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Justin Welby: “What I learnt from Covid, the threat of cancel culture and the truth on Harry & Meghan’s wedding”

LONDON – Archbishop Justin Welby, on April 15 you are publishing a new expanded edition of “Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope” (Bloomsbury Continuum), while it looks we are apparently getting out of this terrible pandemic. What’s the lesson that you learnt from it?

“There are a number of words that sum up what we’ve had to learn over the last 12, 15, 18 months. One is interdependent. We recognise that, as has always been the case right back to the Middle Ages, that illnesses, plagues and pestilence cannot be confined to one part of the world. Therefore, we are interdependent. We read about Covid happening in China, no doubt we felt a sense of sympathy for the people of Wuhan. Then it got closer, closer and we suddenly realised that it was among us. That is something that nobody had predicted. Surprisingly, I mean, scientists had, but it had just not been in our planning.”

“The second one is fragility. The fragility of life. You expect me to recognise that our lives are in God’s hands and that there is a deep fragility in life that we forget in Europe and the global North very easily. We assume that life will go on for an indefinite future. We really struggle with the idea that there can be a pandemic that shortens everything or it is unpredictable in its impact. I notice by fellow bishops that around the world it places like the Congo and others one copes with this much better. They’re much more used to this idea of the uncertainty or fragility of life.” 

“The third thing is inequality. As you know, in this country, if you are black or from another minority ethnic community or if you are poor or live in inadequate housing, if you have a disability, if you are old and in a care home, the levels of death have been far, far higher. That has been a real wake-up call. I think that’s the most important thing we learnt: we have to start afresh and to reimagine very deeply what the future of our societies will look like to be more resilient.”

Because you just mentioned inequality, in the past you also worked for big companies… are we going towards a very unequal world, as also this pandemic has shown us? Or is there a way to fix it?

“I think this is the most extraordinary moment of choice in my lifetime. It’s a choice. We had a choice in 1945 in Western Europe and the better choice was taken to seek reconciliation, peace, democracy and freedom. That led to what in France was known as Trente Glorieuses, the thirty glorious wonderful years.”

“I think we have a choice now of a default option, which is that the most powerful and the richest in our societies re-establish things much as they were before the pandemic. Or we can choose  – and we have that real reality now – to redevelop our societies with much more emphasis on human dignity, on human equality, without shutting down the economy or adopting particularly unpleasant measures, but in seeking a much more humane society that reflects the Christian roots of Europe.”

“I think there is a genuine option for future policy on tax, on education, on the provision of healthcare and housing, which is something I’m particularly concerned about at the moment in this country and also in international development in caring for the poorest of the world. This comes out of a very long tradition in our societies. But the default, – and people like Nietzsche speak of this in the idea of the lust for power, Schmidt a bit later and there’s an element of this in Marx –  the default is to see the most powerful seize the high ground.”

You mentioned the sense of interdependency. At the beginning of the pandemic we could feel also a sense of solidarity. Now we have this vaccines row. What do you think of it? Most of the citizens are a little bit ashamed and angry at the way this has been handled, especially between the UK and the EU. 

“(Laughs) When I pause and look out of the window, I’m working out how open to be about what I really think. (Laughs). Let’s take that part in bits. Solidarity is indispensable because it is a very, very heart of Catholic social teaching, of Christian social teaching. We did show enormous solidarity at times during this pandemic. There’s been some very, very good work. There’s some encouraging signs of solidarity. The COVAX programme is really important and as you say, quite right, there’s been this row over the vaccine.”

“I’d want to make a couple comments. We cannot afford these separations as human beings, they simply are unaffordable. I’m not going to get into questions of whose fault it is and so forth, but we cannot afford to do that when we run into these kinds of problems, which are inevitable between sovereign states, particularly in the aftermath of the struggle over Brexit. When we run into these problems, we have to seek mediation. If we can’t negotiate a way forward, we have to find ways of a peaceful, calm, mutually generous way out of the situation.”

