In defence of Justin Welby: mediator, not homophobe

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, addresses the 2016 Greenbelt

How strange it is to be at an event and then see it misreported. Stranger still to see that misreporting to be based on your own report of that same event.

Last weekend, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury came to the Greenbelt festival in Northamptonshire for the first time. There was a mood of enthusiastic anticipation on the Saturday lunchtime when Welby sat down on the main stage with the 'Gogglebox vicar' Kate Bottley, in front of hundreds of festival-goers. But despite the initial applause, there was no guaranteeing a favourable reception for what he had to say, especially on the inevitable question of sexuality. Greenbelt veterans warned that the festival's crowds could be "spiky". Their centre of gravity was certainly left-of-centre.

Yet in the event, Welby's carefully balanced answer when the question came was well received, not just because it was unusually human, but because it was, broadly, progressive.

At Christian Today, we chose the headline: "Justin Welby: 'I am constantly consumed with horror' at the way the Church has treated gay people."

Yet later, Pink News took the opposite viewpoint, taking 43 words out of their context from a 55 minute question and answer session in which Welby went out of his way to be fair to both sides of the debate.

"Archbishop of Canterbury: We must embrace people who think gays are 'deeply wrong'," ran its headline.

Aside from the fact that he was talking about relationships and not people, Welby would have good reason to feel misrepresented here.

Yet Douglas Robertson in the Independent ran with the same line in a comment piece last night, condemning Welby's supposed 'Hug a homophobe' approach.

So the time has come for a closer look, then, at what Welby actually said. Here is his full answer to the question by an audience member on when the Church would be in a position to bless her impending civil partnership:

We cannot pretend that – so I'm putting one case then I'm going to put the other – we cannot pretend or I can't pretend myself that inclusion from the point of view of someone in a same sex relationship just to take a simple...that inclusion of someone in a same sex relationship that falls short of the blessing of the Church is going to feel like inclusion – it's not going to be perceived as inclusion. I think we're conning ourselves if we say that there is some clever solution out there that means you can do less than that and it will feel like inclusion.

But when you do that, if you do that, it will feel like exclusion to a bunch of other people, betrayal, subversion, even stronger words than that. And it is that and safeguarding, are the two issues that I lie awake at night most often thinking about, and have the least capacity to find a good way forward. What we're trying to do in the Church of England is to say that we will listen to each other's experiences. For those involved in what were called the 'shared conversations' I think that's had quite a significant impact, not on all of them but on a lot of people who, if only not in changing people's views, but in getting people to realise that the people they were listening to were Christians are Christians and are human beings and therefore need to be an object of love not an object of trying to defeat. But it doesn't get us to the point where we have to make a decision – do I know when there'll be a point where...a blessing will happen – no, I don't know the answer to that and I can't see the roadmap ahead.

What strikes me in this country is that we started off by looking traditional, we went on to looking out of touch, we moved on to looking vicious and now we just look odd. And we have to find a way in which we love and embrace everybody who loves Jesus Christ, without exception and without hesitation.

[Applause]. But – there's a but coming – but that includes those who feel that same sex relationships are deeply, deeply wrong, or who live in societies where they feel they are deeply, deeply wrong and they feel deeply compromised by other Christians around the world. And in this country our mission is deeply damaged by homophobic attitudes in the church and in other countries a change in our policy would be deeply damaging to the church – how do we deal with this incredible clash that is so important for so many people? And goes to the very heart of the identity of so many people?

All I can say is we have to reject homophobia and hatred wherever it happens. At the Primates meeting the heads of the 30 provinces in January restated in the clearest terms yet, that the criminalisation of LGBTI people was completely unacceptable, and could not be supported by Anglicans anywhere in the world in any circumstances, and that was a step – it's a small step but it's a step – but we have to recognise that there isn't a simple solution unless we're willing to say we don't care what...people think if they're not part of the Church of England. If we're willing to say that, that's fine, but I don't think that's what – Christ gives us, so I haven't got a good answer and I haven't got an easy answer [Applause]. But I am constantly consumed with horror at the way we've treated LGBTI people and constantly consumed with an urge to find a way of changing it in the right way but I don't know how that happens [Applause].

Earlier, incidentally, Welby had said: "If we were the only Church here and [there were] no other Churches, and if division didn't matter it would be much easier to answer".

This could be interpreted as a suggestion that as Archbishop, he would welcome the blessings of same-sex relationships. Perhaps he would. Perhaps not. 

But the key point here, as Welby made clear, is that he has a global Communion to hold together.

His attempts to do so are not new. Rowan Williams had the same dilemma. In the end, the seeming intractability of it may have brought forward Welby's predecessor's (voluntarily) departure. But Welby, who by all accounts has gone on his own personal journey on the issue, is determined to lead at this time. He may not have all the answers, as he made very clear. But he is trying, with increasing sympathy. And for that he should be commended – by both sides.