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4 October 2023

Justin Welby: “It’s better to be woke than asleep”

The Tories decry his interventions; others say he's too conservative. Can the Archbishop of Canterbury unite a fraying Church?

By Kate Mossman

The Archbishop of Canterbury is busying himself around the kitchen hatch at a church hall in Market Drayton, Shropshire. He doesn’t look entirely like an archbishop. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, resembled an Orthodox priest; Justin Welby’s silver-grey suit is trim-fitting, his body neat, his shoes shiny. He has blended into the room, filled with people seeking advice on debt, without announcement.

His wife, Caroline, is here, too, just off a plane from India, where she was representing her ministry, Women on the Front Line. Welby asks her where his iPad is, and there is a discussion about the “husband search”, a method of looking for possessions that involves casting one’s eyes in a straight line rather than looking around. Welby fixes me with a slightly camp, “Are you getting this?” stare. It’s a look he often has. At one point I mention I enjoyed reading, in an interview, that he never listens to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Welby claps his hand over his mouth: “Oh, I know!”

The town of Market Drayton is home to the Müller yogurt factory, which contributes to the town’s many food banks. The vicar’s wife, who runs the debt centre, talks about the aftermath of the pandemic. It had taken people three or four years to start using her service, initially enticed by the cover of toddler groups and social gatherings; now there is the cost-of-living crisis, too. One woman is making her first trip out since the lockdowns. Over the past three years she has lost a baby, a teenage son and her husband. Her journey here required a two-hour bus journey.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

Welby sits at every table in turn, squeezes hands, leans in on his elbows. A group of older women decide they can’t eat their profiteroles in front of him: “It’s like having spaghetti on a date.” Welby himself refrains from the buffet lunch until we move to the vicarage to talk, quickly cramming a jammy scone into his mouth.

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Before we leave, he gives a prayer, and tells the story of Jesus and the blind man who called out at the gates of Jericho (Luke 18:35-43). Welby is so casual in his delivery he sounds like a lay preacher: “The disciples did what happens with people in any organisation and they said, ‘You shut up!’ The man didn’t shut up…” His voice is slightly nasal. “I hate my voice,” he tells me later, kneeling on the floor to sign the vicar’s guest book. “Don’t you hate hearing your own voice? I do a radio programme – The Archbishop Talks or something [it’s The Archbishop Interviews] – and I’ve only been able to listen back to one episode.”

Self-deprecation is not always an advantage in a job where one is expected to be cast-iron in one’s decisions, yet float loftily above politics. Originally welcomed as a conservative but a good communicator, he was expected to be a unifying force – just as Pope Francis was. Some critics of Welby think he is too “woke”, intervening on issues he shouldn’t; others think he is not woke enough. He has spoken out against Brexit, Universal Credit and Suella Braverman’s immigration policies: he described her plan to send refugees to Rwanda as “ungodly” in an Easter sermon. Last month, his team confirmed that Braverman had refused a request to meet. Welby has defended trans rights, but for years sat on the fence about same-sex marriage, trying to hold together the fragile coalition of the Anglican Communion. Writing in the Daily Mail last year, the columnist Stephen Glover accused him of spouting “trendy, shallow nonsense… one of the most garrulous and outspoken primates to have occupied Lambeth Palace since the Reformation”. Yet gay rights campaigners have demonstrated outside the palace, too.

In the vicarage, we sit on a sofa where Welby says his hearing aid will work better (that he wears one was first noted on social media in May, when he placed a heavy crown on Charles III’s head). He pretends not to know he made the Mail on Sunday’s 2023 Woke List, its annual compilation of the “Britons who are most high-profile in their awakedness to perceived injustices”. He does know he featured in the New Statesman’s Left Power List in May, because it caused mild consternation at Lambeth Palace: a New Statesman guest edit by Rowan Williams had prompted a furious response from 10 Downing Street and the Conservative-led coalition government in 2011.

“I’m not that woke,” Welby says today. “I’m really very conservative in lots of things. And better to be woke than asleep. The Church in the 1960s or 1970s, on issues of race, was sound asleep. It missed out on what would probably be two to three hundred thousand people who came from the Caribbean, whom we turned away. I wish they’d been a bit more woke, frankly. We’d be a better Church for it.” Had the Anglican Church embraced priests and congregants from the Windrush generation, today’s emptying churches might have looked different.

