Katharine Welby-Roberts: Finding God in the midst of suffering

Katharine Welby-RobertsRuth Gledhill

The daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury has become known for her courage in the face of depression and chronic fatigue. Her sensitive blogging about one of the most difficult subjects in contemporary life has won her plaudits from around the world, due the vulnerability and sensitivity she brings to her writing.

Now married and expecting a baby in September, Katharine Welby-Roberts has started a new strand to her popular blog.

In the main blog, she writes and asks about the difficult questions, about the church, confusion in the face of the mysteries of God, the unknowables of faith. 

Walking Alongside takes this a step further, literally and metaphorically. The aim is to discuss faith, suffering and the church and Katharine is inviting contributions from ordained and lay people with experience of long term suffering and struggle. The blog will explore the Church's response and how it can "walk alongside" people in these situations.

A recent example was written by Haydon Spenceley, a disabled curate, who writes of working out how many parts of his body hurt at any one time, and how badly. Another was by Tanya Marlow, former lecturer in Biblical theology, who wrote about suffering in God's silence when she became wheelchair-bound from ME shortly after having a baby.

Katharine began by writing about her own mental health and talking about it.

A lot of people responded by talking to her about their mental health. Others shared stories of long-term situations where they found little helpful encouragement from the church, things such as chronic pain, illness, even situations such as singleness or childlessness.

"People want to help but don't really have a theology that incorporates long-term unanswered prayer and suffering. They need an answer to give but the answer isn't always helpful. In fact sometimes it is the opposite. People can say harmful and damaging things out of a genuine desire to love and support people. It is almost because they haven't got a theology they can apply."

She began by talking to a friend about setting up a support group to help in situations of long-term unanswered prayer. As both were ill with chronic fatigue and depression at the time, this did not progress far.

So Katharine started the Walking Alongside blog, to address how to understand God in the context of suffering, to help people wanting to know where God is in their suffering.

The answer, she believes, is not to look for victory in overcoming the problem, but within the context of the problem itself.

"Some of the most powerful testimonies I have heard and witnessed are where people have experienced enormous suffering that God has not fixed, but they have met God in the middle of that."

She is extremely passionate about this.

"I want to open people's eyes just to the number of people having to deal with this stuff.

"We learn better as a church when we walk alongside people, when we journey with them rather than try to fix them."

It is early days, but already there is strong engagement from readers.

Katharine says: "I don't know whether you can ever get a handle on suffering. Through this and talking about mental health, I am understanding I guess the complexity of the God I love and the fact that we don't have answers to many of these mysteries.

"We are told God wants to offer us these things. We don't know why he offers them to some and not others. Yet we are told we are loved.

"I think we put too much emphasis on the happy side of love, rather than go into relationships with people whose prayers have not been answered for a long time."