“The second thing I want to say is that vaccine nationalism is the most enormous danger. One of my favourite sayings by Benjamin Franklin, one of the leaders of the American Revolution in the 18th century, was that when the colonies were fighting the British and they were all arguing with each other, he said: “We must most assuredly hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately.” Faced with this virus, I would say the same thing. If we don’t stick together, we will suffer separately. That’s particularly true for the global South. My wife is in the other room at the moment on a call with archbishops’ wives in South Sudan, where she’s been doing some work with women leaders for some years now. She’s gathered them together and talking to them. They are really suffering from Covid at the moment.”

“But if they suffer, it will come back to us. So vaccine nationalism is a disaster. Solidarity is essential. Mediation of differences is unavoidable. It must happen and we need a mature, reflective and compassionate international order. It is possible in the face of such danger as it will be necessary the COP26 in Glasgow in the autumn. I mean, there’s some very good individual things. There’s a programme that we’re encouraging in the churches. Others are encouraging people who’ve had the vaccine to make a donation to the Global Covax programme. It’s being run by UNICEF and the message of the campaign is “let’s give the world a shot”. Now, lots of people are contributing to that. There’s a real personal desire to help.” 

On Brexit. The pandemic, at least in some way, has erased all the discussions that have been taking for so many years. Do you think this country is over it? Or do you think that is going to still be hanging on for some time? 

“I think we’re much more over it than we were before the pandemic. You’ve absolutely put your finger on it, the pandemic has marginalised that, relativise that. When there are huge questions of life and death and, you know, 150,000 people who have Covid on their death certificate in the last 12 months in this country, when there’s these enormous question, somehow, even Brexit, with its huge importance, is made to seem less important”.

“I think what Brexit did was to reveal deep divisions in our society. It also reveals real challenges to the way Europe works. As you probably know, I was Remainer, but I’m not today a Remoaner: I accept that the vote happened, we need to move on and re-establish a different sort of good relationship with Europe. Our relationship with the European churches is first class.”

“But in this country and across Europe, to use the old cliche, there’s much more that joins us than that separates us. It’s finding that being a blessing to the world in which we live. We are deeply united on issues of climate change. We are deeply united in our horror of war and conflict. That has been the case since 1945. We learnt our lessons through the first half of the 20th century”.

“We’re deeply united in our history, often fighting each other by the French, but the civilisation that we established, we’ve drawn it on each other’s civilisation. And we were all deeply united by having a colonial past. Although that wasn’t something that was a good thing, it brings us a sense of belonging to a global world and the need to share the benefits we gained from that world and to serve better. So Brexit just happened, we’re going forward in a separate way, the strategic review demonstrates that tilts us, as it puts it, towards the Pacific. But Europe remains our neighbour with common understandings and philosophy. We have to benefit from that”.

Some time ago a tweet of yours criticised EU. That happened during the row on vaccines when the Europeans triggered for some hours Article 16 of the Protocol on Northern Ireland. Also, in the past you signed a letter with the other leaders of British churches calling for peace in NI and criticising the UK government’s moves. Are you scared about what is going on in Northern Ireland right now and what do you think about the British government which is basically breaching the protocol and international law?

“I know quite a lot about Northern Ireland. We’ve had meetings, this is public information, with paramilitary leaders; my chief of staff is from Northern Ireland and he has been in constant contact with them. The Anglican Church in Northern Ireland is very involved in the peace process. The reality is that Northern Ireland is a very unusual case right across Europe because it is still emerging from a very long period of very severe violence. Indeed, there are still many guns in hiding. There are still active paramilitary groups operating mainly on a criminal basis, and because it’s 22 years since the Good Friday Agreement (The Belfast Agreement), there’s a generation growing up who don’t realise how terrible that time of the Troubles was. I’m not that worried about violence re-emerging yet. But, as you saw, there were threats very quickly earlier this year against Customs posts in Northern Ireland. It’s a unique situation in which violence is not excluded. When you have a unique situation, you have to deal with it uniquely.”

“The cost of war to human dignity, the cost, by historic standards, of even minor unrest of kneecapping, punishment beatings and those sorts of things, is so disruptive to a society and so cruel and so bitter that we have to make every effort to realise that Northern Ireland is not to be instrumentalised by either the British or the European Union. It must be treated as a place where you look to establish peace and a deep sense of reconciliation.”