How does he decide whether or not a particular issue is his business? “If it’s going to cause a major fuss, I never make the decision by myself, because I’m too prone to get it wrong.” Instead there is reflection, prayer and the reading of “up-to-date economics books”.

“I say to myself: am I right to be concerned about this, or is it just a passing hobby? I ask, is this really about the Kingdom of God? So, for instance, on the immigration question, it wasn’t that difficult because you go to the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and Jesus says to his followers, ‘I was a stranger, and you took me in.’ The humane treatment of outsiders is central.”

Does he like speaking out? “I hate it. You know you’re going to get landed on from a great height. I’m very fallible and probably I’ll say something unwise. It would be nice to be Reverend Timms in Postman Pat, where all you do is go around sweeping the pews, but it wouldn’t be right.”

I ask him where you draw the line between an ungodly policy and an ungodly government. “Oh, it’s a long way away from where we are. There are governments in history where you would have said they were unqualified. The Church did, in 1688 [the Glorious Revolution, which shifted power from the monarchy to parliament], but we’re nowhere near an ungodly government. And if this government – I’m not commenting on whether they should or shouldn’t be – but if they were defeated next year, we know that they’ll just leave. No trouble.” Then he adds: “And if Labour loses, we know that Labour don’t expect to be in government, you know?”

He won’t be drawn on any support for a Labour government, though in the week we speak, Keir Starmer has used very similar language to Welby’s on the subject of people trafficking, pledging to treat criminal gangs “like terrorists”. “It’s what we’ve been proposing, both in the House of Lords but also in letters, including to Starmer. You have to have safe and legal routes, and a highly efficient system for deciding who stays and who goes. And you have to have an international effort, [as with] terrorism.”

In the past, when questioned on gay marriage, Welby would take the Church line but then bend it towards human reality. Marriage is between a man and a woman for the purposes of having children, he’d say – and yet a same-sex partnership can be just as meaningful; “I struggle with this issue” you’d hear, again and again. But in February this year, the Archbishop of Nigeria declared that Welby had “begun a second Reformation” after the General Synod, the Church of England’s governing body, voted to allow the blessing of gay couples. Archbishops representing ten of the 42 provinces, including Chile, Bangladesh and Uganda, broke the Anglican Communion, joining two others (from the US and Brazil) who had parted with Welby in 2016.

While the Archbishop of Canterbury has no formal power, the role has long been one of “first among equals”. “What they said is, they don’t have any confidence in me,” says Welby. “They haven’t broken contact – I have seen them since. They just said they think what I’m doing, what we’re doing in this country around sexuality, is completely wrong.

“It’s obviously incredibly painful. These are friends – they’re people I care for and love deeply. I’ve been to their countries. I’ve worked in their conflicts. But they have a perfect right to speak out when they see something wrong. The great thing about the Anglican Communion is we’re not hierarchical. I’m not a Pope. It’s like a row within a family.”

Many felt Welby had failed gay people, that a blessing fell far short of a marriage. Shortly after the Synod vote, Welby said that structural change was essential. Was he proposing a system that no longer recognised the Archbishop of Canterbury as its head? Will this happen?

“I think it probably will. Quite apart from the sexuality issue, the pivotal teaching – from the words of Jesus, from the words of St Paul – is that there is no distinction between people on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, wealth, poverty, intelligence, education. We have to live that out. We are in a post-imperial era, and it is essential that the Church acts and looks post-imperial. It’s the elephant that lies behind a lot of the issues that are otherwise present. We have to have a system where anyone in the Anglican Communion can lead it. I think most people would agree we need to be post-colonial. But how you do that, and what it looks like afterwards, is really difficult.”

[See also: The church’s gay marriage ban is politics, not Christianity]

Welby’s first taste for spirituality came when he was asked to clean the chapel as a pupil at Eton, alone, as a teenager; but at 19, he had a full-on evangelical experience. On the night of 12 October 1975, at Cambridge University with his friend Nicky Wells, he said a prayer that, with characteristic simplicity, went something like: “I don’t even know if you exist but if you do, I’d like you to be in charge of my life.” “So, it wasn’t a great prayer of faith!” he adds now.

