Understanding the Justin Welby Radio Phone-In Controversy

There’s been something of a fluttering in the various Anglican doocots this week over remarks that the Archbishop of Canterbury made on a radio programme. When asked why the Church of England could not move forward on affirming marriage as an option for same-sex couples, the Archbishop spoke of standing at a mass grave in Africa and being told that this was caused by some event in America – the implication being that if we affirm LGBT people in the affluent west then Christians who are up against it in places of violence will be killed. It appeared to many that he was suggesting that we shouldn’t move on LGBT affirmation because of what would happen in Africa.

People got cross about this. People including me, accused him of appeasing people of violence.

Then he said that people hadn’t listened to him and that he hadn’t meant it. Then he repeated it several times, leading people like me to the view that we had heard him loud and clear the first time.

It was as though the Archbishop wanted to believe that those who were criticising him had simply not understood him. In fact, it seems to me that we understood him perfectly well the first time but didn’t like what he was saying – something which he now seems to find difficult to understand.

It seems to me that there are a number of important things swirling around under the surface of this story which need to be understood.

Deference is dead in the West but not in the Global South
Firstly, there’s no sign that the Archbishop has understood that deference is dead in the West. People will not simply believe what someone says because of the position that they hold. They will want to question, tease out, reject, argue, discuss, be persuaded. The very fact that the Archbishop went on a radio phone-in last week is part of a remarkable culture shift whereby people simply don’t believe something because someone important says it. Now there are things to be regretted about this but there are things to be celebrated. There has never been a better time for getting people to discuss faith if you approach it in the right way. But you have to expect people to test things out for themselves. They want to know that it is true for them, not for you. What’s so wrong about that? The tone of the Archbishop’s answers seemed to be that we needed to trust him on this because he was right. He has also since said he won’t provide any evidence to back up what he was saying. This comes over as arrogant even if it is not intended to be and I don’t think he realises how it makes him look.

Unfortunately for leaders who have to work across global cultures, this is not so everywhere. In the Global South, deference is far from dead. What bishops say there largely goes. The question is not really how the Anglican Communion can hold together with different views of homosexuality in it. The real question which we never seem to discuss which is fundamental, is whether the Anglican Communion can hold together in the face of radically different views of what the episcopate is about.

The Back of the Bus Won’t Do

It looks as though the Archbishop is trying to set up a “reconciliation process” when he has already decided that the best outcome would be for the church to adopt a policy of blessing gay couples in Civil Partnerships but not affirming anything to do with same-sex couples and marriage. The trouble with this is that it won’t do for those who have come to the view that gay people and straight people should be dealt with equally because they are fundamentally equal in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God.

The suspicion is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others with him, is trying to address this question on the presumption that gay people are in some way disabled (or worse, dysfunctional) straight people. Does he believe that gay people just can’t help themselves and so something must be done for them? It may be to misjudge him terribly, but it feels very much like it.

The reality is that those who have campaigned long and hard for marriage to be opened up to same-sex couples have drunk deeply at the Civil Rights well of justice. They (we!) believe gay people and straight people should be treated equally because of a fundamental existential equality between gay people and straight people.

Any hope that the church could have satisfied people by blessing civil partnerships but refusing to affirm marriages contracted by gay and lesbian couples is 10 years out of date. Had the churches affirmed Civil Partnerships in the first place then they might be in a better place to affirm them now. The argument can be endlessly made that Civil Partnerships and Marriage confer the same rights. The trouble is, most people now accept that Rosa Parks was right. Even if the bus does get you to the same destination, travelling at the front of the bus and travelling at the back of the bus are not the same thing.

There is no sign at all that the Archbishop of Canterbury has understood this as a Civil Rights struggle. The absence of any discussion of rights issues from the narrative whereby these conversations takes place is part of the problem. (The Church in Wales – I’m talking about you!)

The Grinding of Gears as [some] Evangelicals change their minds

These days we are constantly hearing the grinding of gears as some of those in the Evangelical parts of the church are reassessing their views on LGBT people and their relationships within a difficult context and in a place whereby they may suffer at the hands of others for doing so. I’ve been talking about the realignment of Evangelical opinion around this for years and gradually, step by painful step, it is happening. In recent weeks we have had the debacle of World Vision firstly supporting the right of its employees in same-sex relationships to contract marriages and then going back on the decision when people rang up to remove their pledges to support poor children in the world’s most needy places. The revolting display of people removing their financial support from needy children because of LGBT affirmation, and the capitulation of World Vision to those people has made many pause for thought.

And then we have had Vicky Beeching this week talking about how her own support for same-sex couples wanting to marry could cost her her livelihood as US Evangelicals may stop singing her worship songs as a consequence.

These are ugly scenes by the wayside but need to be keenly monitored and understood.

We’ve also seen the Archbishop strongly supported this week by a small number of commentators – particularly those bearing the “Open Evangelical” brand. Now this is complicated, but I still maintain that “Open Evangelical” can in most cases be used as shorthand for those in the Evangelical wing of the church who are pro-women, pro-divorce (though you won’t find them saying so in public) but anti-gay. There may be signs that this is breaking down, but I’d say this description still broadly holds true.

