Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and Reconciler by Andrew Atherstone

The first major biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, including detailed analysis of his first 14 months in the role

Archbishop Justin Welby

Risk-taker and Reconciler

Andrew Atherstone

The first major biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, including detailed analysis of his first 14 months in the role

‘I am going to make a lot of mistakes, necessarily… Pray for wisdom

for me to know what to do, for patience to know when to do it, and for courage to do it properly and not holding back.’
Justin Welby, to friends at Holy Trinity Brompton (July 2013)

Writing in The Guardian in April 2014, Andrew Brown described Welby as ‘the hard-nosed realist holding together the Church of England’, commenting that, ‘Justin Welby now looks like the best archbishop of Canterbury the Church of England could possibly have… His first year in the job has been marked by tremendous energy and rather more physical and moral courage than is expected of an archbishop.’ John Bingham wrote in The Daily Telegraph in a similar vein that ‘a year after enthronement, the Archbishop of Canterbury has proved many doubters wrong’ while Rowan Williams admitted in an interview with Welby’s biographer Andrew Atherstone that, ‘Justin is, frankly, immeasurably better than I ever was at prioritising. He clearly knows where he wants to put his primary energies.’

Last year saw the publication of Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury by Andrew Atherstone. The first biography of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the book was researched and written in 10 weeks – starting on the day Welby’s nomination was announced in November 2012 – and published in time for Welby’s enthronement in March 2013. Drawing on archival research, interviews with the archbishop’s friends and colleagues, and various articles and interviews by Welby, Atherstone analysed Welby’s formative relationships, his leadership style and his priorities for the church, as well as his unsettled childhood, his education and his early years of marriage and family life before ordination, to provide a succinct introduction to this fascinating man.

Now – in Archbishop Justin Welby: Risk-taker and Reconciler – Atherstone tells the story of Welby’s life and ministry in much more detail, drawing on further research and including in-depth analysis of the Archbishop’s first year in office from a number of sources. He examines Welby’s conversion to Christianity as a student at Cambridge University, his career as a treasurer in the oil industry and his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Church of England after his ordination at the age of 36 – as a rector in Warwickshire, director of international reconciliation ministry at Coventry cathedral, dean of Liverpool and bishop of Durham. The (mis)adventures of his playboy father who was once engaged to Vanessa Redgrave, Welby’s unsettled childhood after his parents’ separation when he was just a toddler, the secret Bible smuggling activities of Welby and his wife in their early married life, the tragic death of his first daughter in a car accident at the age of 7 months, the impact on family life (and income) of Welby’s move from the oil industry to theological training, his brushes with near-death while in Africa and Iraq – all of these aspects help to present a fully rounded and very human portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The book includes significant material from new interviews with many people close to the Archbishop, including Lady Williams of Elvel – Welby’s mother, who also gave Atherstone access to previously unseen family archives – Rowan Williams and Jackie Pullinger. Other additional material includes a whole chapter on Welby’s formative gap year in Kenya, more details about his work at Elf and his Bible smuggling adventures, a detailed account of his public debate on homosexuality with Adrian Daffern (at Coventry Cathedral, 2004) and more information about Welby’s role as an envoy to dissatisfied African bishops on behalf of Rowan Williams.

Welby’s first 14 months in office have seen him face a number of thorny issues head-on. The man who told the Radio Times in May 2013 that religion was not a private matter but ‘stitched into our public life’ has not been afraid to enter into political and social wrangles, challenging the government on proposed welfare reforms and launching a fierce verbal attack on pay day lenders (notably Wonga). At the same time, he has been drawn into the ongoing debates over women bishops and same sex marriage – the latter of which he described as ‘unbelievably difficult, unbelievably painful and unbelievably complicated’. Atherstone’s critique of Welby’s first year in office looks in detail at his statements and position on all of these topics. He examines how Welby’s willingness to put himself at risk and his determined desire for reconciliation – as seen in his Bible smuggling days and his work with Andrew White – is demonstrated in his aim to visit every primate in person during his first 18 months in office, including war-stricken South Sudan in January 2014 against all travel advice. He considers the significance of the changes Welby has made to his inner circle of staff as well as various other developments at Lambeth. And he explores the Archbishop’s interactions with GAFCON, his mission-based principles, his model of leadership and authority, his economic and social theory, his relations with Pope Francis, his interactions with liberal campaigners such as Peter Tatchell, the emphases he has announced for his work and comparisons with previous Archbishops of Canterbury. The book includes a 16-page colour photo section.

Having told in one of his early interviews for ordination that ‘there is no place for you in the modern Church of England’, Welby now holds a post which Rowan Williams described as requiring ‘the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros’. A regular Tweeter with a heart for interfaith issues, this most modern of church leaders has already shown that he is not afraid to step into the political arena or to face media scrutiny – of which there has been plenty since his nomination in 2012. Atherstone’s critical in-depth biography sheds new light on the man behind the newspaper headlines, exploring how Welby’s personality and priorities have already begun a change of direction for the Anglican Communion – and considering where this might lead in the future.


Andrew Atherstone is a tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is a member of Oxford University’s faculty of theology and religion, and has published widely on Anglicanism.

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