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Archbishop's speech at the Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch

Monday 27th October 2014

Archbishop Justin Welby's speech today at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch in the House of Commons.

Following the speech the Archbishop answered questions from the audience, which included press lobby members and their guests. 

The Archbishop's speech as delivered: 

One of the pleasures of this job is listening to the introductions that come to you just before you speak. That was a relatively mild one, compared to the head of the Friends of Liverpool Cathedral, when I became Dean and spoke to the Friends for the first time, and he said: “So glad to see so many people here to see the new Dean. Next time we have the conductor of the Liverpool Phil, so we will need a much bigger room.” [laughter]

One of you, probably not here, though it might well have been someone here, commented when I was appointed that I was someone of middle management talent appointed to a senior management job as an interim, without enemies, and that the real thing will come along in due course. A year later, he wrote: “I was entirely wrong. He has many enemies.” [laughter]

It’s a great. . . it’s something of a pleasure [laughter], it’s an interesting pleasure to be with you. . . I have to say, having over the last 18 months visited 36 provinces of the Anglican Communion, I see more and more the benefits of a strident, independent, campaigning and usually effective press – that’s not a comment on Leveson  but on what you do. It gives a great deal of discomfort to many, including myself on numerous occasions, but it is usually of great value, and it is because of that sense that it’s worth having, that it’s such a precious thing, that I feel especially privileged to preach at St Bride’s on Wednesday week for the service commemorating journalists killed, kidnapped or injured in combat. It is worth remembering what risks your colleagues often take, and many of you will have taken.

The job I have is a strange one because it has absolutely no power at all. The mistake that many Archbishops in the distant past. . . they spent the first year or so looking for the levers of power at Lambeth Palace, and there are two rules: first, there are no levers, and secondly if you happen to find one left over from pre-Reformation times it is absolutely not connected to anything, so you can pull it as much as you like and nothing happens. I don’t appoint bishops and, for the record, I can’t sack them. So the endless headlines that say: “This bishop must go, Archbishop what are you going to do?” The answer is: nothing at all, because it’s not within my power, even if I wanted to – which, of course, for the record, I don’t, any of them, at the moment. [Laughter]

But there is influence, and I will come back to that in a minute. Because the strange thing about power and influence is if you look back to the person that started it all off, at Jesus Christ, he was unseen by most, ignored by almost all, and his 12 followers (11 of whom deserted and one betrayed him) would not have registered on Twitter as a significant number of followers, or earned him high marks for teambuilding and management outputs.

And yet his influence is the greatest on art, music, philosophy, ethics, and the structures of our society. We are, by tradition and vision, although not by regular religious practice, a Christian society, a point so obvious that I was astonished at the fuss David Cameron’s comment generated. Jesus’ influence is unique and comes from a life and death of unconditional love and grace that still leads billions to seek to imitate him and know him.

The church generally –  and perhaps the C of E especially – has influence in two ways. First, it is everywhere in England and it does the stuff we think Jesus wants done, especially if you read Matthew 25, which for those few of you who are not familiar with the intricacies of the New Testament, is the bit about sheep and goats.

Since 2008 the networks of food banks have been set up by the churches. Local churches (with an entirely accidental push from me, thanks to you lot) are involved in the renewal of the credit union movement, usually with debt counselling. We have chaplains in every prison, every unit of the armed services, every hospital, people living in every parish (sending their children to the local schools, using the local doctors, the local hospitals), we educate almost a million children a day, we bury the dead, we marry, we baptise, we care for those ignored, and the list goes on.

The Church of England remains one of the glues of society. That is the influence that matters, and in one sense rightly usually passes, perfectly correctly, without comment. It’s not invariably without comment: when I was a parish priest, I was also chairing an NHS Hospital Trust at the time, and someone rang up from a ward and said: “We’ve got one of yours down here.” So I went down to see him and he was a gentleman in his 60s who had cirrhosis of the liver, and he looked at me at told me to eff off. So I sat down, as one does in the circumstances, and he wrote a note apparently after I’d gone which asked me to take his funeral, which duly happened about two weeks later. He had no family and all his friends came from the local pub, so they propped the coffin in the pub and spent the morning before the funeral bewailing his departure in one way or another. Then they carried the coffin, the people in the pub, to the local church, which was about 300 yards.

And I say most of what we do passes without comment, I foolishly started a service in a completely full church with 400 or 500 people there and a very strong spiritual sense in the church, by asking a rhetorical question: “Where did we find Fred?” And as one, they shouted: “In The Bull.” [laughter] And we conducted the rest of the funeral as a dialogue. [laughter]

The other form of influence which we have is the public one. It is easy when thinking of the Church of England to recall John Major’s words on warm beer and spinsters bicycling to choir practise, or Boris Johnson’s side swipes about doubting bishops in his history of the Romans.  But the reality is far deeper. There are 37 other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, and as I said by the end of this week Caroline and I will have visited 36, and the last one before the end of November. The Anglican Communion is mostly poor, mostly in the Global South, and much of it is in war and persecution. Last night, as I was writing this, I had a text from a friend of mine Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I was in January, speaking of a massacre of 79 civilians with which he was having to deal. We were there in January, just after being in the midst of the fighting area in South Sudan, and consecrating a mass grave, with the bodies of the dead at my feet in a city devastated by its fourth invasion in four weeks.

