The archibishop of Canterbury is centre stage as Harry and Meghan marry. He talks disestablishment, gender equality and the future of the church

On a chilly Thursday evening, 400 parties have army into a immense, open-sided barn in rural Warwickshire to hear the archbishop of Canterbury speak. The warm-up behave is a young man with a guitar who performs a ballad about Hobnobs and custard creams, which may or may not include a veiled evangelical theme. The gathering- skewed towards the over-5 0s, with a predominance of Barbours and flat detonators – listen politely while chomping on their hog roasted baps; they haven’t come for the cookie song.

To one slope of the stage, Justin Welby waits, just observable in his customary black clerical shirt and dog collar, his head bowed. When his turn comes, he starts in self-deprecating mode, musing on his position as chairman of the Church of England and the global Anglican communion: are you supposed to be a person who dresses up in funny robes offering spiritual advice, or a kind of super civil servant, flowing one of the country’s oldest universities?

Earlier on this four-day tour of the area where he was firstly a parish pastor, Welby tells a group of farmers that he has written” a exceedingly boring volume” about the future of Britain, and an gathering of sixth-formers that he was ” litter at learning, but I could blag my practice through quizs “. At a primary school, he is asked how he came to be archbishop of Canterbury;” I don’t think anyone else required the job ,” is his reply. A few minutes later, Ronnie from receipt requests about the royal uniting: Welby is officiating at today’s ceremony.” I’m really, really excited ,” he replies,” but too genuinely, really nervous about sagging the rings”- which he did at the last marry he took, that of its communications director-” and everyone will thought: what an jackas .”

After each episode, he climbs back into the minibus ferrying him and his small suite( his wife, Caroline, plus his joint chiefs of staff, chaplain and head of media) and asks,” Was that OK ?” They reassure him; he reflects on the conversations he has shared and occasionally points out of the window to utter,” I used to have a beer in that pub !” or” I know that follower !”


Justin Portal Welby has been archbishop of Canterbury for five years, and intends to continue for another eight- longer than most of his precedes, though Randall Davidson lasted 25 times until he renounced in 1928. The undertaking is” very difficult to pin down”, but” at its center, the role is to be visibly someone who is committed to following Christ, and who supports others to follow Christ, and who inspires the church to encourage others to follow Christ “.

The errand is’ very difficult to pin down ‘. Photograph: Sebastian Nevols for the Guardian

It’s not immediately obvious how that plays out in a series of fits and happens with business leaders, hospital directors, farmers and coaches in and around Coventry, where Welby lived and worked for 15 years after he was ordained, and to which he clearly has a strong attachment. On the last morning of his tour, he bubbles with excitement and passion as he indicates me Coventry Cathedral: the ruinings of the 14 th-century cathedral, bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and the brilliant modernity of the postwar structure. Some attend his real-world grit and pragmatism, be included with heartfelt evangelism, as his greatest persuasivenes; his commentators “re saying that” the former petroleum executive’s managerial approach to the church- targets, practice, organisational reform- threats obliterating its riddle and traditions.

But today, Welby will play his part as the country’s foremost spiritual leader, wearing his full archbishop regalia (” I hate garmenting up ,” he tells me) as he takes Prince Harry and Meghan Markle through their wedding dedicates before a global audience of millions. American bishop Michael Bruce Curry, who has not met the couple, will give the address. Welby, meanwhile, has converged them several times, baptising and supporting Markle into the Anglican church in March.

He declines to disclose what private admonition he has given the pair as they embark on married life, saying : that he tells all brides and bridegrooms that communication is crucial.” You talk[ to them] about expressing when occasions go well, when you’re under pressure, when you’re tired, when the picture is ticklish, when you’re fed up. You do that with every pair .”

Officiating at royal weddings, commonwealth funerals and coronations is a major part of his responsibility as the leader of England’s proved, or regime, church. But to many, the official status of the C of E is an anachronism in an increasingly multifaith and secular civilization, in which only 7% of young adults determine as Anglican. Welby is cognizant of the fact that the national establishment sometimes seems detached from local faith communities who provide darknes shelters, food banks, meals for children in institution holidays and other essential social services. Of the two, he says flatly, the grassroots church is more important.