In the mid-1970s, the university was home to a strong evangelical movement led by the Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union. There was a group of young men known as the “Five Nickys”, including Wells, four of whom had been at Eton. One of them, Nicky Gumbel, went on to help pioneer the Alpha Course. During holidays in London, for Welby, there was the charismatic arena of Holy Trinity Brompton in Kensington, which his future wife, whom he met in his third year at Cambridge, also attended.

After Cambridge, Welby worked in the oil industry for 11 years. He was taken on by Elf Aquitaine in Paris, where he and Caroline had an apartment in the 16th arrondissement. Welby was in charge of securing finance for Elf’s international projects, making trips to Lagos between 1978 and 1983. His colleagues were aware of the crucifix pin on his blazer but he was one of the yuppies, even if he didn’t drink as much as they did. He was fearless when taking risks, one later recalled, and dealt in huge amounts of money despite being relatively junior.

In 1986 Welby met a panel at St Mary Abbots in Kensington to discuss training as a priest. By this time he was treasurer for the UK company Enterprise Oil and doing well. “I had a period where I couldn’t put a foot wrong in terms of calling the markets,” he later said. “I thought, I’m really good at this.” He had regular wobbles about whether he wanted to join the Church. The Kensington panel asked Welby, for some reason, what he would do if his drainpipes were blocked. He said he’d send Caroline up a ladder to clear them, his point being she had a better head for heights. He did not get through.

At another interview, Bishop John Hughes of Kensington told him: “I have interviewed a thousand for ordination and you do not come in the top thousand.” At a national selection conference in Derby, the Bishop of Maidstone, David Smith, asked him why he wanted to be ordained. Welby said, “Well, I don’t, really, because I’m enjoying what I’m doing now.” Yet he had an overwhelming feeling that his calling was to God and after the encounter, in 1989, Smith gave him the green light.

Smith, who is now 88 and honorary assistant bishop of York, remembers the conference well. “We were used to people coming along who were dead keen and presented themselves in the best light,” he tells me over the phone. “Justin Welby was the opposite. He said, ‘I want to get rid of this niggle.’ After the interview I went straight to Moses, and there’s a whole chapter in Exodus with Moses finding every possible excuse he could not to do his job. For Justin, it was a true vocation in which he had to struggle.” When he saw Smith years later, preaching in York Minster, Welby said: “This is all your fault.”

Caroline and Justin Welby with the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III (fourth right), at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images

Has Welby had a particularly tough run, negotiating the consequences of austerity, the refugee crisis, Brexit, Covid, Boris Johnson’s government and the death of the Queen? His predecessor Rowan Williams adds to that, telling me he considers Welby a victim of the “constantly intensifying feverishness of social media commentary. In that world, you are condemned to absolute binaries. You’re a hero or a villain, a weakling or a leader. People rage and sneer and ascribe sinister motives or incomprehensible stupidity. Justin’s had more than his share of that – more than I had.”

Williams praises Welby’s directness and admires how swiftly he steered through legislation to allow women bishops in 2014. “He knows what matters to him and he has great clarity in communicating it.” Williams also says that it is “not untypical” of him to have spelled out the tangled relationship between an English archbishop and a global Anglican congregation. “It’s hard, because the ‘right-thinking’ motives that might make you challenge the legacy of ecclesiastical racism is also the kind of thinking that makes you want to give voice to other ‘subaltern’ voices, especially sexual minorities. The conflict that results is a real circle-squaring exercise. Justin has worked more than most people begin to grasp to sustain personal relations across these gulfs of understanding.”

During Welby’s tenure, particularly after the pandemic, Church of England attendance has dropped by 25 per cent, a decline he recently described as a “personal failure”.

“Secularism is a crisis because where do people find their hope and their trust?” he asks me in Market Drayton. “The Psalms are so realistic about this: ‘Put not your trust in princes.’ There isn’t, anywhere, an ideal government that will mean all problems are solved. Money is very nice and certainly it gives you more security, but in the end, it lets you down. It can’t stop you dying. It can’t make relationships work.”

He mentions a “wonderful” Terry Pratchett novel, Small Gods, in which the size of the god depends on how many people believe in it. In reality, “that’s not how it works. God exists unchanged, even if nobody believes in God. Secularism has its own inbuilt crisis because it doesn’t have any sense of teleology. It doesn’t have a foundation in hope that recognises human sinfulness and forgiveness. The crisis of cancel culture is enormous in the absence of those things that enable society to repair itself, to suffer disaster and still have hope, and therefore for people to love one another. It’s brutal.”

