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Column: The human face of those in high places
Hearing an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury recently reminded me of the first time I was taken to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, because that was the day I made the shocking discovery – that members of the royal family actually go to the loo.
While my parents and grandparents ooh’d and ah’d over the exquisite detail in the dolls’ house and its tiny furniture, all I wanted was for my dad to lift me up so that I could see if the king’s and queen’s bathrooms contained a lavatory. (They did – good grief, the royals are just like us).
Last week I was in the audience at Christ Church, Chorleywood, for a recording of an interview for Facing the Canon (a UCB TV series) with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury – pictured below – and although it’s hardly a divine revelation to say so, I can confirm he is surprisingly normal.
He says he loves watching The West Wing and Borgen, he remembers school chapel services as being the time to catch up on homework and admits he made so many mistakes bringing up his five children he’s surprised they turned out “even half-human”.
Soon after his appointment as archbishop, he met the equally new Pope.
Once the photographers had gone, the two men spent their first private minute together just laughing (“me in English, him in Italian and with a very confused interpreter”), both of them equally surprised to be there.
“I am senior to you,” said Pope Francis, before grinning and adding “by two days”.
Welby says he is grateful for having “an instantly forgettable face”, because it allows him to use public transport without attracting attention.
Handily, there is a bus stop right outside Lambeth Palace and as long as he isn’t wearing a large cross and his mitre, he says he “usually gets away with it”.
His interviewer was Canon J John (director of the Philo Trust charity), who got my vote for not just asking easy questions, particularly when he challenged the archbishop on the way the Church of England spends its money – and received an admirably full and robust response.
Taking over failing schools in tough areas and educating one million children, providing chaplains to hospitals and prisons, setting up credit unions in areas where loan sharks prevail, taking most of this country’s funerals and working alongside other churches to run 99 per cent of the ever-increasing number of food banks, was Welby’s answer, since you asked.
However, I would have liked to hear less about the C of E as an institution and more about Welby’s personal spiritual journey.
What didn’t come out in the interview was that behind Welby’s deadpan humour and informal style, lie three sadnesses.
He spent part of his childhood being dragged between temporary homes by his feckless father, one adult daughter has spoken publicly about her long battle with depression and most tragically, when Welby was working as an oil executive in Paris, his wife was involved in a car crash which killed their first baby.
It’s easy to imagine people in top church jobs lead sheltered lives and therefore faith comes easily to them.
How fascinating it would have been to hear from Welby about the impact of his baby daughter’s death on his beliefs.
But J John did succeed in showing us how down-to-earth the archbishop is.
You don’t expect an interviewer to ask the C of E’s most senior clergyman if he ever orders a takeaway, much less that Welby would say “frequently” or add that whenever he phones for a curry, he knows exactly what the delivery man will ask him: “Lambeth Palace, you say? Is that another restaurant?”
“So, I look for the big place with the tower? Gotcha.
“What number Lambeth Palace?”
And when the motorcyclist eventually gets there and finds a hungry Welby waiting for him outside the palace gates: “Got a job at this place, have you? How many people work here, then?”
And Welby’s answer to this one?
“Oooh, about half.”
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