The Power of Establishment

On Monday, I did something I rarely do: I read The Daily Mail, one of England’s leading newspapers (by sales). It’s a tabloid that makes it money by plastering screaming (and arguably distorting) headlines across its pages.

I read the paper because a) it was in a waiting-room I was in and b) the front-page headline was about Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, and a letter he (and about 40 other bishops) signed opposing the government’s proposed changes to welfare. The article (and the accompanying op-ed column) was not positive about the archbishop’s move. Welby himself thoughtfully responded on his blog.

Leaving aside the merits of the dispute (which, as a non-voter in this country, I don’t entirely understand but on the surface it seems Welby et al. have a point), let’s talk about the media coverage. England is supposed to be an ever-increasingly secularized country, with fewer and fewer people attending church and fewer and fewer people believing in God. So why all the attention for a letter the archbishop signed?

For me, it’s a reminder of the power of Establishment: no matter what people might think about religion in England, the Church of England still has a privileged role. When its leaders speak, they get attention. Not always, and not as much as they would like, I am sure, but attention nonetheless. As I read about this debate, I am reminded of bishops in some African countries I’ve visited, whose public utterances are closely watched. When I was in Nigeria, bishops (of a number of different denominations) regularly featured in news reports. Ditto for South Sudan.

At the same time as this flare-up over the bishops’ poverty letter in England, the American House of Bishops released a letter about gun violence. Also this week, some faith leaders—including Episcopalians—have spoken out against the proposed Republican budget. I will be stunned if any of these statements makes the cover of any major newspaper in the United States, or is even mentioned. That’s not how the media market works in the United States. Katharine Jefferts Schori and American Episcopal bishops are not media figures in the way English bishops are. (A few have succeeded in getting into the news cycle with statements about same-sex marriage, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.)

All of which is to say what I’ve said many times on this blog in one way or another: context matters. Anglicans around the world minister in a huge variety of contexts that shapes their actions and statements. We do well to remember that.

“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.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as…


Ten years ago, when Rowan Williams was new to Canterbury, there was a huge fuss over the new bishop of Reading. His name was Jeffrey John and while he was eminently qualified for the post, he was a gay man in a public, partnered relationship. (This is a commendable openness: it is widely known there are several gay bishops in the Church of England who chose not to be public about it.) Although he said it was a celibate relationship, the furore over his appointment was intense and led Rowan to lean on John to resign before he was consecrated, which he did. He’s now the dean of St. Alban’s. But the incident damaged Rowan’s standing with liberals and gave greater credence to conservatives who thought they couldn’t trust him because he’d let the appointment go forward in the first place. It’s probably safe to say it was not the tone Rowan wanted to set at the beginning of his archiepiscopacy.

Now, a decade on, the Church of England’s House of Bishops has decided that gay men in civil partnerships (this includes Jeffrey John) can be bishop, so long as they remain celibate. Leaving aside how nonsensical a policy this is, it raises the prospect that in the first months of a new archbishop of Canterbury’s term, Jeffrey John could again be appointed bishop. Indeed, there’s talk that John could be appointed Bishop of Durham, which will be vacant when Justin Welby is translated to Canterbury.

Bishops from some other Anglican provinces are already indicating their displeasure with the new policy. If John is appointed, it seems likely there will again be a furore in the Anglican Communion. It also seems that Justin Welby will have less ground than Rowan did to reverse the decision (if he wanted to): the public nature of the recent change means it would be humiliating for the church to reverse itself. (Not that the C of E is above regularly humiliating itself.)

But I’d like to think the impending John appointment is an opportunity. I’ve already written how I think it will take someone like Justin Welby to begin to heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion. This, surely, would be the moment to do so. He could embrace this move, which the House of Bishops has authorised and which, it is clear, a majority of English Anglicans are little fussed about, but at the same time draw on his relationships in the Anglican Communion to patiently explain the move. It would be a double acknowledgment: first, that this is where the Church of England is at this point in its history, and, second, that not everyone is at the point and that someone like Justin Welby has the position with which to address those concerns. I’m not saying it will result in magical healing overnight, but it could be a genuinely honest step forward. Surely, that’s better than all the games we’ve been playing?

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?