At his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday, Justin Welby did his best to indicate the breadth of concerns he believes the Church of England should espouse, from politics to poverty to the needs of the vulnerable and the bereaved. The Church must take risks, he announced, and he tried to live up to his call with a service containing a number of innovations – not least in that it saw the leader of the Anglican Church enthroned by a woman for the first time in history.
But the test for many, particularly fellow citizens who are not members of his Church, will be the extent to which he can address those issues of equality on which the Church has lagged behind secular society. On these, in particular on matters of sexuality, the Archbishop must also take risks.
So far, the signals have been mixed. On one hand, as the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion – with liberal voices from the US and deeply conservative ones from Africa – he has announced his intention to stick to the official church line that marriage is between a man and a woman. On the other hand, however, Dr Welby has said in an interview that he acknowledges that some gay couples have relationships of “stunning quality” and has agreed to meet the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to discuss the issue of equal marriage.
Some will raise their eyebrows at such ambiguity. Holding to one view as church leader, while indicating a personal openness to the opposing position, smacks a little of wanting to have it both ways. Perhaps, though, Dr Welby knows that changing views within the Anglican Communion is akin to turning an oil tanker – a process that is long and requires a certain delicacy at the wheel. The fact that one of Britain’s leading evangelicals, the Rev Steve Chalke of the Oasis Trust, recently changed his mind on blessing gay partnerships suggests that at least some in the Church of England are coming about on the issue. It can only be hoped that the new Archbishop will, too.