True leaders bleed: Why Justin Welby's honesty on depression is a gift to the Church

The Archbishop of Canterbury has once again shown humble, inspired leadership for the Church, recently describing his mental health struggle with the 'black dog' of depression.

An unkind and misguided Daily Mail piece by Quentin Letts recently asked 'What IS the point in the Archbishop of Canterbury?' Well, this is Welby's 'point', at least in part: leading the Church not with an iron fist but with humility and vulnerability. True leaders bleed. 

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has spoken up about his own experience of depression.Reuters

In a time when clerics are increasingly regarded with suspicion, or seen as privileged and distant from everyday affairs, Welby has chosen to bear his own scars to the watching world. His role is one laden with pressured prestige, but the Archbishop reminds us that he's still only human.

Speaking to Alastair Campbell for GQ, Welby described feeling 'beyond description, hopeless', and that while even a year ago he would have said he never got depressed, he now feels more familiar with the 'black dog' of depression.

It's important not to overstate Welby's comments: they don't amount to a seismic 'confession' of crippling mental illness – this is rather Welby speaking with typical candour about his struggles, but in a crucial way at a crucial time.

It reminds of the remarkable vulnerability he showed last year when he revealed after a DNA test that he was the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill's last private secretary.

He has described openly his 'disturbing' experience growing up with two alcoholic parents, and the tragic loss of his first child, Johanna, in a car accident in 1983.

The 'first among equals' of the Anglican Communion and the figurehead of the Church of England, Welby could be forgiven for keeping mum on his traumatic personal life. After all, he has enough problems in his day-job without looking to his past. Instead he's been honest where it counts, showing a leader who hurts, mourns and struggles with life as we all do.

Welby's daughter, Katharine Welby-Roberts, has courageously spoken out about her own struggles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts – and has called out mental health stigma in the Church. Now her father has joined the cause, challenging the notion that strength and leadership means pretending you never stumble.

Welby stands now with other icons of the British establishment: Princes William and Harry have been vocal and influential in the fight to raise mental health awareness. As Alastair Campbell – another champion of the cause – has explained, the voice of the young Royals, bearing their own vulnerabilities, could be a decisive one for taking on the taboo in the nation.

Suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In the face of such a threat, every voice that can remind people that they're not alone, that it's okay to hurt – and crucial to talk about it – counts dearly.

The Church, in some circles at least, is now combatting what was has sometimes been a stark silence about the pain of mental health. This is good news to celebrate, but the work mustn't stop.

Its been implied to some that being a Christian means you won't struggle because you've got Jesus – as Campbell put it to Welby:  'I've had all this hopeless stuff. My sister says if I had God it wouldn't happen.'

Except as the Bible shows (see the angish of the Psalms) it certainly does happen, and the paradox of Christian faith – which wrestles with light and dark, seeing both deep hope and depravity in the human heart, can even exacerbate the mental torture.

Shallow community can pressure one to simply smile at the Sunday service, even when we're at war inside. Singing about joy when one's heart dwells on death can make one wonder if their faith is even 'real'. Social expectations in the Church – the stigma around singleness for example – married with spiritual crisis – like finding God painfully absent from our pain – can be profoundly isolating.

A truly pastoral Archbishop, Welby has shown once again that when you name the darkness you bring it into the light, and there begins the healing and the hope. And isn't that the point of the Archbishop of Canterbury? He's not an infallible, invulnerable icon looking down from afar. He's just one of us – a human being who hurts and can admit it.

Most importantly I'm sure he'd say, he's a Christian, a follower of Jesus. That doesn't mean pain, mental or otherwise, goes away. But it does mean real hope, and company in the dark.

And that means a lot.

Joseph Hartropp is a Contributing Writer for Christian Today. You can follow him @JosephHartropp

More News in Church