“There is peace, more or less, but reconciliation has has not been completed. It is stalled at the moment. It is stationary. We need real progress to go on being made. Because reconciliation and peace building, it either goes forward or… it’s like a bicycle: if you stop, you fall off. Yes, I am concerned. I meet with people over there, not nearly as much as my colleague, the archbishop of Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, the primate of Ireland, who is very experienced in this area, and I followed his lead a lot. But I meet with people, with paramilitaries and others, I pray with them and seek to encourage reconciliation.”

“But this is not an economic question. Any more than the formation of the European Union was an economic question right back in the early 50s: it was a question of peace, of politics, of reconciliation. We must look at Northern Ireland in that sense. Economic difficulties are simply actors, irritants, as ways of making the situation much more difficult. I think there is a genuine difficulty there.”

Archbishop, recently in “The Spectator” you quoted Hans Küng with the phrase “to stay the same when everything else around you changes is not to stay the same”. Which brings us to quite a different topic: the question of gay marriage. This is a universal question, which is so challenging to all the churches. Recently, after Vatican’s decision to bar gay union blessings, there were big protests coming out. People are leaving churches, especially the younger generations. Your church has embraced the project “Living in love and faith”, and next year is the decisive one on that. But can you personally imagine now the day when homosexual people will get this blessing by your Church?

“I’m not going to answer the question very properly, this one. We’re in the middle of an incredibly complex and rather delicate process. I’m simply not going to answer that question because it would prejudge where we might get to, and that would mean that we’d have a lot more trouble getting there. The outcome of “living in love and faith” in the Church of England… remember, they’re already gay marriages and blessings of gay marriages in the Anglican Church in what’s called the Episcopal Church, the Anglicans in North America. That led to a church’s moderate sized group going off. There’s also in our provinces in Scotland, Brazil, and the United States. So it’s happening in parts of the Anglican Church where we don’t have the same global single view of this.”

“The key thing, it seems to me, is whether you think that you are defined as a human being: by your sexuality or by your faith in Jesus Christ? My lived experience of finding a few years ago that my father wasn’t my father is that where I find my identity is not in DNA or in sexuality or anything else: it is in Christ, it is in who loved me, and I am loved by God. It is essential that the Church demonstrates to each other and to gay people that God is love.”

“There may be different views about how you express love. We know now that the Church is quite clear… because you love someone, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right in that way. I mean, if you’re married and you fall in love with someone else, that doesn’t make you right. But we need to start by demonstrating in a way, that we’ve not done over history, that LGBTQI people are loved, are welcomed by God, find their identity in God. Then we have to work out what we do when reasonably they turn around from us. There will be differences of opinion within the church. The difficulty over the next 18 months is working out what our answer is and whether as a Church we can continue to love one another when we disagree on the answer. So I’m deliberately not answering the question about whether I can see gay blessings happening in the future, because we’ve yet to decide that. But I am saying that the biggest test is that we go through this discussion largely loving one another and caring for one another and pointing to God as love and welcoming one another.”

Don’t you find the Catholic Church more dogmatic on such issues?

“I’m not going to criticise the Catholic Church. There’s an old saying of Winston Churchill’s about the British army: the British army always does the right thing but only after trying all the wrong ones. You could say the same about the Church of England. I’m not sure why it always ends up with the right answer, but it certainly tries all the wrong ones first. For literally 30 years, we produced paper after paper, short reflections often very thoughtful, taken around about 2000, but which never really made any progress. So we set out in 2018, after a debate that was particularly painful in our General Synod, the Parliament of the Church, we would set out to look at the question in four ways. First, in its biblical: what does the Bible teach us? Secondly, in the theological: what is the nature of God and what modern and our understanding of philosophy teach us?”

