One of the precious family letters treasured by Lady Jane Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mother) dates from December 1973, shortly before her son’s 18th birthday. It is written by Justin Welby’s housemaster at Eton College and is a frank tribute to the “tenacity” and “bravery” displayed by the young man during his difficult teenage years. The housemaster thought it especially remarkable how Welby had coped so well with his “family problems”, which had become increasingly acute, and the letter concludes: “Many a boy would have been driven off the rails completely by the problems which Justin has had to face, and I admire enormously the patience and wisdom he has shown in dealing with them.”
The latest Telegraph revelations about the Archbishop’s childhood are a fresh reminder that these “family problems” ran deep. Both his parents – Gavin and Jane Welby – were addicted to alcohol. They had eloped to America in April 1955 to marry in Baltimore, Maryland, with no friends or family to witness the event; two strangers had to be brought off the street to act as witnesses. It was nothing like a Hollywood whirlwind romance, and Jane immediately realized she had “made the most terrible mistake”.
By the age of two, Justin was living in a broken home. By the age of eight, he was sent away to prep school in Sussex and both his parents were deeply in the grip of drink, incapable of looking after him properly. Jane Welby’s life was rescued from the brink, after she signed herself into rehab in 1968, and broke the addiction. She is now a happily married, wonderfully gracious, highly esteemed octogenarian. The Archbishop has spoken this week of the crucial importance of the Christian faith, and the gospel of redemption, in turning lives of despair into hope. His mother is a brilliant example of that truth.
But Gavin Welby continued the downward trajectory. His behaviour was increasingly erratic. He could be volatile, irrational, dishonest and prone to shouting. Justin recalls: “You never knew what was going to happen. The experience of living with a parent who had a drink problem is …. very shaping as to one’s views of what human beings are like.” Their relationship was in meltdown. When Gavin died suddenly in March 1977, aged 66, from a suspected heart attack, Justin’s first reaction was “relief” and “liberation”, and then guilt for feeling that way. It had just been “all so painful”, he remembers. For 20 years he was unable to bring himself to look through his father’s scrapbooks because it was “intolerably painful, and for reasons I probably can’t analyse”.
Justin Welby, the public Christian leader we see today, has been deeply shaped and moulded by those chaotic experiences of his youth. Preaching recently in Barbados, he proclaimed: “Families are strange things. We may get on well or not get on at all. … But once a family exists, whatever we do we cannot escape it.” From the fiery cauldron of family breakdown has emerged a man of remarkable resilience and determination. It has implanted steel in his spine. He has few fond memories of growing up, and speaks of “the loneliness of being in a crowded boarding school, where you had to be very self-sufficient.” But Christian conversion, as a Cambridge undergraduate, has turned that self-sufficiency into God-dependency. Welby’s unshakeable confidence is shaped by his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Traumatic events, like the death of his first child in a car accident in the Eighties, have only strengthened that resolve.
Professor David Ford has known Welby for many years and argues that personal suffering has decisively shaped his character and public engagement. Ford explains: “he can be vulnerable, not self-protective and therefore devastatingly honest. My goodness he can be! He just cuts through fluff or flab in a way that can be rather shocking. He won’t put up with pious nonsense.” Welby is an unusual public figure, Ford continues, because he has a “freedom from fear”. The Archbishop is not concerned by media image or whether his PR department can control a press story. That has been evident this weekend, in the way he embraced the new revelations.
Given the chaos of his early family life, surrounded by broken relationships, it is no surprise that reconciliation is one of the Archbishop’s key theological priorities – reconciliation between churches, between communities, between divided individuals. His favourite metaphor for the Christian Church is a family, and the Church is often even more dysfunctional than any natural family. Preaching to Christians in Hong Kong, Welby declared: “There’s an old saying in England, you choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family. And believe it or not, you and I are family. We are the family of God, and you’re stuck with me and I’m stuck with you, not just now, not just in this life, but for all eternity – so we’d better get used to each other.”
That Christian vision of a future in God’s family has helped the Archbishop to navigate the new revelations about the true identity of his biological father. His identity is rooted not in DNA or in family trees or paternity tests, but in knowing that he has a heavenly Father who has redeemed him and given him a new life and purpose.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 10th 2016 and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it on Fulcrum.
Andrew Atherstone is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford