The entire episode of this morning’s Today Programme on BBC Radio Four, Britain’s flagship national radio news breakfast programme, has been broadcast live from Lambeth Palace, which has been the London home and office of Archbishops of Canterbury for nearly 800 years. And Archbishop Justin Welby used an interview in the 8.10am slot, usually reserved for the key political interview of the day, to say that the Church of England “is very confident in its faith”.
The Church has faced difficulties throughout its history, he said, as he highlighted how one of his predecessors had to face five disestablishment Bills in Parliament during his first five years as Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-19th century; but he said that “The Church needs to be confident” as he pointed out a long list of ways in which the Church is involved in community engagement.
“We have heard today of the extraordinary things the church is doing reaching into the community,” he told the BBC’s Nick Robinson. “There is a huge amount of confidence on the ground: parishes and chaplaincies reaching out into their communities; night shelters are routine; food banks – we don’t like the fact that they exist but we get stuck in and do it. The Church is actually doing more in society than it has done in a very long time.
“It is also very confident in its faith. But we are seeing in the statistics that we have moved from a sense of inherited faith to a sense of faith by choice; and that is a smaller group of people.”
He said that despite statistics which show that fewer English people associate themselves with the Church of England than in the past, two things gave him hope: “One is that I believe in God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead; and the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead can be trusted forever in all circumstances.
“My wife has just come back from working with women church leaders in South Sudan: infinitely, unbelievably, indescribably worse situation than here; and yet they hope.
“So first it is God; and secondly, the Church is reforming and renewing itself [to be] much more focused, much more deliberate, much more purposeful.” He said that the combination of “obedience to God and reforming ourselves and in trusting God gives me hope.”
He refuted the suggestion that African Churches were growing because they continued to talk about heaven, hell and sin; while the C of E had “changed the message to fit in with the fads and fashions of changing society. “We still talk about heaven, hell and sin a great deal,” he said, “and when you go to Africa the churches have many challenges and difficulties there.”
He pointed to the recent Primates’ Meeting held at Canterbury Cathedral in October, and said that the leaders of the Anglican provinces had “spent the week learning from each other.”
The archbishop continued: “The Church is utterly confident about the person of Jesus Christ. How that is lived out in each society is in the context of that society. We have not lost confidence.”
He was also asked about the up-coming British royal wedding of Prince Harry to the US actress Meghan Markle. Prince Harry is currently fifth in line to the British throne; but will move to sixth once his older brother Prince William and his wife Catherine have their third child, which is due in April. Last month, the royal family announced the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Few details have been released about the wedding, other than it will take place in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, to the west of London, in May next year.
Archbishop Justin said that the wedding “will be fun”; but asked whether he would preside over it, he commented: “that is up to them.”
He said that the couple’s desire for a church wedding was not a “tick-box exercise” but part of “a profound sense of commitment of seriousness, both about faith and about their lives together which is quite inspirational.”
He said that the wedding, which is expected to be televised around the world, “is important” because people watching it will “see a model of how two people commit themselves to one another before God in the presence of millions of people. That is going to be a wonderful.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Archbishop Justin was about the increasingly polarised political debate in the UK as negotiations continue in Parliament and in Brussels about the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) and its future relationship with what will then be a 27-nation trading bloc.
He recalled the 1914 Christmas ceasefire in World War One, and said: “It would be very good to have a ceasefire from insult and the use of pejorative terms about people at this time.”
He continued: “As a country we have a future ahead of us. We have made a decision about Brexit. That is clear: both sides are saying that. How we do that is a question for robust political argument; but there is a difference between disagreeing and personalised attacks – and those have to be avoided.
“If we are going to make a success of Brexit then we need a political leadership that is united in their attitude to the future even if divided on policy.”
He also criticised corporations use transfer pricing and other techniques to avoid paying taxes in the countries where income was earned.
“The tax system should ensure that those who benefit from a society pay to that society properly,” he said. “I am not a tax expert – the intricacies of corporate tax defeated me when I was in business, yet alone nowadays; but it is clear that a company that has a turnover of several billion and yet pays only a few millions of tax, something isn’t working there. . . People who earn money from a society should pay tax to that society for the common good, for economic justice.”
In addition to its usual round up of national and international news, politics, sport and weather, the programme featured a range of items focused on the Church of England. This included the Church’s work to combat human trafficking. The Archbishop’s chaplain, the Revd Isabelle Hamley, delivered the programme’s Thought For The Day; and the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was the guest in the programme’s main business interview slot, in his capacity as deputy chair of the Church Commissioners, to explain how the Commissioners invest its assets; and how they spend the returns.
The programme also talked about the rhythm of prayer and worship and Lambeth Palace, and interviewed a member of Chemin Neuf, the Roman Catholic community based at Lambeth Palace; the Community of St Anselm, a modern monastic community inviting young people aged between 18-35 to “spend a year in God’s time”; and James O’Donnell, the organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey. The programme finished with the Christmas carol I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In), which was sung by boys from the choir of Westminster Abbey.