Welby had the kind of childhood that made him ripe for religious conversion. His parents were alcoholics who divorced when he was three. His mother, Jane Portal, got sober in 1968 and later married the head of Barings Bank. On her side, there were governors of India, knights of the Garter, barons and viscounts; she had worked as a private secretary to Winston Churchill. But his father – well, who really knew? Gavin Welby was an American posing as an upper-class Englishman, as well as a professional backgammon player who claimed to have run alcohol during the Prohibition era. Intelligent, chaotic, needy, unpredictable, he was, his son has said, “a great keeper of secrets”.

It was he who got custody of Justin, presumably because the courts were harder on alcoholic women in those days. He once stayed in a hotel in Hampshire with his two-year-old son so that he could woo Vanessa Redgrave. The archbishop’s biographer, Andrew Atherstone, uncovered anguished letters between members of Redgrave’s family fearing an engagement. The man was “a real horror”, they said – the boy, though, was “angelic”.

When Gavin Welby died, in 1977, he turned out to be 11 years older than he claimed, and Jewish, the grandson of an ostrich-feather merchant. Welby discovered this when the Daily Telegraph broke the story, days into his time at Canterbury; he went to Israel, and dutifully set about connecting with his Jewish roots.

When Charles Moore, the former editor of the Spectator, was at Eton, he had an obsessive habit of learning to match the names and faces of each boy in his year, and the one above. Welby, a year older, was the only pupil who evaded him. “He was so obscure at the time, and, as we now know, he was very unhappy. This shy-looking, quite small chap who looked anxious. I didn’t exchange a word with him at school.”

They were at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the same time, too (Welby studied history and law), though again not friends. Gavin Welby was, by then, dying of alcoholism, and as his only relative, Welby talked to his father constantly. The evangelical crowd, Moore tells me, provided support.

Years later Moore heard rumours that Gavin Welby was not the archbishop’s biological father. (Welby knew the rumours, too, though he’d chosen to ignore them.) Certainly he bore a physical resemblance to Churchill’s final private secretary (and card partner), Sir Anthony Montague Browne: the arched eyebrows, the soft mouth, the nostrils. In pursuit of a “cracking good story”, Moore obtained Browne’s DNA from his uncleaned hairbrushes, with his widow’s permission. What he did not expect was that Welby would say, “OK, let’s get on with it.” Moore took a DNA testing kit to Lambeth Palace, and watched the archbishop put it inside his mouth like a toothbrush. The result was texted a few days later: “Your Grace, the chances that Sir Anthony Montague Browne is your father are 99.98 per cent.”

Justin Welby’s biological father, Anthony Montague Browne (centre), with Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, 1959. Photo by Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy

Welby then had to tell his 86-year-old mother, who had slept with Browne just before she eloped with Gavin Welby. There was also a “nasty moment” when the ecclesiastical lawyers suggested that only a man of legitimate birth could be the Archbishop of Canterbury; a rule they subsequently found had been changed in the 1950s.

Moore tells me that Welby’s willingness to take the test was “very typical, and surprising in a prince of the Church. I thought it was highly admirable, but it also illustrates a problem. Church leadership has to be consensual and cautious; there is a danger in agreeing to something without thinking about it. Justin didn’t take extreme care. What he did was the human reaction of somebody who likes to get things sorted out. I know it’s very attractive, but sometimes he is quite unwise as a Church leader – his impatience gets the better of him.”

Moore goes so far as to suggest that Welby “doesn’t understand the nature of the Anglican tradition very much. The Church of England survives by being quite cautious and kind. He and the Pope are not entirely dissimilar; in their tweets and remarks they’re quite angry.” (Welby and Pope Francis are great friends – “a proper bromance”, someone at Lambeth tells me. As the papers splashed on the weekend of 30 September on Braverman’s refusal to meet, Welby flew to the Vatican to discuss the refugee crisis with the Pope.)

Moore concedes that there is a positive aspect to Welby’s impatience. “Jesus gets angry. Jesus doesn’t always try to see both sides of the argument. He kicks over the tables. But would Jesus have made a good archbishop? Justin is certainly expressing a real aspect of Christianity and trying to embody it. He’s not bland. He is always thinking, what does Jesus want me to do? Some of them rather lose the fire of faith and I don’t think he’s like that at all.”

