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Assessing Welby as a leader

Assessing Welby as a leader

Ian Paul reviews a biography of Archbishop Justin Welby and assesses his leadership style.

…Welby exhibits a remarkable sense of humility and a genuine self-deference. This arises in part from his own honest opinion of himself; when invited to write a letter to his 14-year-old self, he started like this:

Dear Justin, You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry—it does not measure who you are.

It offers a small window into someone who has genuinely wrestled with issues of achievement and self-esteem, who is very aware of inner struggles but who has managed not to allow these to hobble him. And it means he is able to speak his mind on an issue—and apologise if he has got it wrong, which is both refreshing and endearing. Alongside this is Welby’s theological conviction about collegiality. So, paradoxically, he talks honestly about how insignificant his own role is, and how limited the opportunities he has to influence things, whilst all the time he has been intervening and resolving issues (such as women’s ordination as bishops) which his predecessor, for all his theological insight, was unable to resolve.

The fascinating question is how all these things will come together to address the debate of the moment, the Church’s approach to same-sex marriage. Welby’s public statements have attracted criticism from all quarters (whose wouldn’t?) and some appear to think that he has not resolved the tension between his evangelical convictions about the matter in its own terms, and his desire to be a reconciler. I am not quite so convinced that these things are in tension in the way that is often portrayed. Welby’s desire for reconciliation has mostly focussed on the way in which disagreement has been handled, but it has not necessarily determined the truth of the different positions. He has certainly avoided the double bind of Rowan Williams, who upset evangelicals with his personal view, liberals with his official view, and just about everyone else with the idea that these two could coexist in one person. Welby appears to have a more integrated understanding of how his personal convictions play out in his role as leader.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about him is his overriding conviction that he needs to speak about Jesus on every possible occasion. All through the book, he comes over as someone, whatever position he is within the hierarchy, whose first commitment is to be a faithful witness to Jesus and invite others to become the same. Isn’t this the most important thing we need in Canterbury?

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