Brief encounter: Justin Welby

The Archbishop of Canterbury on his earliest memories, his favourite quotation—and Thomas the Tank Engine

October 13, 2016
©Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images
©Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images
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What is the first news/historical event you can recall?

My earliest memory is of being taken to tea with Winston Churchill in 1961 by my mother—Churchill was her former boss. He was very old and he cried. And because he cried, I cried. And then we sat and had tea. The first historical event I can remember was seeing flags at half mast for President John F Kennedy.

What is the book you most wish you had written?

Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The language is fantastic and its sentiments are very challenging—I hope and pray the church will never be merely “useful,” as Gibbon says the religions of the Roman Empire were.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Don’t wait until you are older to find out about Jesus Christ and his love for you. He is not just a name at chapel, but a person you can know.

Who was your first hero?

Probably Thomas the Tank Engine.

What is your favourite saying or quotation?

C’est tout grâce” (“It’s all grace”)—courtesy of my spiritual director, Father Nicolas Buttet, a Swiss monk. It reminds me that each day the gospel comes to me as a sinner and astounds me with the news that I am loved, accepted, forgiven, redeemed and chosen in Jesus.

Where do you want to be buried or have your ashes scattered?

Canterbury, and Southam in Warwickshire where I was the parish priest.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?

Training and developing really good reconciliation skills amongst church leaders in areas prone to conflict.

What do you wish you had invented?

A straightforward cheap clinic kit for rural areas of Africa.

What have you changed your mind about?

Lots of things, not all confessable. Generally, seeing far fewer things are worth a bad argument and accepting diversity of opinion much more easily.

What are the best and worst presents you’ve ever received?

The worst was while travelling in this job being given something so bulky that we had to buy a large box and have it shipped sea freight. Lots of bests, like my watch from my wife, but more recently, when I went from being Dean of Liverpool Cathedral to become a Bishop (of Durham), the congregation gave me a leaving present of a Bishop’s staff. To remind me that I could make a fool of myself they carved a rock badger on the top: a year earlier I had “corpsed” while reading a lesson from Leviticus 11 that says you should not eat them.

Are people better today than 100 years ago?

I’m very cautious about the narrative that says “things are so much worse now than they were 100 years ago.” In many areas things have got better—there is less sexism, racism, nepotism, bending of rules. In the UK we have stability, the NHS, benefits. But we have less sense of identity, and perhaps less vision and daring.

The last piece of music that brought you to tears?

Vaughan Williams setting of George Herbert’s Love bade me welcome.

What is the biggest problem of all?

For me, me. For the world, sin.