“A safe place to do risky things”

I’ve just finished Andrew Atherstone’s brief biography of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. For a book that was produced on such short notice, it is excellent. Atherstone does a terrific job of trawling through Welby’s publicly-available writings to paint a picture of the interesting, intriguing, and complex person now in the see of Canterbury.

Some of the interesting bits of the book have been quoted elsewhere. One bit that stuck with me, though, which I have not seen elsewhere is Welby’s emphasis on risk as a Christian virtue. When he was at Liverpool Cathedral, he encouraged members of the congregation with the phrase, “This Cathedral should be a safe place to do risky things.” It is a view, Atherstone argues, that has informed Welby’s ministry.

So I’ve been thinking about risk and the church lately. And to that end, I am off on a visit to the church in South Sudan that begins this evening. I’ll be bringing my copy of Atherstone’s biography to donate to the library at Bishop Gwynne College so students there can also reflect on our new archbishop. Stay tuned for posts from South Sudan (and in the meantime, read about my past visits there).

“Ambassadors for Christ”

Reconciliation is at the core of the good news of Jesus Christ:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

The Old Testament tells the story, in part, of the estrangement of God’s people from God. Instead of dusting his hands of them, God instead commits to God’s people in a whole new way in the Incarnation of Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ reconciles the divide between God and God’s people and entrusts that message to the community of the baptized, to share it as widely as we can.

To that end, it’s encouraging to see that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has appointed David Porter as his Director of Reconciliation. David Porter comes from Coventry Cathedral, a place that has made itself a centre for the ministry of reconciliation.

Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by an air raid during World War II.IMG_5208

On the morning after the bombing, the then-dean had a cross made out of the burned timbers and inscribed “Father Forgive” on the altar.IMG_5202

This, in turn, led to the creation of the Community of the Cross of Nails and the cathedral’s reconciliation work. Justin Welby knows about this, because he used to work there.

I had a chance to meet David Porter on my visit to Coventry and he is an inspiring person: direct, funny, honest, forthright, holy, and deeply committed to spanning seemingly unbridgeable gulfs. His background is in the peace process in Northern Ireland but since going to work at Coventry he’s been involved in a number of places around the world.

Creating this position is a no-brainer, really, and David Porter is an excellent person to fill the role.

UPDATE: David Porter has written a reflection on his new position on his personal blog.

Picking a pope…or an Archbishop

The impending resignation of Pope Benedict XVI means that in the span of a few months, there will be a new Archbishop of Canterbury, a new pope of the Coptic Church, and a new Bishop of Rome, aka the Holy Father.

There are lots of reasons why this overlap might be interesting but I’ve been thinking about the various selection processes. The Copts had a blindfolded boy pick a name out of a bowl. The Roman Catholic cardinals will get together, do who knows what, and then send up white smoke.

And the Anglicans? Well, the Anglicans appointed a representative committee of lay people and priests, took resumes, had candidates answer questions, got together for a meeting, had some more meetings, and finally the Prime Minister tweeted who the next Archbishop would be, but only after the committee had leaked the name and some members tried to cash in on their inside knowledge by betting on the outcome.

So who comes out best? By all accounts, Justin Welby, the new archbishop of Canterbury, is a fine selection. But I wonder if these comparative processes don’t tell us something about the state of our church these days.

“Managerialism” seems to be taking over the church. In seminary, the comparisons between church and business seem to be growing. It is said the church needs priests who are “entrepreneurial,” for instance. Candidates with past business experience are looked upon favourably. There are probably good reasons for this—the church does need managers. In this context, it’s no wonder that the Crown Nominations Commission—the body that chose Welby—would ask candidates to submit answers to questions, compare resumes, and debate the merits of each candidate, just like any other hiring committee in the business world would.

And that’s fine. Except… I don’t know. Something about just seems so anti-septic, professional, and like it’s trying to control the Holy Spirit’s work. “If only we can get the right process,” you can hear people saying, “then we’ll get the right candidate.” And who knows. The cardinals may ask these very same questions. But I can’t help but think that in trying to create a church in the image we know best, we’re missing the point of how God works.

I don’t have any answers or conclusions. Managerialism is too entrenched in the church to go anywhere anytime soon. But the conjunction of three new religious leaders can’t but provoke thought.

