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True identity in Christ: Archbishop of Canterbury handles news of his parentage with grace

 ‘My identity is founded in who I am in Christ,’ says Justin Welby. Below: Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Welby’s biological father. (Supplied Photos)

The Telegraph

AFTER TAKING a DNA test to disprove rumours about his paternity, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has learned that the rumours were true. His biological father was the last private secretary of Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.

His mother, Jane Gillian Portal, who also worked for Churchill until 1955, had a brief liaison with Sir Anthony, shortly before she eloped with Gavin Welby to the United States. She never suspected that her son Justin, who was born nine months after her wedding, was Sir Anthony’s child.

The Archbishop’s life has been an odd mixture of privilege and deprivation. His parents broke up when he was two. Both Gavin Welby and the Archbishop’s mother, Jane, were alcoholics, and neither was really in a position to give their only child a stable home. As a boy the young Justin cared for the only father he knew in lonely and painful circumstances.

“As a result of my parents’ addictions my early life was messy,” said Welby, “although I had the blessing and gift of a wonderful education, and was cared for deeply by my grandmother, my mother once she was in recovery, and my father as far as he was able.”

His mother remarried in 1975, eventually becoming Lady Williams of Elvel. Gavin Welby died in 1977 of alcoholism and lung cancer when Justin was 21. Montague Browne died in 2013 just days after the Archbishop’s consecration at Canterbury Cathedral.

Justin overcame a difficult childhood with his alcoholic parents to become a father of six children, a successful oil executive and then an Anglican priest. Tragically he and his wife Caroline lost their first child, a baby daughter, in a car crash.

Archbishop Welby, 60, seems to have received the news with calm. He told The Telegraph that “There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.”

My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal …

This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes …

Even more importantly, my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.

Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us; grace and power which is offered to every human being.

At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed? Nothing!


The story must be even more difficult for the Archbishop’s mother who told the media that it was “an almost unbelievable shock.” Her son has most emphatically declared that her overcoming of her addiction, and her second happy marriage and public service, is a true story of redemption.

“My mother has been in recovery since 1968, and has not touched alcohol for over 48 years. I am enormously proud of her,” Welby said. “She has also played a wonderful part in my life and in the lives of my children and now grandchildren, as has my stepfather, whose support and encouragement has been generous, unstinting and unfailing.”

After being brought up as an only child, the Archbishop has now learned that he has a half-sister three years older than he is. He hopes to meet Jane Hoare-Temple and she has said the feeling is mutual. She is the only child from the first marriage of Montague Browne. They will have plenty of catching up to do and the Archbishop will no doubt want to know more about his biological father, whom he met as a child but had not seen since the age of eight.

The Archbishop has also gained a stepmother, Shelagh Montague Browne, his biological father’s second wife, and a stepbrother, Paddy Jacklin, who contacted him three years ago to suggest a meeting between Justin and Sir Anthony.

Jacklin had shown his stepfather a picture of the Archbishop knocking on the door of Canterbury Cathedral on the day of his enthronement, and asked him if it was his son. Montague Browne had not denied it, and said he wanted to meet Justin Welby, but died before the meeting could take place.

As a decorated RAF pilot turned trusted civil servant, Montague Browne was hired by both the Queen and Sir Winston Churchill because of his discretion and reliability.

Dr Jonathan Romain, a leading British Rabbi, said of the Archbishop’s reaction to the revelation: “It is a good example of how to deal with unexpected or difficult news – being open and frank – while it also recognises the reality that family life can often be wonderful and enriching, but is equally capable of being messy and complex. The news does not affect his personal identity in any way – he is who he has become – nor does it lessen his authority as Archbishop.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, said: “Today my heart goes out to Lady Jane Williams and her much loved son, Justin…. I am full of admiration for the dignified manner in which they have handled this startling news. Upheaval in family life is neither uncommon nor easy to embrace. Every family knows this. But to do so with such steadiness and honesty in the full glare of publicity is remarkable and yet fully characteristic of them both.

“This is a great tribute to their Christian faith,” continued the Cardinal. “It reveals the primacy of our life in Christ, which is fundamental to all who are His disciples. Their lives and demeanour are a parable of God’s mercy in action and of the strength and joy of family love in the face of every difficulty.”    TAP               

  –The Telegraph

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