Is Welby foolish to say his position at the head of the Anglican Communion needs to change? “He is groping towards something important,” Moore said.” It is a curious construct of imperial history. It’s a colonialist act of white British Anglicans to promote gay marriage across the Anglican Communion.” Moore thinks the Communion should become as weak as the Commonwealth: “The logic is to let it grow looser.”

[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

In the mid-1980s, Welby left the oil industry: it was a big enough story to make the financial pages. After five years at Elf Aquitaine, he had moved to Enterprise in the UK, a Thatcherite experiment in the privatisation of British Gas’s North Sea oil fields. He thought Thatcher was tremendous, he once said, until he worked as a clergyman in Durham.

Years later, three former Elf Aquitaine executives were jailed for siphoning off €350m of state-owned funds in the 1980s and 1990s. During his time with the company, Welby had worked on a project to invest €6bn in Nigerian oil and divert natural gas to Europe. In fact the “project” was designed to give Elf continued access to the country’s crude oil and prevent Nigeria from nationalising its oil fields. Soldiers paid by Elf seized land from Nigerians in the region. Welby later told the Daily Mail that he had believed it to be a genuine investment project, and was unaware of human rights violations.

While training to be a priest at Cranmer Hall in Durham, Welby wrote a doctorate entitled “Can Companies Sin?”. The dissertation considers “the accountability of individuals for the actions of groups”, including the 1988 Piper Alpha explosion, in which 167 oil rig workers were killed. The finance director must be held responsible for safety, Welby proposed, “making him conscious of the result of imprudent cost-cutting… Be aware of the inner circle that keeps secrets as a source of power.”

On the day he and his wife moved back to the UK from Paris in 1981, Welby travelled ahead with the removals van, while Caroline followed in a car driven by a friend, with their seven-month-old daughter, Johanna. On the road at Amiens, the car swerved and the baby was thrown from the vehicle; she died five days later. Welby later likened the subsequent weeks to standing on the top of a cliff and being simultaneously held up and pushed over by a sense of the overwhelming presence of God.

At other times, he tells me, God has been almost entirely absent from his life. “I always trusted that He was at work, even if that trust was sometimes rather through gritted teeth. If I don’t pray, and pray with others, I lose all sense of direction.”

His personal faith is a homemade and various concoction. Alongside his evangelical directness, he is drawn to Ignatian spirituality – among his closest advisors are Catholic nuns and monks – and he has been speaking in tongues since he was 19.

His alarm goes off every morning at 5.30. He aims to get up ten minutes later and spends time in prayer and meditation on a Bible passage for one hour, in a room at Lambeth Palace where Cranmer wrote parts of his Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Then there is a prayer with the community of Lambeth at 8.30am, a community service at 12, prayer at 5.30 until 6pm, “and if I’m not going out, silent contemplation from 6 to 6.30”.

When Welby trained for the ministry, his wife remarked that he struggled with being deskilled after years of success in the oil industry: it was less easy to see whether he was any “good” at a job that dealt with the messiness of human life.

[See also: Why vicars are revolting]

Parts of Justin Welby’s story read like an Old Etonian’s romp through post-Saddam Iraq. In the early Noughties he became aware of the work of Canon Andrew White, later known as “the vicar of Baghdad”, at Coventry Cathedral. White had been appointed to a role in international reconciliation: he laid the foundations for the Oslo Accords, and brokered the Alexandria Declaration between 14 leaders representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam in 2002. He had a particularly good relationship with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who asked him always to bring HP Sauce on diplomatic missions. Welby wrote to White asking to join him in any capacity, even to carry his bag. He became White’s co-director of international ministry.

White is now in a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 16 years ago; he was posted back to England from Iraq for his own safety by Welby in 2014. He lives in “the incredibly boring place” of Liphook, Hampshire, and talks to me from a study which he says has 376 crosses hung on the wall.

What made Welby suited to reconciliation work? “The background was taking risks and loving your enemy, and he could do both,” White says. In his time, he had also attended Holy Trinity Brompton. “Part of the holy upper-middle-class mafia! Justin and I both came from the influential wacky brigade.”

