What kind of leader is Justin Welby?

welbybiocoverOne of the books I read over the summer was Andrew Atherstone’s fascinating biography of Justin Welby. It is a considerably expanded version of  the short book which Atherstone wrote immediately after it was announced that Welby would be Archbishop.

The first thing which strikes you in opening the book is the thoroughness of the research. Atherstone has clearly done his homework on Welby’s earlier life, citing letters and other correspondence, and interviews with people who knew the family. (This is not an authorised biography, so there is no material from Welby himself.) But the recent additions to the book are based on talks that Welby has done at a number of conferences, and Atherstone has clearly listened to them all carefully. Overall it is most impressive.

As a biography, the book tends to focus on factual material rather than giving either personal evaluation, or offering much reflection on the interconnection between different aspects of Welby’s ministry. But I was left with a number of strong impressions.


The first is the extent to which Welby is well-connected with the establishment. His mother was personal secretary to Winston Churchill, and her family history connections meant that Welby ‘is a scion of Britain’s political, military and educational establishment’ (p 1). With his own education at Eton and Cambridge, Welby at one level made these connections his own, and coming to faith at Cambridge meant that he also connected with that strand of public school evangelicalism shared with Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, and his peers. It is all a sobering reminder that, even in the 21st century, both politics in Britain and church leadership in the Church of England are dominated by a small, interconnected elite. (It was recently noted that 25% of bishops in the C of E trained at Cuddesdson, mainly because diocesans are mostly appointed from the pool of suffragans, and suffragans until recently were appointed, without any consistency of process, by the existing diocesans.)

In making some radical changes to the organisation at Lambeth Palace, Welby has appointed a team of seven advisors—six of which he appointed himself, and only one of which was appointed by advertised process. It might well be that the Church is under the leadership of a benign oligarchy, but an oligarchy it appears to remain.

The second impression the book gives is the flavour of Welby’s own spiritual and theological tradition. The first half of the book is dominated by what might be called Welby’s ‘unreconstructed’ conservative evangelical convictions, which in some ways appear to have remained unchanged from his Cambridge days. Many (including myself) will find this quite refreshing; it is wonderful to have someone in leadership in the Church who does not repeat the mantra ‘Evangelicalism has contributed to my thinking’ or ‘I am grateful for the past influence of the evangelical heritage’. Instead, we have someone in Lambeth who is happy to call himself evangelical without crossing his fingers behind his back!

But it did occur to me that many in the Church will find this discouraging, even alarming—until, in the section on his move to Coventry, Welby not only engages with and embraces global Anglican perspectives, but also discovers the enrichment of the spirituality of other traditions. What Atherstone does not explore at all is how Welby has integrated these different theological perspectives, if indeed he has. The impression is given that they sit side by side, without too much difficulty, though not necessarily with much explicit integration. This has allowed Welby to relate to different traditions without insisting that they need to change radically, which I think has led to a surprising establishment of trust.

The third impression from the book is that many of the roles that Welby has had up till now have functioned as places of formation and growth for him at least as much as they have been places of success or triumph. I was fascinated to see that he went to quite a traditional, middle-of-the-road Anglican church as an incumbent, and although he did see growth there, it was relatively modest. His time with Andrew White in Coventry was one of startling drama and some success internationally, but in many ways the period ended on a note of failure, as the goals for the Centre for Reconciliation were re-thought and the financial support dried up. It was another surprise for Welby to end up on the staff of a Cathedral (in Liverpool), given his own theological background, and yet it was another place of learning. It is clear from his time so far in Canterbury how much each of these experiences has shaped him.

