|Archbishop Justin Welby: ‘I was embarrassed. It was like getting measles’
Archbishop Justin Welby: “One of the most exciting trends in western Christianity is that the Spirit of God is drawing Christians together.”
Forty years ago, Justin Welby was an unhappy pupil at Eton. Now, a relaxed Archbishop of Canterbury, he relives his unsettling moment of conversion and his wounded past
By Charles Moore
July 12, 2013
‘It’s such a lovely day, let’s go into the garden,” says the Archbishop of Canterbury. Carrying a tray heavy with coffee cups, he leads us down the wide steps of Lambeth Palace round to its wider lawns. Justin Welby is the fourth Archbishop I have met in this place; though new in the job, he is by far the most relaxed.
He answers everything with the same directness. Since he is an evangelical, I ask him whether he can speak “in tongues” – the “charismatic” spiritual gift recorded in the New Testament. Oh yes, he says, almost as if he had been asked if he plays tennis, “It’s just a routine part of spiritual discipline – you choose to speak and you speak a language that you don’t know. It just comes. Bramble. Go and find Peter [the Welbys' second son, one of five living children, and brother of Johanna, who died in a car crash as a baby], you idiot.” The last bit of these remarks is addressed to his exuberant six-month-old Clumber spaniel who has rushed up to him.
I am amazed. I first saw this man 40 years ago, when we were both pupils at Eton. Later, I was with him at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was the shyest, most unhappy-looking boy you could imagine. Now he is 105th in the line that began with St Augustine. He seems to be loving it. I remark on the change, and he agrees. “That’s something to do with the Christian faith,” he says.
Is it necessary, I ask, for a true Christian to have had a personal conversion experience? “Absolutely not. There is an incredible range of ways in which the Spirit works. It doesn’t matter how you get there. It really does quite matter where you are.”
Is it like suddenly realising that you love someone and want to marry that person? The Archbishop laughs: “That’s not what happened with Caroline [his wife] and me. And it’s not what happened with Peter, who got engaged to a lovely girl two days ago. That’s been a gradual thing.”
But it did happen to him, in New Court, Trinity College, during the evening of October 12, 1975. At Eton, he had “vaguely assumed there was a God. But I didn’t believe. I wasn’t interested at all.” That night in Cambridge, though, praying with a Christian friend, he suddenly felt “a clear sense of something changing, the presence of something that had not been there before in my life. I said to my friend, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about this’, because I was desperately embarrassed that this had happened to me, like getting measles.”
Since then, there have been long periods with “no sense of any presence at all”, but he has never gone back on that night’s “decision to follow Christ”. This is not his doing: “It’s grace. Grace is a reality: feelings are ephemeral.”
To understand the change in Justin Welby’s life, you need to know what happened before. His father, Gavin Welby, was a fantasist and a fraud. Justin was an only child. His parents separated when he was a little boy. In his teens, he lived mainly with his father in rented London flats. He was never in one place, except school, for more than a week at a time. Life was “utterly insecure”.
Money came and went, mostly went. In his last two years at Eton, the school waived the fees. Once, living in a flat so small that Justin had to camp in the sitting room, “We did a moonlight flit”, probably, he guesses, to escape creditors. “I still use the cheap suitcases from Woolworth in which we packed our things.”
His father had a stroke when Justin was in his mid-teens, and was an alcoholic. “Living with someone who is severely abusing alcohol is very unpredictable indeed. You never know what might happen next. The letters he wrote me could be very affectionate or immensely abusive.”
His father died when Justin was 21. Then he found his passport and discovered that Gavin was 11 years older than he had claimed. It was only after he had become Archbishop that he learnt that his father was not really called Welby, but Weiler, of Jewish descent. “When I went to the Holy Land last month, I discovered that I’ve got enough Jewish blood to have been picked up in Hitler’s Germany.”
Of his strange and lonely youth he says: “At the time, it felt horrible. Now it feels hugely valuable. God doesn’t waste stuff.” Out of the insecurity has come the confidence of his faith. Does he know Jesus? “Yes. I do. He’s both someone one knows and someone one scarcely knows at all, an utterly intimate friend and yet with indescribable majesty.”
And when he talks to God, is he speaking to Jesus or God the Father? “I don’t ask for his passport,” says the Archbishop, unconsciously echoing what he has told me about his father’s age. “I haven’t quite done the theology of this, but I think such communication is the work of the Spirit of God.”
Because he came to faith dramatically, he has few prejudices about which tradition to inhabit. “I am a spiritual magpie,” he says. As well as speaking in tongues (a Protestant practice), he adores the sacrament of the eucharist (a Catholic one). He also says the morning and evening office, Book of Common Prayer version, in the chapel of the palace, every day. “Today it was Psalm 51, which is penitential. If you come in thinking how brilliant you are, it’s good to say that psalm.”