“So what does church history, and particularly the patristic period, teach us about how we disagree and what we disagree on and where the lines are that you draw and say we can’t go any further to discriminate and force the world to the human and biological sciences in the most modern form teach us? And this is being brought together in this book, “Living in Love and Faith”, which I have read very carefully. Behind there is a huge amount of work: half a million words from scientists and theologians condensed down into 483 pages, very carefully thought through. It doesn’t give answers, it simply says here is our best understanding at present and now the church has to assemble what the spirit of God is saying to us. My caution is always that this, for very good reasons, because it’s so fundamental to what you are as a human being in many people’s thinking, that this can lead to great judgmentalism and great cruelty. So that’s where we’re going with “Living in love and faith”. But I’m not going criticise Catholics, we are not Catholics, they do a lot of their thinking in private: some families, when they have an argument, they go into separate rooms and sulk. Other families, when they have an argument, they stand in the background garden and shout at each other and all the neighbours hear. The Anglicans are of the second group. We do all our arguing in public and it makes us look quite argumentative sometimes.”

As you have a very good relationship with the Pope Francis, how do you regard his force to reform the Catholic Church? Is he a real reformist?

“He’s a real reformist in many, many areas. He’s a reformist in the sense of not wanting to change everything, but to re-establish the primacy of faith in God who reaches out to us and has brought a profound sense of the experience of love and forgiveness and into the world of the God who was human and as we remember this week on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday, who died on the cross and was raised from the dead. That sense of the spiritual life is the centre of our being and hope is something that Pope Francis is just under forgiveness, and engaging with people as people is something Pope Francis does most beautifully.”

“I’ve met him a significant number of times. We’ve done things together, including a most remarkable conference on South Sudan in the Vatican, where he ended up kneeling at the feet of the rulers of South Sudan, the different parties, the rebels and the government, pleading with them to make peace. They were all in tears and his capacity to demonstrate the humility and grace of God is extraordinary. I always learn from him.”

About “cancel culture“, the Church looks concerned about the debate on statues and memorials. Some people would like to erase part of the past. What do you think about this movement?

“We can’t erase the past. It’s impossible. We have to learn from it sometimes, often, always. We have to repent of it quite often. But we cannot erase it. The past is a reality. I think Cancel culture is a huge threat to the life of the Church. We need to be able to express truths or to express our views, whether they’re good or bad.”

“On the statues, what we were looking at was whether we had memorials and statues where the language on them was so abusive that there was no way of putting it in context. I’m very kind to say that we’ve reviewed all the statutes, for instance, here at Canterbury, and that there was nothing that needed changing. Around the Church of England, I think there’s been one or two that were really terrible. They’ll go into a museum and there’ll be an explanation on why we now disagree with this person who 200 years ago had a statue put up there. But we cannot cancel history. We cannot cancel differences of opinion. Particularly in universities, it seems to me very, very dangerous because you start with cancelling some views that you dislike and very quickly, you are cancelling everyone who disagrees. It’s a very dangerous process.”

About the case of Batley Grammar School and the protests after a teacher showed prophet Mohammad’s cartoons in his classroom…what do you think about the way things have been handled? Is there a conflict about freedom of speech?

“I don’t know the details about that case. In this country we abolished the blasphemy laws not long ago, in the past twenty years, and the Church of England was one of those who supported the abolition of the blasphemy laws. Because we feel that blasphemy is, I believe, a morally bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter.”

“Yes, there can be a conflict in-between and in some parts of the world, you have to be very careful what you say because people feel very, very strongly. But in this country, I think, we have to hold on to freedom of speech. We have very good relationships with Muslim leaders across the country. Many of them are very upset by the cartoons that were shown but also many of them have said no violence, no threats, make it clear that you disagree strongly, but no violence, no threats. In other words, exercise your freedom of speech, but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech.”

“I think shutting down freedom of expression of religion, which is happening in various parts of Europe at the moment, is entirely wrong as well. We have to speak freely. I’m much more towards the US end of the spectrum on freedom of speech than I am elsewhere towards the other end. I think we have to be open to hearing things we really dislike. There was someone the other day who was saying “the Archbishop of Canterbury who believes in fairies at the bottom of the garden”. Well, obviously, I entirely disagree with his assessment of the Christian faith, or the person of Jesus Christ. But I’m very glad that he feels able to say that, and I don’t want to threaten them for saying it. I don’t think he should be threatened.”

