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Westminster should drink from wisdom of Welby

The Archbishop of Canterbury has discussed his personal approach to alcohol
  • @Simon_Kelner

It must be galling for the new Archbishop of Canterbury. There he is, about to ascend to the highest office in the Church of England, and the opposition just stole his thunder.

Justin Welby will this week be enthroned as the leader of the Anglican Church, but all the talk in the ecclesiastical world is of the new Pope Francis, who continues to spread a reforming gospel, promising to focus on the poor and, by all accounts, ushering in an era of greater inclusiveness at the Vatican.

He had a crowd of 150,000 in St Peter's Square at the weekend, and was treated like a rock star as he went on walkabout. Follow that, Archbishop! It's enough to make a man of the cloth turn to drink. Or not, in the case of Justin Welby, who has given a fascinating interview in which he candidly admitted to a drinking problem. Not, I hasten to add, in the modern sense of a drinking problem: the pre-lash, the lash and then the after-lash in which you struggle to regather your senses, your credit card, keys, mobile phone and dignity.

No, Archbishop Welby revealed that his father was a bootlegger in America before he brought his family to Britain, and had a serious alcohol issue, often resulting in “very erratic behaviour”, and this has made him mindful of the difficulties with drink. “The experience of living with a parent who had a drink problem is very shaping to one's views of what human beings are like,” he said, an elliptical way of expressing the idea that we are all shaped, to a greater or lesser extent, by our parents' actions.

He has not, he stresses, become a teetotaller as a result  - “I very much enjoy a drink”, he said - but he admitted to the fear of falling prey to the bottle in the same way as his father. “I remember reading that the children of alcoholics have a much better chance themselves of having a dependency problem,” he explained, adding that he asks his wife to keep an eye on him. “She'll say if I'm going over...but I have rules myself. I don't drink alone, things like that.”

I may not have anywhere near the grasp of liturgical text of the Archbishop, but my life experience teaches me that I do know it's not strictly necessary to instruct one's wife on the question of alcohol intake. She'll generally let you know if you're overdoing it, whether you're a man of God or not. Nevertheless, the Archbishop should be applauded for his open and practical approach to drinking, which he would do well to spread throughout the Westminster diocese in particular.

Perhaps he should have a quiet word with the MP Eric Joyce, who again had his collar felt for a heated exchange of views - if not blows - in licensed premises in the neighbourhood. And maybe he should counsel the Prime Minister, who wants to bring in a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, but has failed to get his own way after pressure from the Treasury and pressure groups. Follow the new Archbishop's lead, Mr Cameron: it's good to talk about your problem, but keep the spirit strong!