The Spectre of Rowan Williams

Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s seemingly casual comments on a radio phone-in have raised the fear in many good-hearted people, that his views are no better than those of his predecessor. I make no comment on whether they are the same or not – simply that it matters that many thought – “here we go again”. I don’t think that there has been enough of an understanding thus far that many moderate Christians simply don’t feel that their leaders represent their views, values and generosity. Indeed, I’ve never known bishops to be as mistrusted as I perceive them to be now, by those who traditionally would have supported them the most.

The particular fear that has been raised by this radio phone-in is that Justin Welby harbours the same fantasy that the Anglican Communion is a church which a leader can control (as Rowan Williams appeared to many to believe) rather than a communion of autonomous churches which are able to make decisions appropriate to their situation. Talking about homosexuality is a displacement activity from talking about autocephaly.

The Rowan Williams factor is a significant one and this is the first time that I’ve really seen people dismissing Justin Welby as just another version of the same thing. It matters to understand this and to try to work out whether or not it is true.


  1. Richard says


  2. The big issue for me is the ABC’s assumption that he knows best for gay and lesbian people in Africa. It is allegedly caring but the same old colonialist mindset. Has he spoken with lgbt people in Africa? Has he even spoken with Bishop Christopher Senyojo who ministers among them? Has he watched the video Voices of Witness: Africa? Most people who are speaking out in Africa say they want us to continue to be a beacon of hope for them and not give in to oppression and bullying.

  3. “The Back of the Bus Won’t Do” — quite! Thank you for a helpful analysis.

    Watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on BBC 2 last night; mind still reeling as I attempt to process everything that tells us about what happens when we objectify others as non-people. Not something that ++Justin is guilty of, I think, but his attitude to LGBTI people here in the UK surely feeds that in Africa, and he seems blind to that.

  4. Daniel Lamont says

    An excellent piece with which I entirely agree. You are right to point up the death of deference. There is a parallel with university teaching. When I was a student in the 1960s, I heard it said that appointment to the Scottish professoriat was an invitation to the Almighty to moved. By the time I retired this attitude had entirely gone and was replaced by students expecting to engage in debate. A good thing too. The Church of England is stuck in the 1960s and fails to take account of the fact that people expect to be engaged and treated respectfully rather than shouted at. More informed debate takes place in the ‘blogosphere’ than takes place in sermonizing or ecclesiastical pronouncements. You put your finger on the key issue: the role of the episcopate, especially in England. Now in my seventies, I have lost all respect for the College of Bishops against all my natural instincts though I greatly admire one or two individual bishops. The attempt to railroad the Covenant through Diocesan Synods was the last straw for me.

    My respect for ++Justin is diminishing by the minute. You are right to stress that this is a civil rights issue which the ABC seems unable to see. The trouble is that the Church of England fails to understand that the Communion is made up of autonomous churches. Moreover, it seems prepared to sacrifice the rights of LGBT people on the altar of GAFCON – and Bishop Chillingworth in a post on his blog came close to implying the same thing. The imperial instinct is not dead, it seems. Truth must trump unity not unity truth. Our arguments must be based on human rights and equality.

    It would do all church hierarchies good to read ‘Kenosis and the Establishment’ by that admirable if challenging Scottish philosophical theologian, Donald MacKinnon. It is an excoriating critique of ecclesiastical power and self regarding. It was written in 1969 and is as relevant now as it was then.

    Daniel Lamont

    You are also

  5. Elizabeth Roome says

    I found your blog most interesting and insightful. I was a member of the Church of the Province of South Africa (Anglican) for the 1st 60 years of my life. Since coming to UK in 2008, I have joined a Church of England church. In South Africa we were privileged to have the bold and compassionate leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is a beacon of Christian leadership. He does not appear to be held back by the prejudiced behaviour of African bishops and churches further north in Africa. He supports the rights of all people, irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation. It is thus very disappointing to me to find this lack of leadership here in the C of E. Fortunately, I am Protestant enough to realise that it actually between me and God, so I only take church leaders as seriously as their pronouncements suggest I should – which, in Justin Welby’s case, is not very seriously. Attitudes such as those expressed by him on the radio program simply make the church seem even more irrelevant to people who live in the real world where all sorts of people rub shoulders in the workplace and elsewhere, and have to learn tolerance !

  6. Kes Grant says

    Thank you for this interesting and broad contribution to the international debate.

    I am the person who asked the question of ++Justin on the radio. I had no idea it would lead to an international outcry. I hope that in some way it moves us on at a faster pace because so many are debating the issue.

    Wilberforce said to parliament when they refused to listen to him that now they were aware, they can’t “unknow” what they had learned.

    I hope we can all look forward to travelling at the front of the bus together.

  7. Excellent. Thank you.

  8. Can you say some more about this comment: “In the Global South, deference is far from dead. What bishops say there largely goes.” In my experience of dioceses in the Global South, there are as wide a variety of approaches to episcopal authority as there are in this country. I would be interested in hearing more about how you reached this conclusion.

    • I reach that conclusion by my dealings with bishops relating to members of my congregation who are from the Global South.

      I’m sure that there are indeed a variety of approaches to episcopal authority in the Global South. It is also the case though that I’ve encountered models of episcopacy from other parts of the world which simply would never be tolerated these days in my own country.

      You are right though – I made a careless generalisation.

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