Last week we were in Myanmar, hearing a Bishop talking of five to seven-day walks to visit parishes across the mountains and through the forests. And later the Archbishop, who’d been in that diocese before he moved, said quietly: “It should take three days only, but because of the land mines they have to walk very slowly, taking turns to lead 50 metres ahead with the rest treading exactly in the leader’s footsteps.” That’s a picture of the Anglican Communion today. Doubting Bishops? I think not. Saints?  Yes. It is because of people like that that the second sort of influence matters. The Anglican Communion looks at the world with different lenses, and by the grace of God we seek to bring that vision here in addressing the crises of the day, with a knowledge of the local that is virtually unparalleled in 165 countries.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a very strange role in communicating all this, in many ways unrecognised, in many ways misunderstood. I met William Hague at the Foreign Office a year ago and we came downstairs after the meeting. It was very friendly, he’s very polite, he saw me out, and there’s this really posh car outside and he said: “Is that yours?” Fine chance. And I said: “No, I walked.” And he said: “Oh, you walked across the river?” And I said: “Well, I usually do, but my staff tell me it’s showing off.” [laughter]

Actually since one of you lot reported that I was a doubting Archbishop, taking half of something I said about six weeks ago at Bristol Cathedral, where I did confess to having doubts but the other half said, what did you do with them? And I said: “Well I pray about them and find that God is always faithful even when I’m not.” Which I hope answered the question to the 800 people there… But since then I’ve found that when I try walking across the river, I sink.

But as I said, it’s a role often unrecognised. I was in Chichester Cathedral about 18 months ago, soon after I started, and a man came up to me, I was in a black cassock, and he said: “I understand the Archbishop of Canterbury is here today.” I was very, very new, it was five days before I was put in, and I said: “Yes, yes, actually he is.” And he said: “Could you introduce me to him?” So, slightly gritting my teeth, I said: “Well, actually, it’s me.” And, looking me up and down, he said: “Oh” and walked away [laughter]. Someone else that same day, when I’d given a sermon, in which I said we’re all sinners, which is a fairly conventional bit of Christian theology, came up to me afterwards and said: “I’d never have come if I knew you were one too.” [laughter]

Even with such minor setbacks, this is a role of endless challenge and responsibility. Working with those in conflict – and, as I say, over 30 of our provinces are in that situation – is demanding of any leadership. I’m going to be very unfashionable for a moment and say how I admire politicians because they are the ones who are having to take the really tough decisions, and since I have a much less complex job than they do, and they know far more than I do about the decisions, I’m always astonished that they survive as well as they do.

But the conflicts round the world are without ceasing. Great crises like Boko Haram are put in shadow by even greater ones like Ukraine, and they are in turn outranked by Gaza, and they in turn by such as ISIS. In the midst we forget the South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the DRC or much of Myanmar and so many others.

All these are matters of debate here in Parliament. The privilege of being in Parliament never ceases to send shivers up my neck when I walk in, and the day it does I should stop. Nor is the experience of speaking ever anything less than nerve-wracking. The Bishop of London, who has spent nearly two decades in the House of Lords, described how early on Lord Hailsham told him that bishops in parliament tended to “blow in, blow off then blow out”. I like to think that we’ve come on a bit since then. Bishops have portfolios and work hard at them. And sometimes, I suggest, it’s helpful to have an institution that thinks in terms of centuries, rather than weeks; which considers the eternal as well as the temporal, the global as well as the local; the grassroots as well as establishment.

The House of Lords is an extraordinary place, doing revision in detail and with care, and bringing the world’s greatest experts on most things to look at policy. My step-father commented when I went in: “Remember that whenever you speak, there’s probably a world expert listening to you.” We must watch the cost of changing the role of the House when we look at constitutional reform. We must look not only at what may be gained but what we might lose. And incidentally, it seems entirely reasonable that a small contribution should be made from the church, on behalf of many faiths and with the vision of an entire world.

The list could go on. In our world, capacity to handle conflict and disagreement is poor, hobbled as we are in the most prosperous nations  by material greed and fear. In the Church of England we are seeking good and loving disagreement, always aware that we are a minority part of a global Communion, so that decisions made here have unforeseen knock on effects around the world. Good disagreement and a global view are a potential gift to a world of bitter and divisive conflict. We showed it in our own discussion on women bishops, which went through parliament last week, and we’re hoping to see in the next few months – if we’re given time for it because there will only be a few hours of parliamentary time needed – a bill which accelerates women who are appointed to come into the House of Lords. But what can be more radical than to disagree well, not by abandoning principle and truth, but affirming it – agreeing what is right, acting on it and yet continuing in love to accept those who have a different view?

What could be more important than finding a new narrative to face these crises such as ISIS, an overarching story based on the common good and mutual flourishing that we need to find to counteract the risk of extremism and the menace it faces us with, not simply to go on with the zero sum game of exchange and equivalence, which is so much part of what we have at the moment. Perhaps Utopian, but any progress in that direction is transforming to the hopes of billions. Look what happened after the far worse horrors of 1914-1945: genocide and global war were answered with generosity and social reform, peace in Western Europe, an end to European hunger, generosity in development, even in the midst of the Cold War. We did it before in Europe; its leaders were in large part Christians. We can find that vision again, and must if the answer to ISIS, to inequality and to European depression is not merely material, fallible, and self-deceiving.

In the local and the global, the church still tells that story of hope, life and human flourishing. It tells it not always well, not always clearly, but it carries what it has inherited from God and offers it to the world as a gift.

Thank you.

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