An Old Etonian, yes. But Justin Welby, the new Archbishop, is far from a Bullingdon-Club bore

A fugitive from the boardroom is perfectly suited to Lambeth Palace

George Pitcher
Thursday 08 November 2012 20:38 GMT

“You’ve got to remember, George,” a bishop friend told me yesterday, “that there are very different kinds of Old Etonian.

“They range across the political spectrum from Boris Johnson to David Cameron.” He was joking, of course. Nevertheless, there are not a few out there, among both the churched and unchurched, whose hearts will have sunk at the prospect of yet another top establishment figure being appointed from the privileged cloisters of “Slough Grammar”.

But it’s fair to say that Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury (barring the possibility of the Crown Nominations Commission having a little joke at our expense), isn’t on the same playing fields as Cameron and Johnson.

He has been vehemently critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, supported the Occupy protest camp outside St Paul’s cathedral, is absolutely not fooled by the Tories’ suave banking friends, and opposes gay marriage, to which Cameron is thoughtlessly committed.

Welby sees nothing remotely illiberal in defending different-sex marriage, incidentally. We may decide that we want, as a society and as a Church, to change Holy Matrimony from meaning one thing to meaning something completely different, but that is a debate to be had properly. Cameron, who may or may not have been listening during divinity classes at school, should take note that the new Archbishop is of the view that it’s not an institution that he can dismantle just to keep Nick Clegg happy.


So, brace position, Mr Cameron. This is not a Bullingdon-Club Etonian (Welby, in any event, is a Cambridge man). But if he disappoints fantasies in Westminster that the next occupant of St Augustine’s seat would be a beaming ornament, wheeled out on state occasions to wave at his flock in funny clothes, then some quarters of the Church of England also need to be apprehensive about Welby, because this is not a man who will tolerate lazy and self-indulgent administrative structures.

His distinguishing feature and most valuable asset is his former career in the oil industry. In the Eighties, he worked in the treasury departments of Elf Aquitaine and then Enterprise Oil, an asset spun out of British Gas during the Thatcherite energy-utility privatisation spree. He joined Enterprise when it had fewer than 40 employees and they all knew each other well.

At one level, this is revealing of the man. A former colleague remembers him as “very shrewd and smart”: “He was obviously going places. If you’d said in 10 years’ time he’ll be in the Church, I’d have said no – he’ll be the finance director of a top FTSE company.”

Conversely, another recalls him as someone “who can manage dramatic change, but very gently” and as a man of quiet spirituality: “I remember at Christmas the chief executive offered us a big bottle of whisky, vodka or a huge ham. Being a Scot, I took the whisky. He took the ham. I said my family wasn’t big enough for the ham. He said quietly he was taking it to his church.”

But his faith doesn’t mean that industry didn’t suit him. Rather the reverse. One of the same former colleagues notes that he left before Enterprise was taken over by Shell, “but when we talk about the Enterprise team, Justin is always one of us”. Welby is clearly a man who knows how corporations work. And they don’t work like the Church of England, because the Church of England doesn’t work. Here is a leader who is equipped – to put it euphemistically – to “streamline” operations.

He could start with the body that laboriously appointed him. You would expect the Crown Nominations Commission to have voting representatives from the worldwide Anglican Communion – some 85 million Christians – over whom the new Archbishop will preside. In fact, it has one – and he’s the Archbishop of Wales. Of the 16 members, a stonking six are from the Diocese of Canterbury alone. Only three are women. The Church of England claims that it is transparent and accountable (unlike those horrid Romans), but the CNC meets in strict secrecy and tells us to mind our own business. It’s easier getting information out of the Freemasons. So, Archbishop Justin, the CNC appropriately enough meets in the Wash House of Lambeth Palace. We think it’s time you pulled the plug.


Second, the Church of England’s executive management structure is long overdue an overhaul. The Archbishop has his own executive at Lambeth Palace – “The Principals” as they are self-regardingly called – while the Church of England’s administrative operation is across the Thames at Church House. Each has a Chief of Staff and they customarily compete with each other. They will argue that they are not like a corporation – and that is certainly true. Most of them wouldn’t last 20 minutes in the private sector.

Lambeth Palace is like a medieval court. Church House is like an over-weening civil service. Welby needs to grasp the nettle and restructure all of it if a demoralised church is to enjoy a leadership that speaks directly to it, rather than mediated through this crippling bureaucracy. In a society that is increasingly secular, the voice of the established church needs to be direct and relevant to all citizens, believers or not.

Archbishop Justin will need to break the deadlock between Lambeth and Church House. He shouldn’t tolerate duplication of jobs. He could do worse than appoint Giles Fraser, the minor canon who resigned at St Paul’s Cathedral over the Occupy protest and now looks after an inner-city parish just down the road from the Palace, as Bishop of Lambeth, the traditional management function for the Archbishop of Canterbury before Rowan Williams’ predecessor George Carey abolished the post.

All, or even some, of this would serve to refresh the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, but more importantly the Church of England and the wider Anglican communion, for the 21st century. The process of selecting the Archbishop is usually described as “prayerful”. We can only now pray that, in this former industrialist, we have found the right person to do that job.

George Pitcher is an Anglican priest and former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury

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