In your new book “Reimagining Britain”, you write that “The expansion of the EU has led to a loss of its own, also very often Christian-driven, narrative. The stories of war and the compulsion to avoid the repetition of war have faded, as has the sense of escape from the totalitarian regimes of the pre-1989 Soviet bloc… Yet the inertia in a system of 27 countries is enormous, and the profound inequalities make any change of heart far more difficult in Europe than in the UK”. Do you think that the future of EU is gloomy, also because of the loss of the Christian values?

“I think it is. I am very interested by the effort, particularly of President Macron, to give a new vision for the EU. He’s made a number of very significant speeches in this area. I’ve said many times the EU, in its early history, was the greatest example of reconciliation that we see anywhere in the world: just between Germany and Britain, between 1914 and 1945, we killed about three million of each other’s citizens. I mean, that is unthinkable now, and that was the gift of initially the Common market and so forth. The danger is when the EU begins to think that it is a commercial body or that it is about material well-being rather than about the flourishing of the people of Europe right across there, when it loses that vision and gains only a materialist vision. At that point, what’s the point of it? I mean, you can do that. Lots of people can do that. The virtue and inspiration of EU from Monnet and Schuman, the Original Six, was they had a deep sense that it was there for something more profound in the human spirit, of solidarity and subsidiarity. It’s much harder to do with 27 countries, but I hope EU will make us jealous by demonstrating a beautiful vision for the future of Europe.”

Doesn’t Britain have a beautiful vision for the future then?

“I think we are trying to develop one. But again, the danger is we develop a material vision. When we look at the issues around Scotland, for example. I believe in the Union, but not in the union in order to trade for. That’s a good benefit, but it’s a collateral benefit, I believe in the union because on this island, it enables us to care for each other, to show compassion to one another, to love one another, to do great things in the world for the blessing of the world in a way that we couldn’t.”

“I think that vision needs to be developed politically. We’re in a new position. I mean, it’s not surprising we need to develop a new vision because we’ve just gone through this enormous change of leaving Europe, which dominated all our foreign policy and much of our domestic policy. I think for  Europe post-covid, for the United Kingdom, for the States for much of the world. this is a moment of enormous choice. Can we develop a vision for our future that is better? that is a choice that has to be made, particularly in relation to the environment, because otherwise our problems of the last year are gonna look quiet small.”

This country has been in the middle of a huge discussion about racism. Is there any kind of structural racism in the UK? And should we reconsider the image of a “white Jesus”?

“Oh, yes! Well, he wasn’t [white]! It’s a matter of history!”

But do you think that there is a problem of racism in this country?

“Yes, there is. It’s not always conscious. There’s an interview on Twitter, with David Lammy and me on the phone yesterday… it’s very clear. Yes, there’s a problem. There’s always a problem with the other, everywhere you go in the world. But in this country, it shows up as as racism with many people. It’s a problem we can overcome, but you have to be aware of it. The cultural assimilation, it’s perfectly all right in our stained glass and so on the cross that, you know, we got 12th century stained glass which shows a white Jesus. Fine. As long as we don’t really believe that Jesus was European, but recognise that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew of the first century and that many leading Christians, the majority of Christians today are not white. I mean, my own church, the average Anglican, is a woman in her 30s in sub-Saharan Africa on less than four dollars a day.”

Could you please tell us what happened with Megan and Harry? Did you really marry them three days before the official wedding, as they revealed?

“If any of you ever talk to a priest, you expect them to keep that talk confidential. It doesn’t matter who I’m talking to. I had a number of private and pastoral meetings with the duke and duchess before the wedding. The legal wedding was on the Saturday. I signed the wedding certificate, which is a legal document, and I would have committed a serious criminal offence if I signed it knowing it was false. So you can make what you like about it. But the legal wedding was on the Saturday. But I won’t say what happened at any other meetings.”

What do you think about the new asylum rules of the UK government that basically deny it to those who arrive illegally?

“We need to stamp out human trafficking because it’s involved in all kinds of terrible trafficking, including trafficking of women, sex workers and children for sex and terrible, awful things. But we need to be humane, kind and hospitable to those who are reasonably seeking asylum.”

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