The neglected messages of the Church 25 May 2014

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Same-sex marriage may sell papers, but the Archbishop’s live phone-in revealed there is more to the work of the Anglican Church, argues Andrew Grey.

Welby radio phone-inOn 4th April 2014, the Most Reverend Justin Welby made history as the first Archbishop of Canterbury to hold a live phone-in, where any member of the public could call in and ask whatever question they had in mind.

Naturally, much of the hour was taken up with questions on same-sex marriage. Many wings of the Church on both sides of the debate are emotionally invested in the issue, and to those outside it, the Church of England’s opposition is seen as either a beacon of hope to those against same-sex marriage, or a significant obstacle to those in favour.

In total, conversation surrounding the issue, which came up in three separate questions, took up about 20 minutes of the hour. That is obviously a significant chunk – but it was by no means the whole show.

Sadly, most of the rest of the show has been at worst ignored, and at best brushed over, by much of the media. This is understandable in some ways – “same-sex marriage” sells papers in a way that other topics don’t. But the Archbishop’s discussion on a whole host of other questions is well worth reporting, as he tackled questions of equal and greater significance as those of whether clergy should marry couples of the same sex. One of the most memorable moments was the question of how the Archbishop defines God – surely one of the oldest questions, but also one of the hardest. Welby’s response was to acknowledge the difficulty of this task but to direct the listener to the image of Christ. For Anglicans (indeed, all Christians), Christ as presented in the gospels is the image of the invisible God.

He also tackled certain meaty ethical questions. For instance, he was asked how the Church justifies its not always blameless record on land ownership – and the host, LBC’s James O’Brien, challenged him to reconcile this with Christ’s command to the rich man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. His response was to weigh this up with the practical reasoning that the Church needs to employ around 30,000 staff – and they need to be able to live.

Welby also clarified an earlier claim that rising energy prices was a moral issue, explaining that the fact that people had no choice on whether to buy energy makes it a moral issue that it is priced fairly. He also argued from his own experience in the oil industry that firms were perfectly capable of having moral discussions, rather than operating on purely economic motives.

The government’s welfare reforms and the rising use of food banks was also an important topic. He managed to acknowledge the problem whilst avoiding slipping into a partisan stance, and tackled the important question of whether the Church ought to do more than respond to need – whether Christians have an obligation to seek to reform society in such a way that its economy does not leave room for people to need food banks.

Welby rightly affirmed that this is indeed part of the challenge that Christians must face, but his emphasis was on the need for a nationwide transformation of attitude: as a whole, the nation needs to develop gracious and generous hearts, that are oriented towards the needs of others rather than seeking to maximise our own wealth.

This is the heart of the Jesus of the gospels: the heart of the Good Samaritan who feels compassion for the victim and shares his wealth with him; the heart of the father who accepts his prodigal son rather than judging him or retaining his wealth for himself and his other son who remained faithful; the heart of the widow who empties her purse into the Temple treasury.

In other words, Welby’s hour was spent demonstrating the virtues of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit. At no point was this clearer than in the challenge presented to him by the (thankfully former) MP Ann Widdecombe. Recalling her departure from the Anglican church following the ordination of women, Widdecombe accused not just Welby, but the whole Church of England, of a failure to provide clear moral teaching, or indeed to know “what it thinks about anything”. She then attempted to force the Archbishop to give a dogmatic response to the moral issue of same-sex relationships, demanding he give a “straightforward” answer to the question “is homosexuality wrong?”

Thankfully, Welby refused to play her game. As a good Anglican, Welby reminded listeners that he was not a Pope and could not therefore issue infallible moral doctrine. He would not be fooled into turning such a complex issue into a black-and-white one, instead acknowledging the various tensions of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Welby’s response to her question was therefore thoroughly Anglican, as indeed was his response to all questions: gracious, charitable and nuanced, and guided by the various sources of moral authority that the Church follows.

Frankly, all of us – Anglicans, non-Anglican religious believers, and atheists alike – should look at the Archbishop and see more than his opposition to same-sex marriage. In doing so, we will discover a man who reaches out to the public to hear their dilemmas; who acknowledges and respects people from across the theological spectrum within the Anglican church; and who yearns for radical social change in the name of the most vulnerable in our society. In other words, we see a man who seeks, day by day, in his leadership of the Anglican Communion, to live out the values of Christ.

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion – a quarterly magazine that provides informed commentary and coverage of religion in the UK. To get more articles like this and support our work, please subscribe to our print magazine:

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.