Justin Welby

Thinking about Justin Welby and the Church of England, in prose blending praise with candid acid

Thinking about Justin Welby and the Church of England, in prose blending praise with candid acid

Let me begin with a note to digital obsessives who care about this kind of thing, since I hear from readers of this kind every now and then.

In the software categories and tags for this weekend's "think piece," I have included the word "demographics," even though this feature from The Guardian about Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Church of England does not include a direct reference to statistics about marriage, divorce, gay marriage, birthrates or other topics of that kind.

No, the goal of this opinion piece by Andrew Brown -- no friend of traditional forms of Christianity -- is to praise Welby for steering Anglicanism in the direction of compromise with the modern world. The headline: "With piety and steel, Justin Welby has the church in his firmest grip." Anyone looking for praise or even constructive criticism of low-church evangelicals or Global South Anglicans can look elsewhere.

However, this piece has its moments of brutal candor about the state of Anglican life, doses of acidic reality mixed in with the praise. The information contained in these passages is especially interesting, since it it comes from a voice on the left. If conservative Anglicans made the same comments, they would be easier for many readers to dismiss.

As an introduction, here is a lengthy summary passage that follows a discussion of Welby's actions in one controversial case linked to alleged sexual abuse of a minor by a famous clergyman.

The whole show was typical of Welby’s style as Archbishop of Canterbury: he combines energy, ruthlessness and a determination to get the church moving, through a mixture of public theatricality and arm-twisting behind the scenes. He has been archbishop for five years and next month will publish a fat state-of-the-nation book that covers almost all the current areas of political and cultural dispute in the church. ...
(H)e loves the work of nudging and manipulation. When he was trying to get the bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion to agree to meet again after decades of wrangling over gay sex and female bishops, he spent much of his annual holiday ringing the heads of the member churches for 20 minutes each -- not how most people would choose to spend their holidays. And though he disclaims the ability to select bishops, ever since he drove through the legislation to make women bishops in 2013, the holy spirit has somehow ensured that half of the bishops appointed have been women, among them Sarah Mullally to the prominent see of London, and Jo Bailey Wells, his former chaplain, to be bishop of Dorking.

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Does no one in the Church of England dare oppose top cleric? Britain's Independent suggests so

Does no one in the Church of England dare oppose top cleric? Britain's Independent suggests so

The Church of England and its leader, the Rt. Hon. and Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I've observed close up, command a sizeable presence in the global Christian world. Welby is front and center in a new controversy, guidelines for Church of England schools on how to treat transgender children.

But if one recent news story is to be taken at face value, no one in the Church of England could be found to go on record as disagreeing with some of these new pronouncements.

The journalism question is: How far did the newspaper in question go -- or, perhaps, NOT go -- to find an opposing voice.

Atop a large photo of Welby, we see how The Independent headlined the story: "Church of England tells schools to let children 'explore gender identity.'" Let's dive in:

Children should be able to try out “the many cloaks of identity” without being labelled or bullied, the Church of England has said in new advice issued to its 5,000 schools.
The Church said youngsters should be free to “explore the possibilities of who they might be” -- including gender identity -- and says that Christian teaching should not be used to make children feel ashamed of who they are. ...
Guidance for Church of England schools on homophobic bullying was first published three years ago, and has now being updated to cover "transphobic and biphobic bullying" – which means bullying people who consider themselves to be either transgender or gender fluid.

However, as we'll see in a moment, there are Christians in England, and, presumably, elsewhere, who might disagree with Welby's endorsement, as reported. He condemned bullying, but then went further:

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Giles Fraser turns up the heat under the familiar debates about BBC and religious faith

Giles Fraser turns up the heat under the familiar debates about BBC and religious faith

This weekend's think piece comes to you with an official endorsement from the 105th occupant of the throne of St. Augustine in Canterbury.

That isn't something that happens every day.

This is the latest chapter in the ongoing debates about (a) the role of religious programming at BBC, England's state-backed utility for news and information and, on a deeper level, (b) the attitude that many elite British journalists often show toward religious faith and the lives of ordinary Brits. Sounds kind of familiar, right?

