Justin Welby is challenging the ‘principalities and powers’ of institutional existence

My first letter to the Very Rev’d Dr Martyn Percy, reflecting on the mission of the Church of England and the character and leadership of Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dear Martyn,

I’m always interested to discuss the Church of England’s essential mission: thank you for the opportunity to dialogue.

You may recall when Justin Welby submitted his CV to the CNC in 2012 with a view to the vacant See of Canterbury, he did so with a caveat: “I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. But frankly it’s a joke, because it is self-evident that it is perfectly absurd to consider appointing someone to Canterbury who’s been a bishop for seven months. I shall be praying for you to make the right choice” (Church Times, 31st Jan 13). After some consideration, the CNC did believe +Justin to be the right choice, and duly nominated him despite his ‘joke’ application and ‘absurd’ lack of experience. For some, the appointment was inspired (“..exceptional experience, outstanding record and special gifts” [Diocese of Bristol, 2012]); for others, such as yourself, it was manifestly ill-judged (“..would require a much deeper ecclesial comprehension than the present leadership currently exhibit… no sagacity, serious science or spiritual substance..” [Guardian, 13th Aug 16]).

With a background in corporate management, Archbishop Justin’s leadership style has been a subject of some comment in the media: “He is at his best as a strategist, with skills he honed in his business career. He is revered among his clerical colleagues for his planning, his purposefulness..” (Independent, 20th Feb 15); and some analysis in academia, including by you: “..(his) call to drink from the wells of managerial methods and ‘science’, but not to drown in them” (Managing the Church? Order and Organization in a Secular Age, 2000, p24). This comment was on his early essay on leadership, which you judged to be “a concerted attempt to dissolve the false antimony between sacred and secular methods of organization, and to ponder the form of management that is most appropriate for Church order” (ibid.). Now you appear to think that models of secular management and leadership are antithetical to prophetic leadership and spiritual mission. May not both be essential?

Justin Welby may have been a treasurer for Enterprise Oil plc, and the foundations of his Christian faith may reside in charismatic evangelicalism, but to dismiss his leadership as ‘secular managerialism’ and his ecclesiology as ‘shallow’ is unfair. Yes, he draws on Weber (Managing the Church?, p34), but only to the extent that a polity is ‘proportionable’, as Hooker might aver: the ancient traditions may be contextualised toward secularity, but reform must accord with catholicity. Quoting business theorists Peter Drucker and Arie de Geus, ++Justin observes that successful organisations must be “living entities” (ibid., p37): those which tend toward mechanism, centralisation or to being “obsessed with control” are destined to die. Yet now he is accused of “centralised management” (Observer, 13th Aug 16), but surely he is not ‘obsessed’ with it, and, it may be averred, he is centralising in order to liberalise; that is, to circumvent the old method of episcopal preferment – the old boys’ network.

This may challenge the Church of England’s traditional modus operandi, but it does not negate its essential mission in and to the State. It isn’t only ++Justin’s mission priorities which evidence a distinct charism; he has established a quasi-monastic order at Lambeth Palace and invited a Roman Catholic group to live there and to pray daily for the Anglican mission. How does this not constitute “spiritual substance”? How many previous archbishops of Canterbury have evidenced ecclesial depth and appreciation by visiting every province in the Worldwide Anglican Communion as a matter of episcopal priority?

The tendency amongst many academics is to contrast the weighty “philosopher-kings” (Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams) with the superficial “evangelist-managers” (Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Justin Welby): “an intellectual has been succeeded by a perceived manager and pragmatist” (ABC Religion & Ethics, 23rd March 13). But a less academic archbishop does not necessarily represent withdrawal from serious theology: Anglicanism “tends toward diversity and struggles thus to maintain coherence (and so it will) have its cycles of reform and consolidation, of intellectual reflection and pragmatic engagement” (ibid.). ++Justin’s theology may be more practical and applied than that of ++Rowan, but that does not mean it lacks sagacity. Leadership, in order to be effective, has to be practical and political: if it then apparently lacks theological erudition and spiritual holiness, it may be because critics are antithetical to the prescribed programme of reform and renewal. Questions then become wrapped up in those of Anglican identity and understanding the mission of the Established Church.

++Justin’s mission focus is not so much on numerical growth but on discipleship: it is “to be loyal to the inheritance of faith which we have received and open to God’s Spirit so that we can be constantly renewed and reformed for the task entrusted to us… to be a community of missionary disciples”, as he co-wrote with the Archbishop of York (In Each Generation, 2015). Where numerical growth is mentioned, it is contiguous with spiritual growth and practical community service (“food banks, credit unions..” [ibid.]). The curatives being offered to reverse church decline are not uniform; nor do they emanate exclusively from the mind of Justin Welby: “The proposals have been developed in the light of what bishops and dioceses said when consulted. There will continue to be 42 diocesan strategies, each of which are entitled to national support” (ibid.). There is clerical collegiality and parochial independence.

While there are justifiable concerns (many of which I share) about centralised ecclesial preferment by a self-perpetuating elite committee; and a palpable absence of pastoral theology, contemplative ecclesiology and prophetic spirituality in the Green Report, as you observed in the Church Times (12th Dec 14), it by no means follows that an expert theologian or educationalist would have ensured “critiques of management, executive authority, and leadership which abound in academic literature”; or mitigated the “uncritical use of executive management-speak”. Having spent a decade straddling three departments at Oxford, I observe that educationalists, theologians and political scientists (‘experts’) lean overwhelmingly toward what may be considered a ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ and ‘statist’ worldview, deploying all the jargon and theories of leadership necessary to bolster their own positions (and successors). I can understand the temptation to cut through the institutional bias of a self-perpetuating elite with a report-critique which may be (relatively) lacking in scholarship but is, nonetheless, sensible to identity and a pervasive ideology (how many University review committees on, say, diversity and inclusion actually include an identifiable political/philosophical/theological/educational conservative?).

++Justin’s mission priority is reconciliation through service (cf Mk 10:43), which, he avers, finds resonance in certain secular management theories (Managing the Church?, p25). In relating the local to the national; balancing autonomy with independence; and syncretising the secular and the sacred, he may not always get it right, but he is challenging the “‘principalities and powers’ of institutional existence” (ibid. p41) – a missional priority to which ++Justin’s critics appear to offer no effectual alternative curative.

I look forward to receiving your thoughts.


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