I’ve now had the opportunity to view the videos of Justin Welby’s statement to the media on Friday and the questions he answered and to reflect on his appointment.
A number of things strike me which haven’t been picked up by the media, who choose to focus on women bishops and gays. He was unequivocal in his support for women in the episcopate, which is great news, and he was clear in his statement about his stance on sexuality and the place of LGB&T people in the Church.
He conforms with the House of Bishops’ statement issued in response to the government’s consultation on equal marriage. The statement was rightly greeted with derision because it was so badly framed and argued, but Bishop Justin has no alternative but to conform. I suspect that on theological and traditional principles he opposes gay marriage, but he will be confronted with the reality anyway. Following the consultation the government will introduce legislation and it will be approved on a free vote. What Archbishop Justin will the have to deal with is the reality of married lesbian and gay clergy and laity.
Before we reach that point there is another reality he will have to deal with – the two reports from the House of Bishops Working Parties. These will (I hope) confront him with a substantial challenge, assuming the Working Parties have had the courage to recommend movement beyond the status quo. Recognition of civil partnerships may be one recommendation. The House of Bishops will be divided on any radical change in teaching, and it is a House, not an Archbishop of Canterbury decision. I expect Justin Welby to be realistic and robust in gaining the agreement of the HoB to act with greater vision and courage in the recommendations they make.
I also note that he talked, both in his statement and in answering a question, about learning from other traditions beyond his own evangelical background, which has led him “…into the riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality, the treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration, and confronted me with the rich and challenging social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” He also referred to his time at Coventry Cathedral which opened his eyes to the church overseas and gave him a passion for reconciliation.
To have a second Archbishop of Canterbury who prays contemplatively is a great gift. Anyone who engages in contemplative prayer will be drawing closer to the loving presence of God’s infinite wisdom in the core of their being, heart and body and soul. It’s impossible to pray contemplatively and not be deeply open to the Spirit and be changed by the experience. As he showed when he met the press on Friday, Bishop Justin is both thoughtful, and thinks through, quickly and with wisdom, answers to questions designed to provoke and trap. He was transparent and careful at the same time, offering no hostages to fortune and speaking from the heart.
And now we come to the paragraph in which he spoke specifically about sexuality and the deep differences the Church faces. He said that it is “…absolutely right for the state to define the rights and status of people co-habiting in different forms of relationships, including civil partnerships.” This is a statement which I might take to pre-empt whatever recommendation the Working Party chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man makes to the HoB.
Bishop Justin said categorically that “… we must have no truck with any form of homophobia, in any part of the church. This is as robust a statement as Changing Attitude could have hoped for, and we will hold him to it. He continued by referring to all the responsibilities which come from the Church of England’s links with the worldwide church. What the church does here, he said, deeply affects the already greatly suffering churches in places like northern Nigeria.
The Primate of All Nigeria, Nicholas Okoh, interviewed by the BBC about the Justin Welby’s appointment, was angry and bitter in denouncing the Church of England’s tolerance of homosexuality. To me, he didn’t sound like a Christian. Archbishop Welby will need all the gifts of his reconciling work and Ignatian spirituality when he engages with the Church of Nigeria.
On the BBC web site, Archbishop Okoh describes it as “grievously disunited” and said attending church meetings was like “working in a police state with agents all over the place trying to catch people with their words”. He said the new Archbishop of Canterbury will have to tread very carefully on the controversial issues of homosexual priests and same-sex marriage if he wants to ensure rifts do not deepen further.
Nigeria has issued an all-too predictable warning shot across the bows, but the Archbishop-elect said he has visited Nigeria some fifty times, and he is already well-versed in Nigerian culture and attitudes.
Back to Bishop Justin’s statement – he said he knows he needs to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine his own thinking prayerfully and carefully.
“I am always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us. Above all in the church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed honestly and in love.”
Changing Attitude is excited by Bishop Justin’s appointment and we look forward to discussing the place of LGB&T people in the Church of England in safe spaces, where the truth about the place of laity and clergy in civil partnerships and of gay bishops can be explored in honesty and love.