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Exploring Justin Welby’s Jewish roots

Exploring Justin Welby’s Jewish roots

The next Archbishop of Canterbury roots are discussed in the Jewish Chronicle, where the editors express the hope that this background will help improve relations between the Church of England and the Jewish community in the UK.


The official biography of Bishop Welby on the ABC web-site mentions that his “father’s family were German Jewish immigrants who moved to England to escape anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, and integrated quickly.” The Jewish Chronicle explores that family history in more detail in a story written by Laura Sykes of Lay Anglicana and published today.

THE NEXT Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at last knows the identity of his Jewish paternal relations, hitherto shrouded in mystery.

It has emerged that his grandfather Bernard was one of four brothers named Weiler, who came to London from Germany in the 1880s and became prosperous ostrich feather merchants.

Bernard changed his name to Welby at the outbreak of the First World War, presumably because of anti-German sentiment, but his brothers continued to be known as Weiler.

Bishop Justin is not himself Jewish since his mother was not Jewish (her side of the family is related to the politician Rab Butler), but his father, Gavin, paternal grandparents and their known antecedents were all part of a nexus of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie moving between London, New York and South Africa, dealing in ostrich feathers and diamonds.

It’s been mentioned in other reports that Gavin was a businessman who made a living a purveyor of bootlegged whiskey during Prohibition. The Chronicle describes this a bit more.

Bernard Weiler/Welby is said to have lost his money in the 1926 banking crash, and died in 1930. Although aged only 19, his son Gavin was put on a boat with £5 in his pocket and sent off to New York to restore the family fortunes. The fact that he did so reasonably successfully suggests that he may have had help on arrival from his Jewish cousins. For the next 20 years he worked in import/ export, largely in liquor.

Sykes and the editors of the Chronicle hope that Welby’s story will be useful in improving relationships between the CofE and the Jewish community in the UK.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the (first among equals) head of the Anglican Communion, numbering 85 million, as well as Primate of the Church of England. It is hoped that this newly discovered background will help revivify the Anglican Jewish Commission; at the very least it will give him a talkingpoint next time he meets his opposite number, the incoming chief rabbi.

Welby joins a list of prominent Anglicans with Jewish roots such as former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

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