IMG_2655 - Version 2This leads to the fourth thing that impressed itself on me—Welby’s style of leadership. There are a number of a paradoxes here. On the one hand, Welby’s theological tradition would not give importance to structures of institutional leadership in the same way that Rowan William’s anglo-catholicism would, where orders of ministry and offices are seen to have spiritual authority in themselves. Evangelicalism has general been much more sceptical about such power structures. However, it does value strong, even authoritarian leadership as part of what is sometimes (mockingly) called ‘muscular Christianity’. Sandy Millar, the previous vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton, combined a warm, personal style with an authoritarian, perhaps even autocratic, style of leadership, and it is clear that Nicky Gumbel continues this tradition. One of the marks of Welby’s first year in office has been a direct and decisive approach, which has ruffled not a few feathers at Lambeth Palace. As Atherstone highlights, the legacy of his training and formation in the oil industry has been a focus on issues of strategic importance and a clear commitment to prioritisation. This has led to a pro-active (rather than reactive) approach to invitations; whilst this has disappointed some, it has meant he has visited provinces in the Anglican Communion that Rowan Williams never once travelled to, and has enabled the fostering of better relationships. And he has overseen the appointment of the first evangelical as diocesan bishop of Europe, largely because a commitment to numerical growth was high on the list of qualities sought. (Canterbury and London have a large say in the appointment of the Bishop of Europe, which does not follow the usual Crown Nomination processes.)

Alongside all this, 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?

This article first appeared at Ian Paul's blog and is reproduced here with permission

4 thoughts on “What kind of leader is Justin Welby?”

  1. Yes Dave but also now many things have changed particularly the security level in the country I read this book last year and I watched his publicity videos. He is no idiot ! take a look at Ian Pauls facebook page I have commented on there Reconcilliation is one of those issues that has many layers and it appears to be able to be manipulated. To clarify what I mean by that is when the real human situations that can affect us are not reconciled we reconcile ourselves to God but we can still be unhappy human beings at least . Unhappy people can make bad decisions , I personally as yet do not think that Justin has made any public bad decisions. He has created a climate of expectant change. Which is a good thing. It is a good compliment to his predecessors who bought different but equally valuable gifts to the post.

    Reconciliation like many others I have prayed for it since childhood, and it always seems a temporary moving target issue. ie We achieve reconciliation in one place only to be faced with division in another and it is often external factors which alters the equilibrium which is fought for and achieved. Some call it progress some call it loss and the reality is that it is both it creates both.


    • Waterangel, I do not see quite where the disagreement elies to which you “but” points. My comments were based on reports of how he conducts meetings to achieve consensus which leads to action. I am suggesting that is based on skills he developed in the 16 years I refer to. This has made him the man he is as much as his social background, Cambridge University or HTB. It is far to early to assess the effectiveness of his period in office. Women bishops is a great success. The development of Credit Unions is perhaps his most significant achievement to date. The impetus for food banks developed outside the church hierarchy. The issues around equal marriage have not yet been resolved. The problems of the Anglican Communion are ongoing, it is just that there has been no incident recently. the effect he has on private meetings will take years to become apparent. He speaks well for persecuted Christians but so do Rowan Williams and John Sentamu.His greatest achievement to date is speaking a language which is understood in Westminster and by journalists.

      • Hi Dave there seems to be a piece of writing missing , because I can see that the response before me does not relate to your latest post. I only have your reply and not the post I responded to so it is difficult for me to clarify.I can see that I have concentrated on Justin Welbys role as reconciler which is the process in many ways that he is in. . You are quite right it is far too early to assess achievements , anyway I am of course aware that all achievements that we make as Christians leader or no leader we achieve after the groundwork has been done by others and we often only rubber stamp or see through the last process. That is not a negative statement but a statement of fact. When we ask the question “what kind of man or woman ” a person is we do not really mean that we mean what are they going to achieve and how are they going to achieve it. People are fickle and they want what they want without it negatively affecting them, that is how they make their judgement ie do they lie or manipulate the truth to the detriment of the gospel. If they don’t then they are considered good. You are also right that being able to communicate across the board is a useful gift when trying to reconcile. But the language we use and the way we use it usually shows the type of person we are it highlights our best and worst attributes.

  2. This article pays little attention to two periods in Welby’s adult life – his 11 years in industry and his 5 years in reconciliation ministry. These may shed some light on the apparent paradoxes which are hinted at.

    The analysis of the structure of the Church of England shows an executive which appoints its own advisers and is answerable to but not appointed by a legislature. this reflects the cause of problems in the American and British ways of government.

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