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Pope Francis greets Archbishop Justin Welby on 13 November 2019 Pope Francis greets Archbishop Justin Welby on 13 November 2019  (Vatican Media)

Archbishop of Canterbury: May Christians face pandemic in unity

Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby speaks with Vatican Media about the challenges facing Christians due to the pandemic, the ecumenical importance of the encyclical “Fratelli tutti”, and his hopes for peace in South Sudan.

By Alessandro Gisotti

Just over one year ago, on 13 November 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, met Pope Francis in the Vatican for a private audience.

In that short space of time, the global situation has drastically changed due to the pandemic. However, the dramatic arrival of Covid-19 has only reinforced the importance of those themes—solidarity, ecology, religious freedom, and peace—which have found particular resonance with both the Bishop of Rome and the Primate of the Anglican Communion.

One year after their most recent meeting, and one month after the publication of Fratelli tutti, Archbishop Justin Welby granted a wide-ranging interview to Vatican News and the Osservatore Romano to talk about the issues currently facing the world. He focused his reflection on the contribution Christians can make in this moment, which is so deeply affected by suffering.

Q: Your Grace, the last time you met the Holy Father was just a year ago, on November 13, in the Vatican. Yet the world has changed radically since then due to the outbreak of the pandemic. What can Christian leaders like you and the Pope do to foster hope in a time of global fear and suffering?

Fundamentally, our hope is in Jesus Christ, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13. 8). Whilst the world may change the love of God through Jesus Christ is unchanging. ‘The steadfast love of the Lord endures for ever’ (Lamentations 3. 22). The task of those who lead the Church is to testify to hope in difficult times. Jesus didn’t come to bring hope to a world where things were going well, but to a fragile and broken world – one full of fragile, damaged and sinful people. And what Jesus says to us is ‘do not fear’. He is our hope.

Christians are called to be people of hope demonstrated in how they live together as communities. The message of hope in Christ looks beyond the here and now to that which is to come – to eternity and the promise of eternal life. Human life is fragile, and widespread sickness and death brings this home to us in a stark and tragic way. But eternal life is just that, eternal. God calls us also to make life on earth reflect better the life of heaven for the one leads into the other. In following the example of Jesus and his teaching to love our neighbour we can help to do this. If we live out our faith in Christ and put the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalised at the centre then we are living out the message of hope.

Q: During this time of pandemic, Pope Francis’ last Encyclical, “Fratelli tutti”, was published. What impressed you about the message the Pope wishes to convey with this document whose focus is fraternity and social friendship?

‘Fratelli tutti’ is a deeply moving document and offers a systematic, ambitious and brave vision for a better future world. It is grounded throughout in Christology – with Christ at the centre. It is also a letter which takes seriously the breadth and complexity of humanity. The Pope’s references to his meetings with such figures as the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Grand Imam, the inspiration he draws from Mahatma Gandhi and his references to Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Archbishop Desmond Tutu emphasize that his vision is not a vision only for the Catholic Church but for the whole of humanity – this is one of the reasons why his vision is both ambitious and compelling.

The Holy Father takes very seriously all aspects of human life from the individual to the multi-national, from the family to the world of commerce and industry or the world of politics. He sets out the twin dangers of communitarianism and individualism, the Scylla and Charybdis of politics and philosophy. Both lead to tyranny and anarchy.

In his contacts with those such as the Grand Imam, whom I also know, he demonstrates that there is no inevitability in inter-religious or cultural conflict. The clash of civilizations is a notion that ignores the cosmos transforming reality of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ: a transformation which enables the creative work of the Father through the Son to be continued in the power of the Spirit making God’s Kingdom visible.

Q: “Fratelli tutti” concludes with an ecumenical prayer. What contribution can the ecumenical movement give to build a better future in a fragmented world, shaken by wars and acts of terrorism such as those we have witnessed recently in Europe?

One of the problems that many Christians suffer from is the notion that their Church is the only Christian body out there or, if they do acknowledge the presence of other Christians, they consider that they are generally wrong. This is true, from time to time, of Anglicans as well as others. When we look out at brother and sister Christians from whom we are separated by historical accident or doctrinal questions, we see true people of Christ, fellow pilgrims on the way and people, loved by God and served by God, from whom we can learn. An English hymn says this:

In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close-binding humankind.

Join hands, then, children of the faith,
whate'er your race may be;
who serves my Father as his child
is surely kin to me.

(Hymn by John Oxenham, 1908)

Human beings have a tendency to build barriers and demarcate territory. This happens in the church and it happens in the political realm. Frontiers imply, or sometimes falsely impose, difference. What the ecumenical movement has done and continues to do is to chip away slowly at those frontiers. Occasionally there is a major step forward as we found with the Catholic – Lutheran ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ to which Anglicans, Methodists and the Reformed have now signed up. From time to time the frontier is opened up and the border becomes permeable.

