‘In a Time of Hunger:’ The New Archbishop's Social and Spiritual Challenges On The Road to Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop and the global Anglican communion. Photo courtesy Claudio Divizia/shutterstock.com

“It is a commonplace that the job of Archbishop of Canterbury is one you wouldn't wish on [even] your most antagonistic blogger,” quips Samuel Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

This sense of humor about the office extends to the new leader of the Church of England himself. “[O]nly 40 percent of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England. I do hope that means the other 60 percent thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question,” said Justin Welby in his first Easter sermon last month.

But the question is a valid one. Welby certainly has his work cut out for him. The Anglican Church, splintered by years of division over questions of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and women’s leadership in the church, faces an uphill road to reconciliation. Will the “plain-speaking” Welby have the real-world aptitude and the gumption to navigate the Church’s hardline bureaucracy while spiritually serving his Communion?

Andrew Atherstone, a tutor in history and doctrine and Latimer Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, outlines the challenges and the possibilities ahead for the “next occupant of St. Augustine’s chair.” In The Road to Canterbury, the first biography of the new archbishop published a few weeks before Welby’s enthronement in March, Atherstone makes the case that Welby may be the person best able to walk that line.

In a rare showing of broad, ecclesiastical support, voices on both sides of the Anglican divide appear to agree. “Welby was recommended as [the] preferred candidate in submissions from both the province of Nigeria and the Episcopal Church in the United States, usually warring parties,” writes Atherstone. In his view, the two camps either truly believe that Welby can rein the Church “from the edge of total destruction” by reconciling their differences, or — less hearteningly — they both assume he takes their respective side on the “fissiparous” issues.

Most recently, one of these clashes — the possibility of the Church of England ordaining female bishops — experienced a significant setback in reconciliation last November when the Church’s legislative body (three elected houses: clergy, bishops, and laypeople) failed to reach a required two-thirds majority opening the possibility of ordaining female bishops by only six lay votes.

Despite firm views from traditionalist clergy and members that only men should serve in the role of bishops, it is clear that Welby favors the appointment of women as bishops. The night after the vote, the archbishop-in-waiting tweeted, “Very grim day…Most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and cooperate with our healing God.”

Atherstone recounts that Welby formed his opinion, theologically and socially, “[A]s a result of careful studies of the scriptures, and examination of the tradition and ways in which the Church globally has grown into new forms of ministry over the two thousand years of its existence.”

But gender equality will take more than the Communion’s figurehead simply favoring change. Former Archbishop Williams also supported female bishops and in fact “staked his authority on the move,” writes The Guardian. Now it’s time for Welby to evoke the deft political maneuvering from his days negotiating in the Middle East and the courage of his Bible-smuggling days in the Communist bloc to push through a change that has become a “make it or break it” issue for many of the Church’s current (and former) congregants.

But a success on the female bishop front would be only one piece of many in reassembling the puzzle that is “Mother Church” (a moniker that Maggi Dawn — one of the Church’s first ordained women — says should be changed to “Father.”) Perhaps an equally divisive issue in the Church is gay marriage.

In April, the Faith and Order Commission, a body that assists the Church on matters related to doctrine, released a statement outlining its position on marriage:

The reality of marriage between one man and one woman will not disappear as the result of any legislative change, for God has given this gift, and it will remain part of our created human endowment. But the disciplines of living in it may become more difficult to acquire, and the path to fulfillment, in marriage and in other relationships, more difficult to find.

Commentators have noted that while the statement “reinforces the Church’s view of heterosexual marriage as the God-given model for sexual relationships” it also “insists that it wants to care for gay couples.” But the Church will have to do more than “insist” on quasi-acceptance if it wants to caulk the crack between the conservative and liberal Communion congregations while still attracting those not yet attached to a parish. Welby admits, according to Atherstone, that this discord is “a great sapper of spiritual passion,” and he promises to “listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully.”

However, a meeting with Peter Tatchell, a prominent gay rights advocate, in March indicates that Welby may start acting on his prayerful thought. No previous archbishop has made such overtures, according to The Guardian. And while Welby’s rhetoric has largely been limited to just that, meetings such as this one mark steps in the right direction.

Commenting on the life of an artist, the writer Katherine Anne Porter tells The Paris Review,

“[O]ne of the marks of a gift is to have the courage of it. If they haven’t got the courage, it’s just too bad. They’ll fail, just as people with lack of courage in other vocations and walks of life fail. Courage is the first essential.”

Welby comes from other vocations prior to his becoming the senior bishop of the Church of England. From championing ethical practices in the oil industry to reconciling conflicted communities in the Middle East, he’s rarely been found to have a paucity of pluck. These unique experiences and others have given him a gift — a skillset that may be particularly suited to mend a Communion bitterly raveled by gender, sex, and political questions. It’ll be up to Welby to have the courage, in his words, “to enable human flourishing…in a time of spiritual hunger.” For Welby, this courage is his first essential.

Win Bassett is a writer, lawyer, and entering Yale Divinity School student who has written for The Huffington Post, Patheos, and other publications. He has forthcoming pieces for Publishers Weekly and Books & Culture. Find him at winbassett.com and on Twitter at @winbassett.

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