Female clergymen on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral with the archbishop of Canterbury, in 2014. Picture: Getty Images

Disestablishment- dispersing the church from the government- is mooted on occasion.” Would it be a disaster? No ,” he says, adding,” Nothing is a disaster with God .” Establishment is” a conglomeration of different flecks of record. There’s no Establishment of the Church of England Act that you could cancel – it’s a complicated process. And if you symbolize, by advantage, that the archbishop of Canterbury is often involved in royal bridals, or crowns the ruler, or whatever, that’s really policy decisions for parliament and the person or persons .”

But neither would disestablishment be liberating for the church.” It wouldn’t make any of that[ the grassroots social war] easier, as far as I can tell, because that’s all done at a local level. We’re an unbelievably delegated, dispersed organisation. All of those occasions happen because local Christians reach out to those around them, with other faith parishes, to those used of no sect; they do all that because they follow Christ. So I don’t think[ disestablishment] would make it easier, and I don’t think it would make it more difficult .”

A consequence of constitution is that the UK is one of exclusively two countries in the world that reserve posteriors in their parliament for preachers, the other being Iran– a detail relayed with some relish by Welby to a group of business leaders at Warwick University. But in contrast to the Iranian parliament, the 26 Lords Spiritual in the UK’s upper house now include two( soon to be three) dames, who are among more than a dozen appointed as bishops since the church made a historic change to canon law in 2014– a move endorse by Welby.

” If I look back during the past five years old, at what’s been achieved in the Church of England, the highest importance would clearly be the ordination of women to the episcopate. Am I revelled it’s happened? I’m more than thrilled, and I’m even more delighted to see, since it became possible in rule, approximately half the bishops that have been appointed are dames .” He would like to see the status of women take over as archbishop of Canterbury at some spot, he says.

But his strong advocacy of equality between men and women in the church- an issue that once caused acrimonious divide( and still does in pockets, including some parts of London, whose brand-new girl bishop, Sarah Mullally, has just been installed)- hasn’t been matched by a clearly defined blurb of the campaign for LGBT equality and same-sex union, the latter forbidden by the church despite being sanctioned by parliament virtually five years ago. Yet some of those campaigning for equality say that, since taking up residency in Lambeth Palace, Welby has become privately more open and likable to their case.

They say he has been on a travel, I tell him.” Do they? How interesting ,” he chuckles.” Well, we’re all on a excursion. Are my views different from 25 years ago? Yes .” Are they differences between five years ago?” I hope they’re deeper. I’ve not changed in the sense that I imagine the scriptures, properly translated, abide for me the final sovereignty in respect of doctrine, in respect of rehearse. But the term is’ properly performed ‘. And we are continuing as a church to debate with one another, to discuss with one another, and to listen particularly to the expressions of LGBTIQ+ beings, who historically have been appallingly treated and never listened to. You talk to[ the bishops resulting the C of E’s work on the issue] and I think they would say the whole religion is on a travel. And I’m part of that .”

The church is now facing a new demand to embrace transgender beings in its congregations and as clergy.” It’s an issue we have to listen to very carefully. But it’s unbelievably complex. Even within transgender communities, what it intends is something that people debate and discuss- and the last circumstance I crave is the church to weigh in with its width 14 s, saying:’ This is the answer and “you know youre going” do it .’ I signify, you’ve got to be more on receive than give .”

At Buckingham Palace in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
Another crisis issue that has predominated Welby’s tenure is the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults. Sacrificing prove to the national child abuse inquiry in March on the way the C of E treated subjects in Chichester, mainly in the 1970 s and 80 s, Welby said he was
” ashamed of the church “~ ATAGEND; he has also said the issue preserves him awake at night. He tells me “he il be”” conscious of the alternative” that the damage to the church’s reputation could degenerate with farther inquiry hearings the summer months and next year. But, he adds,” I think that the worst of all things that we could do is obses more about our honour than the truth. To fail in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults is the absolute denial of what the fuck is called to in Jesus fucking christ. And to privilege national human rights institutions over that is utterly vile and wrong and must never be allowed to happen .”