One of the real and tangible benefits of the ecumenical movement is that, at an individual level, relationships of trust and friendship have been built up across denominational divides – barriers have been broken down by friendship (or ‘fraternity’). I live day to day in an ecumenical community as, from early on in my time at Lambeth Palace we have had a resident group from the Chemin Neuf Community living with us. There have been Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans among them over the years. I have a Catholic spiritual director, with whom I recently collaborated on a preface for a French publication of ‘Fratelli tutti’. In all these relationships, the other is not a stranger, but a fellow pilgrim; a friend; a sister or brother.

Q: You wrote in a recent letter to the British nation that there are three answers to the questions that the pandemic has posed to all of us: let's be calm, let's be courageous, let's be compassionate. Why did you emphasize these three aspects?

There is something about an unseen enemy that inspires fear. But fear is not defeated by panic, rather it is amplified by it. Calm, however, gives us the space to take stock and to act deliberately. It links to the Hebrew term ‘shalom’ and calls to mind the ‘great calm’ after Jesus has calmed the storm in Matthew 8. 26. The absence of calm in their hearts leads to his rebuke. But we do need to be courageous. There were many headlines during the periods of lockdown that said that the Churches were closed. The buildings may have been, and the sacramental life of the church was disrupted, but the Church itself was open. Christians of all denominations were seeking out and helping others – their neighbours and others in need. It is clear that, in the face of a coronavirus pandemic we are all in it together.

Q: Pope Francis has said many times this year that we will emerge from this crisis only if we take care of the other and acknowledge that we are all in the same boat. Yet in Europe, and not only in Europe, we see populism and nationalism gaining ground. What is the Christian response to this selfishness fueled by the fear we are experiencing?

I, too, have said that we are in the same boat (or, even if we are in different boats, we are on the same sea and facing the same storm) and that we should seek to look after ourselves and our communities, drawing strength and courage from one another and walking together. Fear causes us to put up the barriers that I was talking about earlier. The more people are gripped by fear, and the more those fears are played on and manipulated by political leaders, the more the Church is called to demonstrate something else: hospitality, service and love.

Throughout ‘Fratelli tutti’ Pope Francis weaves together the individual and the social, rejecting the extremes of both and stressing their interdependence. The seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet John Donne famously wrote that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ Each person is connected to others and when one suffers so others suffer with them. The Holy Father shows throughout the encyclical that this is just as true now as it was four hundred years ago, and throughout human history.

In the encyclical, there is a very moving section looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan overrode nationalism and prejudice with unconditional love. In that relationship of love and care there was no Jew or Samaritan but two human beings – one in need and one providing for that need. The Christian response to selfishness is love – a message that weaves through His Holiness’s letter.

Q: You said in an interview that you pray every day for the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. During a Mass in Santa Marta, Pope Francis asked for prayers for political leaders who have to make difficult decisions during this period. In your opinion, what place does prayer have today, or a relationship with God, for that matter, in an increasingly secularized world?

I do pray daily for the Prime Minister and for everyone else who has to make almost impossible political decisions every day. Some social media headlines in the aftermath of that interview said that I ‘admitted’ that I prayed for the Prime Minister. I don’t admit it as if it is a guilty secret, it is my duty and something that I readily and happily do for him and for others.

Prayer is the lifeblood of our relationship with God. Prayer is beautiful, intimate and always surprising. Prayer is participation in creation and recreation: in prayer we are changed and the world is changed. But if we want to see things change, we start with prayer – not sending a list of requests to the sky, but allowing God to change us – to make us more like Christ.

Q: Peace, ecology and social justice are among the points to which you and Pope Francis are most committed. What is your hope for the future of your relationship with the Pope whom you have met many times, and with whom you share the desire to travel together to South Sudan expressed after the meeting with the South Sudanese leaders in Santa Marta in April 2019?

I value very deeply my friendship with Pope Francis. We came into office at almost the same time and we share many of the same concerns. For both of us peace and reconciliation are central. The retreat in which the Holy Father and I took part with the various political leaders of South Sudan was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life to date. It remains a real hope that we will be able to travel together to South Sudan. This has not been possible so far, but the churches, Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian in South Sudan and internationally have continued to work for peace and a lasting and just future for that country. My hope is that, once travel is possible again, there will have been such progress in the South Sudan peace process that we will be able to visit to celebrate this and to encourage a deepening of peace and growth in society there.

At the end of one of my meetings with the Pope he told me to remember the ‘three p’s: prayer, peace and poverty’. I hope that as our friendship continues so these three p’s can continue to bind us together – mutual prayer for each other and for the world, and a commitment both to peace and reconciliation and to striving to improve the lives of the poor.

17 November 2020, 12:30