In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme on Tuesday, the Most Revd Justin Welby suggested that he was “extremely hopeful” about the future of the Church of England, despite falling numbers, partly because of “signs of growth in many places”.
He said: “Of course there are churches that are doing better and churches that are struggling more, depending on area and on leadership. But the reality is that where you have a good vicar you will find growing churches.”
The Archbishop was invited to give the Thought for the Day by the chief executive of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, the guest editor of the programme for the day. In the subsequent interview, the Archbishop acknowledged that “We are falling in numbers and there is a change in attitude towards the Christian faith in the country, that is unquestionable. We need to be quite realistic about that.” He also suggested that “We sometimes give the impression at the national level that we are obsessed with a small number of issues.”
He agreed that the Church must be “very clear about its intention of growing its numbers. It doesn’t happen accidentally. All the resesearch we’ve got is that if we don’t actually set out to grow the number of people and draw people to the reality of the love of God, in Jesus Christ, it doesn’t happen. It’s not a collateral benefit to existing.”
He spoke about the growth in Fresh Expressions, which had “drawn the equivalent of two entire dioceses in new numbers of people across the country”.
The Archbishop’s link between growth and a “good vicar” provoked some consternation among the clergy.
“All good, but as a regular vicar left me feeling that the church is shrinking because the vicars aren’t good enough,” wrote Canon Rosie Harper, chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, on the social-media site Twitter, echoing several other members of the clergy on the site.
“As the Diocesan Missioner in Devon I would want to bear witness to the fact that some of the most imaginative, talented and courageous vicars I meet, are serving in rural multi-parish benefices, which are on the whole, declining,” wrote Canon Anna Norman-Walker on her blog. “However, I do agree that where an excellent vicar has the realistic task of leading a single parish church into growth, then growth happens.”
During the interview, the Archbishop said that the Church Commissioners had yet to drop the Church of England’s £80,000 stake in Wonga (News, 26 July). “They are working out how they can dispose of those shares without disposing of millions and millions of pounds of investment at a loss, because they have a responsibility to pensioners,” he said. The stake is at “three stages removed”.
The Archbishop, who shared a platform with Mr Jenkins at a debate organised by St Paul’s Institute on good banks (News, 14 June), also faced a question about the banking sector’s commitment to reform.
“People like Antony are dealing with the impact of 30 years, I think, in which there was strong pressure to go in one direction, which is about maximising shareholder return; and it’s not instant, but a progressive loss of vision as to what banks were for in society.” he said. “The challenge for leadership is to change that culture – [a challenge] which says ‘We are not here just for ourselves: we are here for the whole of society.’ And that’s a massive, massive challenge and will take a long time to turn around. . . I think a number of them are doing it. Barclays are working very, very hard, and the major banks are working very, very hard.”
He had conversed, however, with “senior members of the City from foreign organisations” who were “very clearly still in denial about what happened in 2008”.
In his New Year message, the Archbishop defended Christian commitment to speaking out about poverty.
“If you love your neighbour, you’re going to be deeply concerned in the things that trouble them, whether it’s about heating bills, whether it’s about insecurity in families and the need for good community life,” he said. “It’s not about politics: it’s about love.”
He said that the late Nelson Mandela had said that “dealing with poverty is not an act of charity: it’s an act of justice. He said every generation has the chance to be a great generation, and we can be that great generation.”
Mr Mandela was quoted by other senior clergy on Wednesday.
“Mandela has got into the heart of what it is to be human in terms of qualities of forgiveness and reconciliation,” the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said. “Why, then, do we find it so hard to believe that God is a God like that, and that it is because we are made in his image that we are capable of acts of forgiveness and reconciliation ourselves?”
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr. John Inge, spoke of being inspired by the example of Mr Mandela as described by a prison chaplain in the Church Times (News, 13 December).
Archbishop Welby also recorded a Christmas message for Vatican radio, in which he described meeting Pope Francis as “one of the highlights of my life”.
“We remember that we are called not to form a great organisation, not to be in committees, or working groups, or task forces; but to put our hand into the small, vulnerable hand of Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger,” he said.
“And hearing the call of God through him, to trust ourselves to the one who makes himself empty, that our world may be transformed, and each of us may be filled with the love of God.”
During his Today interview, Archbishop Welby said that Pope Francis was his “person of the year”, an honour also bestowed on the Pontiff by Time magazine.