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Meeting Justin Welby – almost live blogging from the RAH
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Meeting Justin Welby – almost live blogging from the RAH

Adrian Holloway on May 13, 2013 with 0 Comments

I was at university with Justin Welby. He was doing his training for ordination at Cranmer Hall in Durham, as a post grad having done 10 years in industry as an oil executive, and I was a young new Christian trying to find my way. I knew there was something about him, because my friend Roddy Bray told me: “You need to meet Justin Welby.” At the time we were discussing a typically controversial question in the Christian Union and Roddy took me to meet Justin for advice. Justin explained to me very patiently in his rooms at St John’s College, Durham how Paul’s rule of the weaker brother applied to the question.

This was probably 1990, or thereabouts and Justin was one of 4 or 5 “go to” people at Cranmer Hall, who people like me would go to for wisdom and guidance. Little did any of us know that 23 years later he’d be Archbishop of Canterbury, and that he’d be speaking to 5,500 in a packed Royal Albert Hall.

Last year, when interviewing Tony Blair, Nicky Gumbel let slip that the two of them had been at Law School together. Then the Bishop of London let slip that he’d been at Cambridge with Prince Charles I think, and there was some old school tie fun to be had during this interview also.

For example, here’s a question that you’d only tend to get when one Old Etonian interviews another:

Nicky Gumbel to Archbishop Justin Welby: “Your mother was the PA to Winston Churchill I believe?”

Justin: “Yes, from 1949-1955. I went to tea with him in 1961.”

NG: “Tell us about your conversion to Christ?”

JW: “Well you had a lot to do with it. You were a very destructive influence upon my non-Christian life! I went to Trinity College Cambridge, where you were there. I went to a party in your rooms. And  everyone there apart from me was called Nicky. I’d been teaching in Kenya (in a year out after school before university, and I met a Christian there and the quality of his life was very impressive. There were only two books there to read where we lived, one was about the British  constitution, and the other was the Bible. Once I’d read the one about the constitution three times, I started reading the Bible. At Cambridge, in my second year, your friend, Nicky Hills took me to a talk by the Christian Union, which was staggeringly boring. But then afterwards, Nicky took me to dinner and explained the cross. That was transformational. The key moment was understanding Christ, you know, what he did for us. And at the end of it, Nicky Hills said ‘what do you think?’ So we prayed together and I asked Jesus to be Lord of my life.”

NG: “How did you meet Caroline?”

JW: “It was 2 years later. Sandy Millar was a curate at HTB and Caroline became a Christian. I saw Sandy and Sandy said that she’s just gone up to Cambridge, why don’t you keep an eye out for her. I asked her to a dinner party which was me, 11 men and her. Anyway, that’s how we met.”

NG: “You used to be a bible smuggler?”

JW: “Yes, our first summer after we were married. We had a call from God to support the church in Communist Eastern Europe. You could carry about 1000 bibles in the van. We went two summers running.”

NG: “You were working in the oil industry, and it was at that time that you faced a major tragedy in your life? You have 5 children, but you did have 6 children?”

JW: “We were posted back to the UK in the summer of 1983. Our daughter Joanna had been born in 1982. On the way back, the car crashed, and she was injured on the Friday and she died on the Monday. There was more of a sense of the reality of God than at any other time. At the same time, all our friends, like you, and HTB, were praying like mad but Joanna died. It was just after John Wimber had come and when we got back to HTB, well particularly when Sandy took us to Anaheim and we met John Wimber and . . . the grace . . . He didn’t say any of the insensitive things that people say. We were deeply surrounded by love. It was unbelievably painful. It’s still a pretty rare day when I don’t think about Joanna. And I think that’s true for most parents who’ve been through this. It’s the best example I can think of the almost tangible way that God holds us.”

NG: “Tell us about your time at HTB, Justin? You were a pastor, you were on the PCC?”

