On the 21st March Justin Welby will be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury (though he has been legally Archbishop since the 4th of February). As is the usual custom, the day chosen for the service will also commemorate one of the figures from Christian history. The 21st March is the day the Church remembers Thomas Cranmer, a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is to be hoped that Justin Welby will have a slightly easier time than his predecessor Cranmer. Caught up in three royal divorces during the reign of Henry VIII, facing a plot to oust him as Archbishop, imprisoned by Mary Tudor for trying to make Lady Jane Grey Queen, Cranmer was finally burnt at the stake in 1556 after at first seeming to recant his Protestant principles, then using his death as a dramatic statement of his Protestant faith. Cranmer would probably have found current Anglican divisions over women bishops and homosexuality a proverbial vicarage tea-party by comparison.
If we are to believe the usual media narrative that seems to accompany every item of religious news, the Church is in serious numerical decline, and torn apart by divisions. If it were true, not much different, then, from all the major political parties in this country (where membership figures are tumbling, and as for divisions…..). There is also a political narrative (recent examples include pieces by Lord Adonis and Matthew Parris) that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s job is a bit like the leader of a political party – leading the troops forward with a defined programme or manifesto which can be put into effect through a bit of arm-twisting and the right votes in Synod.
Thankfully, I suspect Justin Welby knows all too well that exercising Christian leadership is not like that at all. Those who want an Archbishop of Canterbury to be first and foremost the kind of leader beloved of the political classes should go back to (or open) their New Testaments. Christian leaders are meant to be constant reminders of the Church’s call to holiness, not exercising influence by the building up of factions, courting popularity and issuing soundbites. They also have to stay faithful to the Gospel as they understand it (and Archbishops of Canterbury, like anyone else, can have different understandings of what that means), and they have to strive to understand how best to convey that Gospel message in a rapidly-changing environment, and to know when to affirm and when to resist the ‘spirit of the age’.
Most media commentators continue to depict the Church almost exclusively as an institution, with rules and regulations, personalities and pressure groups. Many of us get sucked into the same way of thinking when for us the Church becomes mainly a matter of buildings, rotas and meetings. Yet all of us – and Christian leaders especially, however wide-ranging their responsibilities – have to hold on to that essentially simple picture of a community of believers coming together to worship God, and then going out “to love and serve the Lord”, as we say at the end of every eucharist.
There are just a few hints recently that as a nation we may be beginning to recognise that focusing relentlessly on legislation (important as that is) means we are missing out on other, more fundamental aspects of our lives. Robert Francis QC ended his chilling report on the terrible care at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust with the words “People must always come before numbers”. Justin Welby himself, in his role as a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, has commented that it is first and foremost a change of culture that is needed in Britain’s banks. It may be that we are seeing signs that the human dimension in our public life is beginning to re-assert itself over and against the number-crunchers and believers that legislation is the answer to everything. If so, the Church has much to offer.