The routine of regular prayer is immensely important in overcoming the ups and downs of human moods, he thinks. For his own spiritual discipline, Justin Welby uses Catholic models – the contemplation and stability of Benedictines, and the rigorous self-examination of St Ignatius. And, in a choice that could not possibly have been made since the 16th century – until now – the Archbishop’s spiritual director is Fr Nicolas Buttet, a Roman Catholic priest.
The Archbishop recently visited the new Pope, Francis, and was thrilled. “I think he is extraordinary. Unpredictable. He’s not John XXIII or anyone else. He’s Francis. He has deep humility and a consciousness of the complexity of things. He has Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality.”
It is spirituality that the two men share, and it is overcoming the divisions of 500 years: “One of the most exciting trends in western Christianity is that the Sprit of God is drawing Christians together.”
Where will his discussions with the Pope lead? “I haven’t a clue,” he says, disarmingly. He thinks that the ordination of women bishops, though he vigorously supports it, is the biggest obstacle to unity with Rome, but he also believes that both Churches now accept that they must “walk together”. Besides, “Rome is semper eadem [always the same], but infinitely flexible when it needs to be.”
Fr Buttet is a Swiss former lawyer and politician, who became a hermit. He founded a community that helps life’s “wounded”, especially those in long-term psychiatric care. I ask the Archbishop whether, given his own family history, he too is wounded. He pauses for a very long time, and sighs, as if the question hurts. At last he says: “I assume that I am, but I also assume that the grace of God is extraordinarily powerful in the healing of one’s wounds.”
The other half of Justin Welby’s background is quite different. His mother, Jane Portal, was Winston Churchill’s secretary, and he remembers going to tea, as a small boy, with the great man. Now she is married to the banker, historian and Labour peer, Charles Williams.
His grandmother, Iris Portal, was the sister of the Conservative statesman “RAB” Butler, and herself a biographer. At home in Norfolk, she provided the young Justin with the only security he knew, and a liberal acceptance of different people and traditions. He listened rapt to her tales of life in British India, where she nursed Indian soldiers during the Second World War. “She always said that India was civilised when we were running around painting ourselves blue.”
From this background, the Archbishop has developed a non-partisan fascination with politics. (“I am a classic floating voter – and now I don’t vote.”) He speaks almost like the practical executive he once was: “What interests me is what makes things work. Why, for example, was Mrs Thatcher so transformative?”
What does he think of her? “Genuinely, I don’t know the answer. When I was in the oil industry in the Eighties, I thought she was brilliant. When I was a clergyman in the North [Liverpool and Durham], I had a different view. But I think she had a discontent with drift which is really important, and an optimism about this country.” He feels the same: “The more I travel, the happier I am to come back.”
But hasn’t the credit crunch made everything gloomy? He does not see it that way, although he agrees that it has done terrible damage. He sees it as producing spiritual hunger, which will lead to spiritual wealth. “A society which has built its life on the material will sooner or later be deceived by the gods in whose hands it has put itself. That’s what we did.” Now, with “the toppling of the idols”, there is an opportunity. It’s not that prosperity and growth are not good things: “It is a matter of what you put your ultimate security in.”
I object that the Church of England, even under him, still seems to mouth the secular platitudes of the post-1945 settlement. He half-acknowledges the criticism, and doesn’t want welfare dependency either, but he thinks “the worst financial crisis since 1947… is a bad time to be cutting the bills significantly”. Lots of people are trapped by lack of opportunity and there is a “severe imbalance between the richest and the poorest parts”.
The Church, I say, is good at talking, but not at actually doing things to improve the social order.
“RUBBISH.” shouts the Archbishop, genially. “It is one of the most powerful forces of social cohesion. Did you know that each month all the Churches – roughly half of the numbers being Anglican – contribute 23 million hours of voluntary work, outside what they do in church? And it’s growing. There are now between 1,200 and 2,000 food banks in which the Church is involved. Ten years ago, there were none. There are vicars living in every impoverished area in the country. This springs out of genuine spirituality. We’re not just Rotary with a pointy roof.”
The Church of England, of course, cares also for the mighty. The Established Church underpins the monarchy. Any day, the heir to the heir to the heir will appear, the eventual Supreme Governor of his Church. “I respect and admire the monarchy more than I can say. Many leaders would do well to learn from the Queen’s sophisticated and thoughtful approach.”
He loves the integration of the spiritual and the constitutional. Recently he preached the sermon for the 60th anniversary of the Coronation. “I felt almost surprise, reading the order of service for 1953, that it opened with her own private prayer. Extraordinary. Her own allegiance to God was given ahead of our own allegiance to her.”
All the time, this active, wounded, happy man is trying to find new ways in which this country, despite the secular age, can give its allegiance to God again.