The headline in The Telegraph proclaimed: " 'Excellent comment': Archbishop of Canterbury praises article accusing BBC of sneering attitude to religion." And here is the overture:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that the BBC is “sneering” at people with faith after leading presenters criticised Thought for the Day.
Justin Welby said a column calling on the BBC to “stop sneering and keep the faith” was “excellent”.
It comes after John Humphrys, the Radio 4 presenter, claimed that the daily slot on the Today programme was “deeply, deeply boring”. He added that, in an increasingly secular society, it was “inappropriate” for the show to broadcast “nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion”.
The Most Rev Justin Welby responded last night by endorsing the critical newspaper column  on his Twitter account.

In this case, we can point weekend think-piece readers to the actual essay by Father Giles Fraser in The Guardian that is at the heart of this debate, since it isn't hidden behind a paywall somewhere (which happens a lot when you're dealing with British media). The headline: "Here’s my Thought for the Day: stop sneering and keep the faith, BBC."

It's clear that this fight is not about Thought for the Day, which offers short reflections by well-known Brits and/or people who are in the news

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The solid story that could have been: The New York Times and the Atonement

The solid story that could have been: The New York Times and the Atonement

Critical thinking is the mantra of a modern humanist education. For the chattering classes, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, there is no higher intellectual virtue than empathy, of understanding diverse points of view, and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs.

When this ideal is met, education truly takes place. The mind -- the soul -- is broadened. But as any observer of what passes for intellectual life knows, critical thinking, as practiced by the media and academic elites, goes one way.

Recognition of cultural difference is always good, in this world view, while stereotypes are always bad. Yet few seem to be able to make the connection that stereotypes, whether good or bad, are in fact descriptions of cultural difference. The moment a writer generalizes about a culture’s or people’s distinctive qualities they are constructing a stereotype.

If pushed to explain this contradiction, the response of the modern mind is that the problem is not all stereotypes but negative stereotypes -- which means stereotypes of anyone other than white men, Evangelicals, Catholics or Americans.

In an otherwise commendable article on an abuse story from England, the New York Times offers stereotypical stock characters. While the facts are there in the story, the call to empathy, understanding diverse points of view and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs is noticeably absent.

Here’s a news flash for the New York Times: evil exists and can be found in all times, places, peoples and cultures (not just in white, upper middle class men educated at private schools and professing an evangelical Christian faith.)

Let's roll out some stereotypes.

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Journalists must look to the left, as Anglican Communion goes into 'stoppage time'

Journalists must look to the left, as Anglican Communion goes into 'stoppage time'

Over time, mainstream journalists around the world have gradually come to realize that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the "Anglican pope." In most news coverage these days, he is referred to as the "symbolic" leader of the global Anglican Communion or as the "first among equals" when the Anglican archbishops are doing business.

Let's focus on that second image for a moment, as I point out one or two elements of the flood of news coverage of the "special," as opposed to normal, gathering of the Anglican primates in Canterbury the last few days.

If Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is the first among equals, then it is important for journalists to realize that the other archbishops really do see themselves as, well, equal among the equals. Thus, when you are working through the tsunami of global coverage of the vote by the Anglican primates to "suspend" the U.S. Episcopal Church from many official roles in the Anglican Communion (don't forget Father George "GetReligionista emeritus" Conger at Anglican Ink), it helps to focus on the previous actions taken by the primates on issues linked to the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

Yes, we are back to that complicated Anglican timeline thing. There is no way to avoid it.

When you look at the current events in the context of an accurate timeline, it's clear that (a) the Episcopal Church has merely been placed in "time out," (b) that the global primates really do think this dispute is about the Bible and marriage, (c) that the state of sacramental Communion among Anglican leaders remains as broken as ever and (d) that all Canterbury has really achieved, with this meeting, is send the contest into extra innings (or perhaps "stoppage time" is a better term among global Anglicans).

So where to start?

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Big foreign datelines: London (think Canterbury) next week, Moscow long-term ...

Big foreign datelines: London (think Canterbury) next week, Moscow long-term ...

Though U.S. media often downplay foreign news, astute religion writers will be closely watching London next week and Moscow in the longer term.

London:  Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has called a Jan. 11–16 meeting with 37 fellow “primates” who head the national branches in the Anglican Communion.

Some analysts consider it a make-or-break moment on whether this global body of as many as 85 million adherents can hang together. Most stateside journalists won’t make the trek to England but will want to develop Yankee angles with the assistance of  The AP, Reuters, YouTube, British news dailies and Anglican websites, official and otherwise.

This is the latest and possibly the culminating event after years -- decades really -- of wrangling over biblical authority and interpretation, especially whether to accept partnered same-sex priests and bishops, and gay marriages. The fight pits the liberal Episcopal Church in the U.S., led by brand-new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and Archbishop Fred Hiltz’s Anglican Church in Canada, over against large and growing national churches in Africa and the “Global South.” Welby’s own Church of England is stuck somewhere in between.

