocese of Coventry. In his parishes, he introduced Alpha Courses and worship with ‘greater informality and modern music’; he was seeking to draw more people to the services. In 2002 he joined the staff of Coventry Cathedral where he became involved in the ministry of reconciliation. This required him to travel abroad to Africa and the Middle East, thereby increasing his knowledge of the broader Anglican Communion. In 2007, he became Dean of Liverpool Cathedral and in 2011, Bishop of Durham. Atherstone’s account of Welby’s meteoric rise is a fair and balanced one. He is sympathetic to the role of evangelical Christianity in his subject’s life. He describes the web of friendships which surrounded and supported Welby. And he stresses the important role of his wife, Caroline. Atherstone also points to other key influences, such as his experiences in Africa and the meeting with the Benedictines of Elmore Abbey. He gives us a picture of a devout evangelical Anglican but, more than that, of a person increasingly in touch with many parts of the life of the Church of England. Atherstone describes two constant themes in Welby’s ministry: risk and evangelism. In the index, there are fifteen reference to risk and fourteen to evangelism. Welby is convinced that evangelism requires risk in order to bring people to Christ. At Coventry he urged, ‘We’re going to have to take some risks if the cathedral community is going to find a safe place to work out its issues in a reconciled way, not with conflict.’ At Durham, in his enthronement sermon, he reminded his congregation of their work of evangelism: “It is a huge task, to follow in the giant footsteps of Cuthbert and Aidan and Chad and so many more, intending in the north east to rekindle Christian faith,” and urged them to remember that “God calls for risk takers.” Atherstone does not conceal from his readers the weaknesses in Welby’s preparation for the See of Canterbury. He does not hide Welby’s lack of theological scholarship. In this, Welby is unlike such notable predecessors as William Temple, Michael Ramsey and Rowan Williams. Atherstone does not hide his lack of experience as a diocesan bishop – a mere year in the office. In this Welby is unlike such predecessors as Geoffrey Fisher and Robert Runcie.  He reminds us that Welby was a proponent of women bishops, an opinion that will not endear him to those Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who are deeply opposed to this innovation. But while he writes openly about these challenges, Atherstone prefers to stress the values of Welby’s experience in the business world, his many friendships throughout the Church of England and the Anglican Communion and his commitment to the ministry of reconciliation.  It is perhaps his commitment to reconciliation that will be his greatest gift to a deeply divided Church of England and Anglican Communion. Atherstone’s book is a useful account of a remarkable life and is well worth reading.


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