Facing your failure and living with difference: why I give thanks for Rowan Williams’ tenure as archbishop of Canterbury

Two years before he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote

I long for the Church to be more truly itself…. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me—because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present. (Christ on Trial, pp. 85-86)

As of today, Williams is no longer archbishop. For many in the church (including Williams himself, I imagine), this is a cause for relief. His tenure is viewed as a disappointment by liberals, who think he betrayed them and his own views by his actions in office, and by conservatives, who think he didn’t go far enough in using the powers of his office. The general public sees him as a figure who made (apparently) impolitic remarks on sharia and failed to get General Synod to pass legislation allowing for women to be bishops.

But before he fades much further into the past, I think it’s worth taking the time to give thanks for Williams’ tenure in Canterbury. And the place to start is with this quotation, which could serve as a programmatic statement for his tenure. On the one hand, Williams is saying, there is a vision of the church he aspires to and which he longs to see realized. On the other hand, he recognizes that the reality of the church is such that any one person’s understanding of it is insufficient. Elsewhere, he was written

Believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with. (Tokens of Trust, p. 106)

The fact that—try as we might—we cannot create a church of people who think like we do is central to Williams’ understanding of what the church is to be and do. As a leader in that church, Williams’ tenure has been about reminding us of that reality. Given the divisiveness and polarization that so mark and mar our politics (ecclesial and otherwise) these days, that reminder is both prophetic and timely.

In his closing address at the 2009 Anglican Consultative Council meeting, Williams told delegates:

the Gospel seems to be saying to us: first face your failure; your failure, not your neighbour’s; your failure, your turning away; not theirs, not his, not hers; then ask how can it be made glorious? ….But perhaps, just perhaps, thinking about those potentially glorious failures, opens us out onto the prayer that turns us back to Christ-like self-giving that lets the glory through. That’s what we hope for in our fellowship, our very fragile, very flawed, very precarious Anglican fellowship.

Repentance has always been a theme of Williams’ theology and it is something he has held up before Anglicans—often to their derision. Who, after all, wants to talk about their failures? There are many reasons why I think this is important to emphasize but I’ll note just one here: Williams reminds us that we are human and that means fallible, imperfect, and incomplete. That sounds obvious but it’s something that is frequently elided in this world of ours that puts so much focus on accomplishment—in the church and otherwise.

Williams’ tenure was not perfect. He made many mistakes. But his deeply-held theological convictions have issued in a profoundly human and profoundly humble leadership—even when it has led to his humiliation, as it has, repeatedly—that I have found refreshing and honest in this day and age, and which I shall miss.

Gasp! He talks about Jesus!

One of the things I noticed about Archbishop of Canterbury-select Justin Welby is that in his announcement tour on Friday, he talked about Jesus a lot. There were multiple references in the press conference and various interviews to “the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Now, to point out that a bishop talks about Jesus might not seem like the most noteworthy event. But it’s striking how frequently it has been mentioned in the press accounts. For instance, the Guardian:

Constitutional convention also mostly stops archbishops from talking about Jesus in public. No one seems to have told this one.

The Mail—not admittedly the best source—had a similar sentiment in a headline:

Not your average Archbish! Not only does he actually believe in God, but the new Archbishop of Canterbury is the son of a bootlegger who was Vanessa Redgrave’s lover

(This is more than modestly unfair to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who believes deeply in God and talks a lot about Jesus. Sometimes, though, it take a little while to realize that’s who he’s talking about.)

One thing I am learning in the Church of England is that there is actual debate about how overt clergy can be about their faith—that is, how much they can talk about Jesus. At a meeting I was at the other day, one priest said that in her marriage preparation, she didn’t want to give the couple anything that was “too Christian.” This came as a bit of a shock to me and is, perhaps, a sign of the ways in which Britain is farther down the secularization path than the United States is. (I’ve been chronicling some of those points in my Death of Christian Britain series of posts.)

On the other hand, back in April, I was noting the ways in which the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church went a whole interview without mentioning Jesus.

In every market, competitors are always on the lookout for the thing that will distinguish them from their competitors and make them stand out. Our world has a pretty crowded marketplace of ideas right now. Call me silly, but I think talking about Jesus—the one idea that Christians have that no one else does—is one way to stand out. We still need to answer the question of what the good news is. But for now, I’ll be content with an archbishop who can talk about Jesus—even if it is depressing that that alone is noteworthy.

