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Politics and religion do mix well after all

Ian Birrell is surprised by the Archbishop Welby's diplomatic handling of payday loans

Once again, the Church of England was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, below, its relatively new leader, denounced the demons of payday lending, vowing to defeat them with the church's own credit unions. Yet almost instantly it emerged that his own organisation had played a role in their creation through its huge investment funds.

For those of us who take little interest in this declining institution beyond wondering how it remains an established church in our multi-cultural age, it is just the latest farce involving bungling bishops and clerical contortions.

Yet this weekend, even Catholic-born atheists such as me are forced to concede that the current resident of Lambeth Palace is emerging as one of the most distinctive voices in the country. His deft political touch, sharp media abilities and displays of decent humanity could even help restore his church to the role expected by its followers after decades during which it failed to capitalise on its centrality to national life.

Welby's response to his self-inflicted crisis was a masterclass in crisis management. Confronted on the nation's most feared radio forum, Today, he deflected charges of hypocrisy with honesty, wit and self-deprecation. "It was very embarrassing. There's simply no two ways about it," he said, while generous to his foes yet sticking to his stance. Every politician in the country, many business leaders, and even some of the BBC's own bosses, should listen and learn.

As an old Etonian, former oil executive and now archbishop, Welby does not have the obvious credentials to endear himself to the entire nation. Yet his original comments about payday loan firms deserve attention for the skilful way they appealed to the left, by criticising a sector feeding off the poor, and to the right, by relying on market forces rather than state intervention to challenge them.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of the interview last week was not the section on Wonga but his admission that politics was "in the blood". We learned that he was tutored in the subject by his great-uncle "Rab" Butler, often called the best prime minister Britain never had, while his mother worked with Winston Churchill and his stepfather sits in the Lords. He confessed to considering a career in politics but claims he could not choose between the parties.

Welby's desire to appease all sides could be his downfall. So his predictable attack on gay marriage was followed by a warning to church leaders that they must accept changing sexual attitudes. But at a time when there are cracks in the foundations of so many British institutions, it will be intriguing to watch if this polite politician in a dog collar can place his church back at the heart of national debate.