On his watch, the committee has been tangible change: every diocese now has a safeguarding policeman; it is a disciplinary material not to report safeguarding editions; the church has invested millions in schooling; and” none gets appointed as a bishop unless their approaching to safeguarding has been questioned and found to be satisfactory “.

The way to protect the church’s honour, he says, is by” being utterly candid and transparent and honest. No cover-up. Justice for complainants and right for those who are complained against. We have to affection and care for those who are the vulnerable and weak in this. We have to find- and, of course, we haven’t got there yet- ways and means to behaving rightly on this .”

His determination that there should be no cover-up has led to an testy confrontation with those who feel Welby unjustifiably trashed the heroic honour of bishop George Bell, a revered figure in the 20 th century, after allegations were made use of sexual abuse dating back six decades. Lord Carlile, who last year carried out an independent its consideration of the church’s handling of the claims, concluded that Bell had been” hung out to dry” and the church had ” rushed to judgment “~ ATAGEND. Welby refused to back down, nonetheless, saying a” significant cloud” was left over Bell’s name. The poisonous row demo no signaling of “re going away”, and may yet cause Welby real difficulty.

But Welby is loosened and charming on his tour of the diocese of Coventry, which starts every day with a breakfast find and aims around 10 pm. He listens closely to those he fulfils, imparts various church services with enthusiasm and witticism, hugs a newborn baby in a hospital and a newborn lamb on a farm; he accosts old friends with hugs and jokes. He isn’t always like this; he tells me he is often” exceedingly petulant” and has acknowledged to periods of” pitch-black bird-dog” feeling. And he is known to have a fearsome humour. Beings in his clique sometimes allude to contests of rage; last year Welby told GQ magazine:” I don’t know why I have a temper. I am much better than I used to be .”


Welby’s remarkable personal backstory, blending advantage and familial chaos, stands retelling. His baby, Jane Portal, sufficed as Winston Churchill‘s private secretary before marrying Gavin Welby, a German-Jewish immigrant designated by Jane as a bully. The pair, both alcoholics, divorced when Justin was three; the son shuttled between his parents and grandparents in Norfolk until he was jam-pack off to Eton. On Desert Island Discs in 2014, Welby described his childhood as “grim” and “messy”, saying “his fathers”” was always erratic. Sometimes very full of feeling and exasperation, and expressing that very loudly. It felt very painful at times. But I didn’t know anything else .” He tells me his biggest sadnes is” not having had a better affair with my father- the person I thought was my father “. In an surprising construction, DNA researches two years ago revealed that Gavin Welby wasn’t Justin’s biological father after all. In happening, he is the son of Sir Anthony Montague Browne, an aide to Churchill with whom his mother had a drunken fling days before she absconded with Welby senior.

Welby with bishop Angaelos, archbishop Athanasius Thoma Dawod and archbishop Gregorios after a find at Lambeth Palace in London, 2014. Image: Luke Macgregor/ Reuters

The boy who went on to be archbishop noticed God when he was a student at Cambridge, after which he spent 11 times in the oil industry, eventually becoming treasurer of Enterprise Oil, subsequently taken over by Shell, a background that granted him the hard-edged pragmatism he has brought to the C of E. In the 1980 s, he adored at Holy Trinity Brompton- a charismatic evangelical church in London predominated, according to its commentators, by affluent and overbearing high-flyers- eventually giving up his profitable errand studying to be a priest.

