Action man: Give Justin Welby an issue and he will speak out

He fights the wrongdoings of the payday loaners and now the Big Six – what next?

Share

News broke this weekend that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duchess of Cornwall have held a meeting to discuss poverty. Both have expressed their concerns about the behaviour of payday loan firms, and have supported the idea of local credit unions. They also share a belief in a pragmatic approach to contemporary problems: Justin Welby has suggested that the Church of England might set up shop as a moneylender while the duchess joined the London Mutual Credit Union in Peckham, where she is not a resident.

All this is something of a break with the recent past. Imagine a similar meeting but between the duchess’s husband, Prince Charles, and the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams: the agonising over terms of reference, the anguished beard-tugging over what exactly constituted poverty, the reference to St Thomas Aquinas and Laurens van der Post, the ever-thickening fog of well-meaning abstraction.

The idea of a dynamic former oil executive taking over as head of the Anglican Church has, admittedly, taken some getting used to. Like many non-believers, I rather liked the gentle, beardy Dr Williams, with his tentative, non-prescriptive faith. I sensed that his God and my good were vague enough to be rather similar.

The new action-man Archbishop seems to have no time for windy theorising. His progress has been that of a businessman with a meeting to get through, rather than an academic wrestling with an abstruse intellectual problem.

Apart from his payday initiative with the Duchess of Cornwall, he has recently attacked energy companies for maximising profit, spoken out against the pursuit of economic growth, expressed views about same-sex marriage, regretted the influence of the colonial past in the running of the Church, welcomed tax changes for married couples, and supported the building of affordable houses.

He is, in other words, a thoroughly modern public figure, who sounds off confidently and unambiguously about the issues of the day. A glance at the nice old duffers who have preceded him – Coggan, Runcie, Carey, Williams – is enough to reveal how far he has already taken the church away from the old, grey establishment of which it was once part.

It is probably a sensible move. The words of politicians have become increasingly woolly and meaningless (last week, for example, we learned that coalition government means that the Liberal Democrats can simultaneously support and oppose free schools), and the public is looking for guidance elsewhere.

Archbishop Welby is moving towards the real shadow cabinet, the small group of public figures who speak out and influence opinion on the issues of the day. In this unofficial opposition, he could take on the role of Home Secretary, while Jamie Oliver is in charge of Health, Stephen Fry speaks on culture, and Chris Packham covers the environment. Among the junior shadow ministers can be found young thrusters like Russell Brand, Charlotte Church, Louise Mensch and Joey Barton.

In their own individual ways, these people – celebrities with attitude – have more sway over the way people think and the topics that matter than any number of the Gregs and Nicks who are in government.

They now include the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A few more telling soundbites, and he will be on The Graham Norton Show, telling twinkly anecdotes on Desert Island Discs or contributing to a “What Turns Me On” lifestyle column in one of the Sunday newspapers.

For those who like the Anglican Church to be a solid, slightly dull presence in our national life, the Welby way will no doubt be distressing – he is hardly, in the words of the hymn, a still, small voice of calm. But at a time when politicians are trying to please everyone, the press is widely distrusted, and the BBC has lost its way, perhaps it is not such a terrible thing that the Church of England has found itself a confident, slightly bumptious new voice.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teacher

£130 - £131 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ks1 teacher required for m...

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

£28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found  

When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools

Chris Blackhurst
 

August catch-up: second languages, the secret of love and is it all right to call someone stupid?

John Rentoul
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?