Welby hopes he can maintain some titular leadership as the “Communion” evolves into a looser federation to allow leeway on faith disputes. But doctrinal conservatives seem prepared to reject such schemes and walk away. Already they have formed the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (“GAFCON”) as an alternative international body that claims to represent the majority of world Anglicanism’s membership, especially in terms of believers currently active in pews.

GAFCON is chaired by the archbishop of Kenya along with primates from the provinces of Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South America, Sudan, and Uganda, plus Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America -- a schism from the U.S. and Canadian denominations -- who’s supposed to be present for at least some of the London discussions.

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Concerning the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer and the Star (culture) Wars

Concerning the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer and the Star (culture) Wars

It was a question that nagged defenders of the English monarchy for years: If and when he ever became king, would Prince Charles declare himself to be the "Defender of Faith," as opposed to "Defender of the Faith"?

In a way, the chance that the crucial "the" would go missing was the perfect symbol for decades of tense "multiculturalism" debates in Britain. Drop the "the" and the implication was that Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, would have lost its status as a foundation for English life and culture. The monarch would henceforth defend the IDEA of faith, as opposed to a particular faith. Theological pluralism would be the new norm.

It didn't help, of course, that the Church of England was on the decline, in terms of worship attendance, baptisms, marriages and just about any other statistic that could be cited. Meanwhile, Islam was on the rise. Wasn't dropping this telltale "the" simply a nod to the new reality?

Prince Charles has, fairly recently, stated that his title would remain "Defender of the Faith." However, the cultural identity debates roll on, as witnessed in the stark message of the new report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life entitled "Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good (click for .pdf)." Its bottom line: England isn't Christian. Get over it. Reactions? Click here for commentary from veteran religion-beat specialist Ruth Gledhill and here for analysis by Jenny Taylor of the Lapido Media religious literacy project.

These painful debates loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. This time around, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the many implications of the decision -- by the principalities and powers of the movie theater business -- to reject the use of that Church of England ad featuring the Lord's Prayer before screenings of the new Star Wars epic. Click here to tune in our discussion of all of this.

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Does The Times get religion? A highly symbolic reader in England asks the question

Does The Times get religion? A highly symbolic reader in England asks the question

What should bloggers do in the age of higher and higher paywalls at major newspapers?

Frankly, we can't pay to read everything. You know? 

Yes, there are ways to take the URLs for stories and patch them into other programs and read the texts. But does that help the readers of this blog? We are committed -- as often as is possible -- to writing about news articles to which we can link, so that our readers have a chance to read the full texts for themselves (in part to see if our criticisms are valid).

The other day, I bumped into a pair of texts from The Times, as in London, that had been pulled out from behind that particular paywall. I was, of course, pulled in by the headline under which this mini-package ran: "The Times doesn't get religion."

The key text here was a piece about the meeting that the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided to hold in an attempt to deal with a host of doctrinal and discipline issues in his tense global Communion. Click here (and then here) to read some GetReligion pieces about coverage of this story. Can Archbishop Justin Welby save the Anglican Communion in any form that retains a true sense of Eucharistic Communion? 

The Times weighed in on that. First, let's look at a chunk of the Times piece and then we'll look at a really, really interesting letter to the editor that it inspired.

For more than a decade the Church of England has been consumed by backbiting and threats of schism as it debated the contentious issues of women bishops, gay clergy and scriptural literalism.

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How aggregating: The Atlantic goes halfway in reporting on Anglican primates meeting

How aggregating: The Atlantic goes halfway in reporting on Anglican primates meeting

I’ve been happy to see more religion pieces in The Atlantic in recent years, as such coverage was not occurring in that publication during my 16 years in Washington, D.C. I’m not sure what led to a change in heart among editors there, but it’s nice to see articles like last week’s piece on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s last-ditch attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together. That’s the good part.

The bad part is the piece is aggregated, in that it’s a patchwork of quotes from three British media outlets along with segments from the archbishop’s press release about a gathering of Anglican primates in January 2016. And there were some gaping holes. The article starts thus:

Justin Welby was named archbishop of Canterbury with high hopes that he was the man who could save the Anglican Communion. Now it appears he may oversee its breakup—a calculated destruction intended, paradoxically, to save it.

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