In 1983 the Welbys’ first child, Johanna, was killed in a car gate-crash in Paris aged seven months. He says he has contended with forgiveness.” I thought we’d kind of forgiven and dealt with that, but I realised a few years ago that I hadn’t. I’d just shelved it. It revealed to me the degrees of how we are capable of deceive oneself. The costly street to forgiveness, that ache and agony, is something we have to tread if we are to get to a point where we find reconciliation .”

The product of this complex and perturbed background is a liberal-leaning religious leader who are familiar with current realities of modern British civilization, fractured kinfolks, loneliness and loss. He cast his five children to government institutions, a deliberate political choice. He publicly said his intention to vote are still on the EU referendum. He insists the C of E must represent all the people of the country, whatever their religion or deficiency of faith- although some commentators say that under Welby’s leadership it increasingly focuses on a narrow evangelicalism.

He tells groupings of sixth-formers in Southam that this organization is political, but not partisan.” One of the things I struggle with is wanting to speak the truth, but at the same time not to be party political. Obviously, if we had person like Hitler in this country, I’d personally speak against them. But under normal occasions, I’m very careful never to speak against individual politicians .”

He tells me he would like to meet Donald Trump when the US president sees the UK in July. If he anticipated Trump’s programs were morally questionable, would he give him know?” When I have private meetings[ with political leaders ], first of all they are private, but secondly “theyre about” direct. They are respectful but direct .” So does he speak truth to ability?” Well, I’m meant to, aren’t I? I try to. I come away from some gathers knocking myself for not having done well enough- and exceedingly sometimes I visualize, OK, I did it .”

For all his evangelism and determination to reform the church, Welby doesn’t seek to repudiate the C of E’s woeful diminish. The church expects its quantities to continue to fall for 30 years, by which season only 1% of the UK population is likely to attend services regularly. When he became archbishop, Welby pledged to turn this around. Is it time to admit defeat?

” No! After five years old? We’ve been declining for 70 years. This is a generational thought. That would be ultra short-termism. We have to collaborate and cooperate with the minds of the God, we have to be confident about the good news of Jesus, we have to live it out, we have to serve and bless our communities together. We have to stop arguing, and “weve got to” pray. In the grace of God, I believe that over meter, at some level, it will turn around. While there’s one Christian in this country, it’s not time to stop talking about that .”

With the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry during a ceremony at St Symphorien Military cemetery, Mons, Belgium, in 2014. Photograph: Rex/ Shutterstock

So he’s rosy? “I’m hopeful.” Clearly he believes in miracles; it may need one to save the Church of England.

On the bus, trundling through the Midlands, Welby sometimes siesta. Most periods he gets up at 5am; it’s the only hour he can find the peace and solitude to pray. His diary is full; there is little time for relaxation. But he reads thrillers and Shakespeare, watches” political stuff” and Midsomer Murders on TV, and goes to the cinema in civvies. He spends as much age as possible with his adult children- all five are devotees, he once told me,” good-for-nothing to do with me”- often disagreeing about politics all over the dinner table. Caroline accompanies him on tours( and does a few on her own) and looks out for him; in Jerusalem a year ago, she unsuccessfully counselled Welby to get a much-needed early night rather than share a bottle of wine-coloured with me and a couple of his aides.

But mainly he works.” I have a limited amount of meter, but I stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me, and people will stand on all their shoulders after me. The church[ of England] has been around for over 1,400 times, through numerous invasions, a number of changes, decapitations, you mention it .” Another eight years is not long for all “he il want to” do, but” you are required to retire from this position at 70, and that’s the appointment that is there in my knowledge “.

What will his gift be?” I genuinely don’t know, but people have started questioning, so I’m wondering how old-time I’m looking. I hope a church that prays, that worships, that responds to the poor .” The question is whether that’s enough, or if the process of atrophy is irreparable. Today’s royal bridal is the last for a generation; by the next time around, Welby will be long gone from Lambeth Palace, and the church may also have joined the annals of record. Welby is taking it one stair at a time. He picks up his briefcase (” it’s only got my jumper in it “) and honcho into the cavernous room of Coventry Cathedral, ready for another day in God’s service.

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