The Church of England has done quite a remarkable thing in appointing Justin Welby as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his seemingly conventional beginnings at Eton and Cambridge, he is far from an establishment figure. Unlike his predecessors who either rose steadily through the episcopal ranks or had glittering academic careers, Justin Welby spent more than a decade as an oil executive. It is a sign of how much the Anglican Church, or, rather, how the world in which the Anglican Church is desperately trying to find a role, has changed that someone like Justin Welby could even be considered.
It bodes well for the Church that it recognises the importance of engaging with its flock and the general public, but Justin Welby is going to find his role difficult. First he faces the challenge of making his Church relevant to those who are now only Anglican in name or worse. And secondly, he must try to keep the Anglican Churches across the globe together in the face of religious challenges arising from the a changing world. In all this, the latter is far more important and can only be achieved by maintaining a tough conservative stance. It is too early to tell how well Welby will achieve this, but his most recent and liberal comments on things like gay marriage and women bishops may make his future as head of the Church of England easier, but as primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion rather harder.
We must at all times be conscious of the important role the Church of England plays in modern Britain. Fewer people may go to church or even define themselves as Christian, but it remains an established religion. The UK continues to have leaders of the Church sitting in its legislature in the form of the Lords Spiritual. Indeed, the current form of the Church of England only arose because of the wandering eye of Henry VIII. Ultimately, the origins of the Anglican Church are rooted in the secular world. Although Henry VIII and Elizabeth I appropriated new strains of Christian theology on which to base their Church, the reasoning behind it was secular. It was only with state-sanction and later state-approval that the fundamental tenants of the Church were developed and adopted. As such, unlike most churches, it is peculiarly vulnerable to popular opinion and state intrusion. By way of comparison, there is no question that the theology and teaching of the Catholic Church is based entirely on internal decision-making. It is far less clear-cut when it comes to the Church of England.
There are 38 self-governing churches which make up the Anglican Communion, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is titularly its head. Maintaining this union is an increasingly difficult task. Justin Welby, as head of the Church of England, will be in the difficult position of presiding over a diverse Church spread across the globe, and yet head of one of its most liberal parts. Justin Welby has already shown some of his more liberal leanings in his approval of women bishops and, after the announcement of his appointment, backed away from his opposition to gay marriage by promising to ‘rethink’. This is unlikely to appease the more conservative churches in the Communion and will make the possibility of schism, which dogged Rowan Williams throughout his tenure, endemic.
The only way Justin Welby can be a successful Archbishop of Canterbury is to avoid bending to the will of popular opinion. Despite its origins, the Church of England is now an independent church which only happens to be embedded within the British constitution by accident of history. Modern church leaders have sort to remain relevant by adopting what-they-believe-to-be progressive, liberal religious policies. The result has been declining membership and the reason is obvious. Conservative conviction inspires people to faith far more effectively than liberal wishy-washiness. Consider the difference between a political party and a church. Politics is about getting as many votes as possible at election time and to achieve this politicians rush towards the centre ground. Religions do not work this way because they do not want your loyalty just for one vote, but for all time. As such, neglecting or bending your moral code just to make you slightly more appealing to people who would not adhere to your religious code anyway is unlikely to get you many new followers, but is likely to alienate those who already are.
It is not for nothing that the Catholic Church has seen an increase in its membership in recent years. Its strength lies precisely in its intransigence: it knows what it believes and can therefore make a believable claim to a moral monopoly needed to achieve salvation. If the tenants of faith are so loose and so changeable, as is seemingly the case with the Church of England, salvation is possible without faith or adherence.
Justin Welby would do well to learn this lesson before he falls into the trap Rowan Williams fell into of attempting to please everyone and satisfying no-one.