“This is a time for optimism and faith in the church”

So it’s official. Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, will be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

His first press conference was fascinating and, I thought, quite impressive. He expressed his hope for the future of the church—as I’ve quoted in the title of this post—and answered questions (at least the ones I saw before the BBC cut away) with skill. The friends I have in the Diocese of Durham speak very highly of him.

Three things I appreciated about what I saw of his introduction:

  • He wants the church “to be a place where we can disagree in love.” I so strongly share this view and it was so encouraging to hear him highlight it.
  • He is “always averse to the language of exclusion when what we are called is to love in the way Jesus love us.” He challenged himself to listen to the experiences of those he does not know about, referring especially to the LGBT community here. Just wait until the conservative Anglican polemicists jump on him for this. I hope he ignores them.
  • His pectoral cross is (and I believe I’m correct about this) the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral. This is a symbol of the powerful reconciliation work that has emerged from that cathedral since it was destroyed in World War II and which Welby was involved with before becoming Dean of Liverpool. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel and I’m encouraged he has been so involved with this work in its many forms.

As I’ve written, I think Welby’s appointment could be a moment when Anglicans begin to move beyond (but not resolve) the battles of the last decade or more, given his apparent credibility with evangelicals and the church in Nigeria.

The response to his appointment so far seems to have been fairly positive. I take that as good news and as a hopeful sign for Anglicans around the world.

For now, however, Welby goes back to Durham until the end of the year and the fevered speculation can come to a rest. We’ll have to wait until March 21 and his installation to see how all this unfolds.

A Nixon goes to China moment for Anglicans

Sometimes in life, to really make progress, you need to have someone do the unexpected. Richard Nixon’s visit to China was one such moment. A man with an uncompromising stance towards communism was the one who changed the nature of relations between the United States and China. It took a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to sign welfare reform into law. In order for change to happen and for it to really “stick”, you need someone who comes from the opposing view but has been brought around to a new view. It is these moments that mark the change as permanent.

The conflict over sexuality in the Anglican Communion has thus far pitted two (at least) sides firmly against one another, with each trying to gain the upper hand. On one level, this is fine; it’s how democracy, ecclesial or otherwise, works.

But I’ve been thinking lately that for true progress to really stick—and for Anglicans to move forward—it’s going to take something more. In that regard, Rowan Williams was never the right person to make progress on this issue. Whatever his merits as archbishop and as a theologian—and I believe they are many—he was always too identified with the “liberal” group to be trusted on this issue.

There are hints that Williams’ successor will be Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, and a man who, from what I can gather, was heavily influenced by Holy Trinity Brompton, a church at the heart of Anglican evangelicalism, and who has worked closely with the Nigerian Anglican Church. Yet there are tantalizing hints that his views on sexuality questions are more nuanced and complex than that traditionally associated with conservative evangelicals or Nigerian Anglicanism.

Perhaps Welby is the person who will be able to move Anglicans beyond the trauma of the last many years. I don’t know quite what it will look like but I am coming to believe that it is only a person with “conservative” bona fides who will be able to help Anglicans move past this issue and onto the many other pressing issues we face.

I can dream, can’t I?

Thabo Makgoba on qualifications for next archbishop of Canterbury

Thabo Makgoba, the archbishop of Cape Town, has given an interview in which he speaks about, inter alia, the ongoing selection process for the next archbishop of Canterbury. His point of departure was the recent Anglicans Ablaze gathering in Johannesburg:

Makgoba said the Anglicans Ablaze conference reflected “a synergy of positive energies within our church” with people of contrary worship and theological positions coming together.

“We should bring whatever challenges we have into this milieu and grow together as Anglicans. 


Makgoba said that despite the diversity among Anglicans, certain “fundamentals” such as “breaking bread together”, kept the church together.


Commenting on the appointment of a successor to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Makgoba said the global church faced major issues including new human identities and degradation of the environment, which required ongoing strong leadership.
Being Archbishop of Canterbury was “an impossible job. If you really believe that you are only a conduit for the grace and love of God, it is do-able.


“I hope that whomever becomes archbishop will take up where (Archbishop Williams) ended, inject theological strength into our debate, yet know that there are no easy answers. 


