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The Very Rev Justin Welby’s diplomatic and business skills will be put to the test as Bishop of Durham, writes Michael Binyon


Writing in The Times (11.6.11) Michael Binyon says: The Very Rev Justin Welby’s diplomatic and business skills will be put to the test as Bishop of Durham.

Few bishops have begun their careers running an oil company. Even fewer have had as rapid a rise through the Church of England hierarchy as Justin Welby, who was ordained fewer than 20 years ago and has just been nominated the next Bishop of Durham, the fourth most senior bishop in the land.

Bishops are in the news nowadays. The row over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on the Coalition shows that any political stance taken by the Church will provoke controversy. And Justin Welby must now prepare himself for life in the headlines.

Modestly, he insists that he does not bring any unique quality to his appointment. But his superiors clearly see in him a hard-headed realism, a business acumen and 11 years of experience in the politics and finances of the oil industry that will make him an effective advocate for swathes of the country around Durham hit by the downturn and by cuts in government jobs.

Currently Dean of Liverpool Cathedral, the Very Rev Justin Welby already has first-hand experience of urban deprivation. He believes that the Church is uniquely placed to understand and report on how economic hardship hits everyday life. “The Church has someone in every single community, who lives there, sends his children to the local school, is embedded in the neighbourhood and is engaged with it day in, day out. It is an unrivalled network.”

When things are tough, the Church will inevitably be called upon to do more to fill the gaps and pick up the causes abandoned by government. Indeed, he says, it will find itself returning more to the role it played in the Middle Ages, ministering to spiritual needs and providing schools, hospices and rudimentary social care.

Such voluntary engagement is at the heart of David Cameron’s Big Society — and the Church’s challenge is to develop with it advocacy on social issues. “Like the oil industry, which spends money on the community in places such as the Niger Delta, it is the social licence to operate.” It will, he believes, return the Church to a central importance it has not enjoyed in the postwar years when secular authorities have assumed responsibility for welfare.

Is he worried that the Church may simply be used as a way to provide services more cheaply? “That has to be a suspicion. But parishes are already doing these things. The Big Society is really an outworking of what they already do.” He will be an advocate for the need to fill the holes opening up in social provision — and for the North East in particular — not only from the pulpit of Durham Cathedral. His new job will make him one of the most powerful voices in the heart of Westminister, as one of the five most senior Lords Spiritual, who sit by right in the House of Lords.

The need to be the Church’s public voice is explicitly part of his new job. It will, he thought, be an interesting contrast to his earlier role as a co-director at the international centre for reconciliation in Coventry Cathedral. There, discretion was essential for effective intervention in conflict; in the Lords, what will be needed is a public stance.

On issues such as war and peace he is unafraid to speak out. “I’m not a pacifist, but I’ve seen enough of civil wars (in Africa) to see that things get out of control very quickly. There are massive ethical questions that affect our Armed Forces. In Iraq, we changed that country — altogether some 300,000 people lost their lives.” But intervention in Sierra Leone he considered wholly justified. So too was the operation to stop a massacre in Benghazi. But on conflict from the Falklands to Iraq, the Church has been a thorn in the Government’s side, both Tory and Labour. Was he prepared for permanent opposition? He smiled mischievously. Perhaps.

On other issues he is still circumspect. Like most senior churchmen, he is heartily sick of the endless debate on sexuality, though he condcedes that it has become a lightning rod revealing deeper splits. “It is really all about how power and authority are exercised in the Church. And here there are widely diverging positions.” Although his instincts are liberal, he finds the vituperation on both sides unacceptable.

Would it not be better, therefore, to give up the attempt to hold together the Anglican Communion, given the barely reconcilable divisions between Africa and North America, or within each province between conservatives and liberals? His answer is no. He has been engaged in various behind-the-scenes talks to avoid schism. He insists that the unity of Christianity is central to the gospel, quoting John xvii. But he is pessimistic. What the Church had failed to do was to manage disagreement without provoking enmity. “We have to find a way to disagree acceptably.” Ironically, he is chairman of the trustees of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, set up in the ancient City of London church blown up by the IRA. This centre has, by contrast, been remarkably successful in pioneering techniques to bring together antagonistic factions and creeds, not so that they end their disagreements but so that they respect the other side’s views.

What about disestablishment of the Church of England? Here he shows his diplomatic skill: “I don’t think this will come up because there is no spare legislative time for such a huge hassle.” In any case, he added, it was a decision for Parliament.

Welby, born in 1956, educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, has an unexpectedly unconventional background. His ancestors were German Jewish immigrants who escape a 19th-century pogrom. His father began work as a bootlegger busting prohibition in the US. As a young oilman, Welby travelled widely in Africa and rose to become treasurer of Enterprise Oil before abandoning his career to study theology at Durham. His first job was as a curate in Nuneaton. He and his wife Caroline, a former university classics teacher, have raised two sons and three daughters.

He has drawn on this varied experience in writings on ethics and finance. Among other titles are: Explorations in Financial Ethics,Can Companies Sin? and Whether, How and Who in Company Accountability.

There has been a bishop in Durham since AD 630. Some recent incumbents, including Dr David Jenkins, have been controversial. York Minster may not catch fire after his consecration, as happened with Dr Jenkins in 1984. But Welby can be equally trenchant. “At heart the Church is made up of sinners. And if you stick lots of sinners together, you don’t get saints.”
You do, however, get men and women determined to make faith a central factor in Britain’s public life today. We will soon hear more of Justin Welby.

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