We shepherds are sick of ten years of managerialism

Who’d be Archbishop of Canterbury? Not me. You have surprisingly little executive power and get blamed for pretty much everything: from earthquakes (you are God’s representative, after all), politics (too involved, not involved enough), and the petty disputes of your fractious disputatious clergy — of which I am one.

If vicars are often an object of projection, so much more the Archbishop. Any assessment of Justin Welby’s 10 years of office, therefore, will say more about me than him. The Archbishop is a living, breathing Rorschach test. Still: here goes.

Welby is hard to read because he is seemingly open and yet emotionally closed at the same time. Even before he landed the top job in the worldwide Anglican Communion, he was adept at not granting access to his inner world. The social polish you learn at Eton, with its arsenal of confident self-deprecation, is precisely the sort of self-protecting buffer zone that you need to survive being the nation’s punch bag.

There has been great pain in his life: dysfunctional alcoholic parents, the loss of a seven-month-year-old baby daughter in a car accident. Understandably, he has suffered periods of crippling darkness and has admitted to taking anti-depressants. He is brave in talking about his bruises, and yet also strangely hidden, both open and emotionally distant. And since he is not a natural people person, his openness can come across as scripted.

Welby smiles to reassure, but in repose his face crackles with all the scary intensity of an officer on the Death Star; yes, a bit like a born-again Director Krennic. People say he has a thunderous temper when things don’t go his own way, which I can quite believe. Sometimes you can’t keep it all bottled up. I like Welby, but I am frightened of him.

Back in 2012, I interviewed him for The Guardian when he was still Bishop of Durham. Paddy Power had him at 6/1 to be the next vicar to the nation. We discussed woman bishops, still seen as a long way off. How would he reconcile the competing demands of those who see it as a theological necessity and those who deem it a theological impossibility? How would he square the circle, I asked? “Well, you just look at the circle and say it’s a circle with sharp bits on it,” he laughed. Anglicanism has always involved a certain amount of shape-shifting from its leadership. The phrase “all things to all men” is from the Bible, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing. Ideologically, Welby can be what you want him to be.

Here’s an example. A few days after that Guardian interview, the Rev Rod Thomas — an evangelical conservative — and I discussed who should get the top job on Channel 4 news. Thomas was against women bishops and believes homosexuality is a sin. I thought the opposite. Yet we both agreed that Welby was the right man for the job. That’s the power of a circle with pointy bits. Some see a circle, others see a square.

Women bishops were approved within a few years, and the Church has now agreed on prayers for blessing same-sex marriages. Rod Thomas was made a bishop in 2015 and kept on board. But he is far from happy. “We should not mislead people into believing that we can ask God to bless those things that He has revealed are contrary to His will,” said Bishop Rod recently. I think he may have been more deceived than I about that circle.

Welby’s church, his circle with pointy bits, turned out to be this: a collection of morally-progressive, liturgically-charismatic evangelicals with a hint of woke. Damaged public schoolboys who find it hard to express their feelings in everyday life are often attracted to forms of worship that let it all hang out. Welby talks in tongues. The whole thing is so achingly sincere. This is surely what Prince Harry would be like if he got God. It’s the sort of religion that some of us watch through our fingers with embarrassment — like dad dancing.

With Welby, open evangelicalism has become the new centre of gravity in the Church of England. More Radio 2 than Radio 4, undemanding and depressingly easy listening. “Let’s be clear, I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England”, he told me back in 2012. There remains stiff competition for this title, I can tell you. And Welby is not even close. He has a keen and lively intelligence and a steely will. But Welby’s Church of England, it might be said, no longer feels the need for academic-minded bishops. Better some B-school MBA or a Certificate in Church Planting than a proper PhD in Patristics for the modern cleric on the make.

Read it all in Unherd