HAVING been unveiled as the next Archbishop of Canterbury in London on Friday (November 9), Justin Welby returned to his day job at the weekend – still displaying the mix of humour and drive which has fuelled his rapid rise to the top of the Church of England. Mark Tallentire reports.
“BECAUSE speaking generally, I’m not a horse. I think that’s a really important point to get across.”
Perhaps not words you would expect from the next head of the worldwide Anglican Church; but then Justin Portal Welby, still for a few months the Bishop of Durham, is perhaps not whom you would expect, either.
His appointment to succeed Rowan Williams is still a surprise even to him, he says, and still hasn’t sunk in.
Earlier this year, he effectively ruled himself out of the running, saying he had neither the experience nor the desire for the job. So what changed?
“God works through the church in a remarkable way,” he reflects, “The CNC (Crown Nominations Commission) have made their recommendation and I said: ‘OK, let’s get on with it’.
Senior bishops and friends told him to do it, he reveals, so he did.
Despite months of speculation, the news only officially reached him a week last Friday (November 2), when the Prime Minister’s office called.
“I thought: ‘Let’s get this out of the way and then I can get back to normal’.
“He said: ‘I’m ringing to inform you that the Prime Minister is writing to you to nominate you for the See of Canterbury’. I said: ‘Oh no’. It was a shock.”
The letter arrived last Monday, following a weekend of fervent prayer.
“I’d been aware for some time my name had been linked. But I didn’t think it would be me,” the old Etonian insists, with characteristic modesty.
But back to the horse quip.
An unholy row (is there any other kind?) erupted last week when a rush of bets backing Bishop Welby, including many from people in South-West London with no previous history of online gambling, led to claims of insider trading from senior church figures. So how did they know?
“I haven’t the least idea,” the Archbishop designate says.
“It was a very strange feeling to find yourself having odds quoted on you by a bookie – because generally speaking I’m not a horse.
“I think that’s a really important point to get across.”
It brings laughter from the handful of reporters gathered to speak to the successor to the seat of St Augustine, as he appeared at Sunderland Minister to support One For The Basket, a new food distribution project in the city.
And it’s typical of the man – he has an ability to defuse conflict situations and put people at ease, while getting his message across.
That last bit comes next.
“I think if people have made money from it, the church should benefit: so give it to your local church,” he says, quite seriously.
The London-born father-of-five became Bishop of Durham, the fourth most senior person in the Church of England, just a year ago.
But his star has only risen since as ministers, newspapers and regular parishioners alike have all sought to draw on his undoubted intelligence and commitment.
His latest promotion inevitably means some work will have to pass to others.
He will continue on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he says, but will step down from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic review panel and as patron of the Foundation for Jobs.
“I owe it to the region to pray for it and to hold it in my heart, my thoughts and my words and to continue to be an advocate and supporter of it as much as I am able,” he says. But he is keen not to trample on his successor’s toes.
Though who that will be will not be known for several months, it is unlikely to be a woman as the change, likely to be supported by the Church’s General Synod later this month, must go through Parliament first.
However, Bishop Welby says he wants to be the Archbishop who oversees the appointment of the first female bishop, commenting: “One of these days, I’ve no doubt, God will call a woman to be the Bishop of Durham.”
Asked the highlights of his year in Durham, he says: Prayer of the People, a week-long public prayer campaign held in the days before he was formally enthroned; a confirmation service in Stockton which saw 21 adults of six nationalities welcomed into the Church; and another confirmation service which left him feeling “they saw the point of the church and they found in Christ real hope and security and a sense that God is at work in this area”.
He is a Bishop with change on his mind – and not just in his personal circumstances.
The need for projects like One For The Basket worries him, he says, and society must change so the common good is promoted, rather than individual gain.
Pay day lenders, such as Newcastle United sponsor Wonga, are charging extraordinary rates of interest, he says.
And church unity, too, will be a priority when he gets into Lambeth Palace.
“It’s got to be. Not getting everyone to agree, because that’s never going to happen. But it’s really important the church demonstrates how we can disagree and continue to love and respect each other.”
An opponent of same-sex marriage, he has pledged to pray and reflect on the issue and declined to comment further at the weekend.
Bishop Welby will remain in post as Bishop of Durham well into 2013, with his Archbishop installation service scheduled for Canterbury Cathedral in March.
Until then, it’s back to the day job. Next up: meeting leaders of a shelter project for the homeless.
“Absolutely wonderful,” he says; and means every word.