JW: “Yes, John Collins was the vicar, and then Sandy Millar. The church was growing very very rapidly. It is natural for churches to grow, and there were many struggles. We were trying to work out what God was calling us to. God shapes those models. One of the things that I find so amazing about Jesus, is that he never says: ‘get in the right place and I’ll meet you there. He meets you where you are and takes you to the right place.’ We ran a pastorate of 50 people one week, and then a small group the alternate week. The day job was running the finance of an oil company. God was at work and the church was growing. That’s where I learnt that church should grow. We should be optimistic about the power of God to bring people to Christ.”

NG: “And you got ordained? Well, you were turned down, is that right?”

JW: “I was told by the Bishop, ‘I’ve interviewed over 1000 people for ordination. I can tell you, you don’t come in the top 1000!’ I was hoping that they would turn me down and then I’d take my wife out for the best meal I could afford to celebrate. You go for this residential interview, and the last interview was with a bishop. His opening question he said: ‘why do you want to be ordained?’ I replied, ‘I don’t, but I can’t get away from it”.

NG: “But clearly you did get ordained?”

JW: “Yes otherwise we’d not only have a church problem but also a constitutional problem!”

NG: “You went to work in Warwickshire?

JW: “Yes, I was ordained at Coventry. I went to work in Nuneaton in an area of very high unemployment. It was a very tough area. It was just the most enormous learning experience. Everything was different. Then I went to another parish, where there was 40 people, where there were more people paid to be there on a Sunday morning, than there were voluntarily. We were there 7 years. We just learned and learned. Just another example of making sure that evangelism is always at the top of your list.

“We did a lot of Alpha courses. We did them in our front room and we discovered we could get 46 people in, but only if they went in and out through the window.”

NG: “From there you went to Coventry Cathedral and you were involved in reconciliation work abroad and it was very dangerous. Your life was in danger!”

JW: “There were 3 occasions where it was very uncomfortable indeed.”

NG: “Oh come on, that’s a bit of an under-statement, I have read that a young militia leader told his friend to ‘take Welby out and shoot him.’ You must have been afraid. How do you deal with fear?”

JW: “Yes, well, I suppose fear is dealt with by grace. It’s who Jesus is that matters. I remember that quote ‘We are what we are before God and nothing more,’ by Murray M’Cheyne.’”

NG: “You became Dean of Liverpool, and then Bishop of Durham?”

JW: “We had 4 wonderful years at Liverpool, running the Cathedral. In Durham, the vision was about taking risks.

“The deepest wounds we have will come from other Christians, and how we begin reconciliation is that we pick up the cross. The Spirit fights against bitterness. The only way I can do it is praying for people.”

NG: “Tell us about your prayer life?”

JW: “Travelling in the war zone, you’re under great stress. Now, I do the offices of the Anglican Church. Morning prayer. Then at lunchtime, 12.30 Communion. Then the evening office. Before that, before morning prayer, it’s praying over a passage, normally through a commentary. I’ve been in Isaiah 34 and 35 for two weeks. I pray for you & Pippa and the family every Monday.”

I should add here that the first question Nicky asked Justin Welby was about his enthronement at Canterbury. How did it feel being the centre of attention?”

Justin answered was that the whole point of the thing is that it’s all about Jesus. Something he underlined by describing how for each of 5 nights before hand, more than 2,000 people came to pray at Cathedrals around the UK. Pete Greig had told Justin that he’d expected 400, but there were 12,000 across the 5 nights.

Nicky Gumbel’s final question: “What do you see as the opportunity?”

JW: “We’ve going through a bigger change spiritually than we have for a very long time. The state needs people who will fill the gaps. In Durham, we were working with other churches (e.g. Vineyard) in 50 foodbanks. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The state would have done it. I’m more optimistic about the church now than I have ever been in my life.”

I came away very impressed by Justin’s prayer life and very challenged personally.

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about the author

Adrian is married to Julia. They have four daughters. He is based at Everyday Church in Wimbledon, and has written two books, "The Shock of Your Life" and "Aftershock," which tackles the strongest objections to Christianity in the form of a novel.