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Does the Archbishop of Canterbury matter politically?

Justin Welby’s frequent interventions on policy are diminishing his office’s political weight.

By Freddie Hayward

The list of issues Justin Welby has intervened on since becoming Archbishop of Canterbury is long. He has railed in the Church Times against Remainers “whingeing”. He has come out against payday lending sites, Universal Credit and tax avoidance. He has told everyone he thinks Brexit is dividing the country. More recently, he has consistently condemned the government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. In 2022, he said the plans were “the opposite of the nature of God”.

This might not surprise you given how the Church and state are fused in Britain. Along with 25 other bishops, Welby sits in the House of Lords. He is a legislator. And yet, his authority is inseparable from his position outside and above politics. The risk is, therefore, that each time he intervenes and pushes himself into the minutiae of politics, he dulls the blow.

This was not always the case. When Welby’s predecessor Rowan Williams condemned the coalition government in a 2011 issue of the New Statesman, he elicited a reaction from No 10 and senior ministers that showed his attack had landed. That’s not to say the coalition halted austerity or stalled its public-service reforms. But it triggered a debate that would not have occurred had Williams not held the respect he did.

Welby was met with a different reaction when he took aim at Labour over the weekend. In yesterday’s Observer, he called for the party to scrap George Osborne’s two-child benefit cap which he views as causing a rise in poverty.

Labour’s Wes Streeting, a man whose willingness to lean into conflict is mixed with an unpredictable capacity to agree with his interrogator, welcomed the challenge from the Archbishop, saying it was “literally his job”. Streeting is an Anglican. What he went on to say indicated that Labour could foster a more respectful relationship between the Archbishop and the government. He said: “You’re never going to find, if there’s a Labour government, politicians being sent out to attack the Archbishop of Canterbury for virtue-signalling, as Conservative MPs have done.”

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Some in the Church I’ve spoken to are already speculating on the identity of Welby’s successor. His authority is not what it was. The last census, in 2021, showed for the first time that less than half the country are Christians. Labour has promised to respect institutions in a way the Tories have not. But respect, as the Archbishop will have noted, is very different to agreement.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The thinking behind Keir Starmer’s pledges]

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