The pair travelled to Saddam Hussein’s palace in May 2003, just after the regime had been toppled, to meet the Coalition Provisional Authority. White decided to reopen St George’s Anglican church in Baghdad, and Welby preached the first sermon. “In Arabic there is a very good word, mohabel,” he says. “Which means ‘really, really crazy’.”

Is Welby still mohabel? “It’s very different now. He has to be the establishment. But he still does have that radical, risky side. I have to be sensitive, but I don’t think he’s able to do the risky things that he used to, and I feel that he really wants to.”

During his time with White, Welby was invited to the Niger Delta to mediate between the local communities and Shell oil. There, on the site of his old work, amid decades of agricultural damage and acid rain, he conceded that “corruption took place on a breathtaking scale”.

Welby has described how his experience managing money helped with conflict resolution: pulling together a huge amount of information in a short time and having to make a call was not unlike deciding the timing of a foreign exchange transaction. How much of the old oil executive remains? “About 40 per cent,” Welby replies.

What’s happened to the rest? “Some of the sharp edges have fallen off.” Does he still get impatient? “Yes. I still get very angry sometimes.” When did he last? “Tuesday.” It was over a new appointment, though he won’t tell me the details. “Diversity had not been properly taken into account. I told them it was hugely disappointing, which was rather pompous.”

Welby will retire in two years, when he turns 70, in accordance with Church law. “I’m out, I’m chucked, finished.” Has he thought about it yet? “Ceaselessly.” He laughs, allowing the impression that he can’t wait.

What will he do? “I have no idea, and if I had I probably wouldn’t say. If I’m fit enough, I’ll go on doing all kinds of work. I pray for guidance. The stuff I love doing is reconciliation work. If that fails, I’ll mow the lawn.”

Does he have a sense of his own legacy? “We all know the cycle, don’t we? Someone dies and they’re seen as the worst ever at their job, then 20 years later someone says, ‘Well, actually, some things they started working on…’ Forty years later they’re somewhere in the middle of the pack, 100 years later someone thinks they’re a saint, 150 years later somebody decides, no, they really were the worst ever. So why worry?”

On finding out that his father was not his biological father – an episode that exposed his vulnerability to the press – Welby is more guarded. “I still live the life I’ve lived. I feel really strongly since that who I am is not ultimately shaped by DNA, but by the God who knows my identity.”

As for the “new Reformation”, and Welby’s colonial question, one wonders whether the gradual loosening of the Anglican Communion has already begun. I call the Right Reverend Christopher Senyonjo, who was a bishop of Uganda for 24 years. In 2000, he was stripped of his right to perform services because of his support for gay rights. Now 91, he lives in the suburbs of Kampala: having been divested of his church pension he is supported by his children, though he still wears a dog collar and considers himself an Anglican.

What did he make of the recent Synod vote? “I was very happy. An opposition to gay blessing in church shows an essential lack of understanding about what human sexuality really is. It is about deep-down humanity. It is about who you are. We cannot condemn a huge group of people who have committed no crime for being what they are. I’m not happy to hear people are trying to excommunicate Welby. But God is above all.”

Two weeks after the trip to Market Drayton, I attend a service at Lambeth Palace to swear in the new recruits of St Anselm, a monastic-inspired community founded by Welby in 2015. Every year a dozen or so young people come from around the world to live a religious life here for 12 months – only three haven’t yet got their visas. One is a Seattle bartender who had a conversion aged 15 in a cathedral.

During the ceremony, they dress each other in white robes. The archbishop gives each recruit a cross, placing it over their necks with a cheeky grin. Beyond the red walls of this ancient community, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, there is the sound of police sirens and helicopters. For much of the service Welby sits with his hands clenched tightly and his eyes shut. The hymns in the 13th-century chapel are modern, evangelical, like pop songs. In one particularly pretty number Welby sways his head slightly, raising an arm in the air.

His sermon is a surprise. It is a story he’s written, the minutes of a fictional meeting between St Paul and his comms team discovered in a cave in Damascus. “This is beautiful,” the comms team say to Paul, of the Epistles, “but you’re going to get a terrible time on Twitter. You have to think about the reaction in the press. Can you prove it? They’re going to say Jesus was a manipulative Palestinian preacher who fooled a lot of people in a short time.” The message appears to be: you’ll get into trouble. But what’s the alternative?

[See also: Michael Parkinson – The last interview]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power