What Catholics can learn from the admirable Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby delivering his Easter Sunday sermon (PA)

When it comes to headlines in a national newspaper, surely it doesn’t come better than this: “Outpouring of respect for Archbishop Justin Welby after DNA paternity ‘surprise’.” The Archbishop of Canterbury is on the way to becoming a national treasure, one of the few public figures in the land beyond reproach or criticism, rather like our soon to be 90 years old Queen. It is the sort of position that a Catholic prelate can only dream of. And it is not simply the result of good public relations or spin.

The story, that Dr Welby’s biological father is Sir Anthony Montague Browne, is interesting in itself, and one of the traditional plot devices of fiction that does happen from time to time in real life, and which nowadays, thanks to DNA, can be proved beyond doubt. But the story is the occasion for the “outpouring of respect” rather than its cause. The Archbishop is an admirable character, full of sincerity, clearly a good man, a giant on the national stage. Parental revelations don’t always enhance someone’s standing: there has to be a standing there to enhance in the first place.

One of the reasons I admire Dr Welby is that he can enunciate religious insights without embarrassment, which is quite an achievement for an Englishman, given that the English do not ‘do’ religion or God. In the wake of the revelation, his comment is this: “There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.”

This is a resonant statement for two reasons. First of all, it is theologically correct, indeed theologically brilliant.

We are the people we are because of our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. Archbishop Welby’s simple pronouncement emerges from the hinterland of Augustinian theology. We become ourselves when we accept the call of God. We find ourselves when we are found by God. This is a wonderful antidote to the contemporary narcissistic search for our supposed true selves.

The words resonate not just because of their content, but also because of the person speaking them. When Archbishop Welby speaks, one feels impelled to listen, because he is clearly a man who habitually speaks truth. He has moral credibility.

The natural reaction is to listen, rather than to shrug one’s shoulders, yawn, laugh, or shuffle off to look at something else. Why is this? It is because Archbishop Welby’s words accord with his way of life. He’s coherent.

When they chose Justin Welby to be Archbishop, it was a good choice. He has natural authority. There is nothing ambiguous about him. Let’s hope he is Archbishop of Canterbury for a long time to come. And let us hope to that others, including Catholics, can learn from his style of leadership.