“As an archbishop (the next incumbent) needs to create an enabling environment for people to really live what it means to be an Anglican in the beauty of our diversity.”



Remembering George Bell

The Church of England today commemorates George Bell, Bishop of Chicester during World War II. Bell is remembered, inter alia, as a bishop who opposed the Allies’ bombing campaigns in World War II and, it is thought, was passed over for the see of Canterbury as a result. You can do worse than read the Wikipedia entry for more on Bishop Bell.

Today I’ve been reading reflections from Paul Zahl and Rowan Williams about Bell. Both are brief and both worth reading, particularly for the way they connect Bell’s opposition to the war to elements of Christian witness in today’s world. Here’s a bit from Williams’

But Bell also knew that we could only be who we are at home with ourselves and with God, if we knew where our homeless and displaced brothers and sisters were; hence his concern for the refugees and the landless. And God’s challenge to us once again—’Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?’ —is a challenge about how we as believers in Jesus Christ answer for the lives of those who are being driven from their homes, their livelihood and their security by the terrible violence of our age.

At a previous commemoration of Bell a year or two ago, I remember mentioning him to a senior priest in the church. “Who’s that?” this priest responded.

So today I’ve been thinking about those who have gone before us, who (for whatever reason) were passed over for career advancement, and have now gone into obscurity. George Bell was a faithful minister of the Gospel in his context. How can we do the same?

It is appropriate, perhaps, that Bell’s commemoration falls as the Crown Nominations Commission makes it final deliberations as to who the next archbishop of Canterbury shall be. When that name is unveiled (whenever that may be), quite a lot of attention will focus on the person chosen.

But I hope that we also remember the long list of people who were considered and not selected, and, even more importantly, the long list of people who were never in a position to be considered. There’s lots of faithful witness at all levels of the church, forgotten, overlooked, and passed over for a variety of reasons. We do well to remember it.

Gathering momentum for a Thabo Makgoba candidacy

When Rowan Williams announced his resignation in March, I argued that the Crown Nominations Commission needed to look beyond the usual crop of suspects and consider the many talented African bishops in the Communion as possibilities.

Filling Rowan Williams’ shoes was never going to be easy—any successor will have to stack up to one of the greatest theological minds of the generation. Going for an outside-the-box appointment—first Archbishop of Canterbury from outside England since Augustine?—lays to rest those possible comparisons and frees the successor to be fully himself (or herself, but that won’t happen—yet—to the see of Canterbury).

Then in June, I expanded on this argument in a piece in Religion Dispatches:

It is in this context that the attention of the Anglican Communion has again turned to Canterbury. The bishop’s chair there will soon be vacant, even as Rowan Williams takes full advantage of the months preceding his December retirement. And while speculation as to his successor runs hot, most observers place their bets on current occupants of English sees. That would be a mistake. As the Anglican Communion continues its growth in the non-Western world, I believe its nominal leader must reflect that change: it is time for an African Archbishop of Canterbury.

(I should note that this piece was heavily edited before it was published and, as it appears now, contains several sentences and paragraphs I did not write. But I did write the one I just quoted.)

Since I first made these arguments, I believe the case for Thabo Makgoba has only strengthened. He has distinguished himself in his response to the Lonmin mine shooting in August. He continues to faithfully lead his diverse church. One of his dioceses (Swaziland) recently elected Africa’s first female bishop. I suspect he will consecrate her. Wouldn’t it be grand if he came to Canterbury and—finally, at last!—did the same thing in England?

The Crown Nominations Commission, meanwhile, appears to have deadlocked at its meeting last week. There is no British bishop who is sufficiently satisfactory, it seems.

So I repeat my plea to the CNC: turn your gaze outside of the Church of England! Look to the hundreds of other bishops around the world who could ably fulfill this role.

(As far as I can tell, the archbishop of Canterbury has to be a citizen of the Commonwealth, not necessarily an English citizen—e.g. Rowan Wiliams. All the candidates I have suggested so far meet this criterion.)

There’s a gathering Twitter campaign to suggest possible alternatives for the CNC to consider, using the hashtag #alternativearchbishops. It mostly appears to be facetious at the moment. Let’s open up this process in any way we can! Start throwing out your suggestions and maybe, just maybe, someone will see them.