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Pause for thought

Pause for thought

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to take sabbatical isn’t, as some are suggesting, an abdication of responsibility. In fact, it’s an act of leadership


There’s a risk that this week’s editor’s voicemail sounds like a riff on that Ronan Keating song, “You say it best when you say nothing at all”. A lyric, I’m sure, that was always intended to be a statement of romantic tenderness, but has smacked of the gaslighter’s mantra. 

But please, bear with me, because this week I want to give a nod to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who announced that he would be taking a three month sabbatical next summer “for reflection, prayer and spiritual renewal”. A few months, if you like, with no sermons at all. 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and there may have been other stories that have caught your eye this week:

  • The UK economy is headed into the worst recession for 300 years; Matt d’Ancona kicked off this week with a column in Tortoise that exposed the dilemma of Rishi Sunak and the modern Conservatives, caught as they are between the pull of Margaret Thatcher’s low tax, enterprise-driven ideology on the one hand and the Heseltine interventionism/Cameron compassionism on the other; Sunak, the Chancellor, chose neither. Instead he opted to abandon the 0.7 per cent commitment to foreign aid, a decision that ducked the choice and one that, I suspect, will haunt him.
  • Then there’s the return to tiered lockdown in England, the questioning of the vaccine, every family’s own arithmetic tested by the 3 family household rules over Christmas. All this has obscured the fact that we are at the 11th hour on a Brexit deal. I hear from Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former representative in Brussels to the EU this week in our Behind the News podcast; there’s a real possibility, listening to Sir Ivan, of No Deal, or, at least, a flimsy deal that leads to a year of consequential squabbling between the UK and the EU in 2021. 
  • And then, over in the US, President Trump’s last hurrah appears to be a pardon bonanza that tests faith in the rule of law, while Joe Biden’s incoming team tests the goodwill of the American left who fear he’s abandoned them and rebounded to the centre before he’s even begun.
  • Oh yes, and Diego Maradona, described by Gary Lineker as a man with “a beautiful affection with the football”, died. 

In other words, this week – as in almost every week of 2020 – the news just keeps coming at you. In these circumstances more than ever, I can’t help feeling that it’s worth reflecting on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to take a sabbatical. All of us are yearning to take a breather. Few of us are lucky enough to get to do so.  

In choosing to take a sabbatical next summer, Justin Welby will have known full well that he would be accused of abandoning his Church and his flock at a time when the economy will be ravaged, when many people will be struggling financially and lost emotionally and when churches, up and down the country, will be overwhelmed by need.

Sure enough, Karen Armstrong, a writer on religion that I greatly admire, weighed in with an open letter to the Archbishop in the Guardian: “Justin Welby seems to be saying that his personal wellbeing is paramount and that the anxiety, suffering, fear and grief of a country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis is, at best, a secondary concern.”

For what it’s worth, and with great respect to Karen Armstrong, I don’t agree. I don’t want to cite the Lambeth Palace explanation that he’s overdue his sabbatical; yes, it’s true he is, as members of the clergy are entitled to a sabbatical every seven to 10 years and he took his last one in 2005. Nor does it make much difference to me that he can pray in aid his predecessors. Yes, it’s true too that Rowan Williams and George Carey took sabbaticals during their time serving as Archbishop of Canterbury.

I think it’s worth acknowledging that this decision was, itself, an act of leadership.    

This Archbishop of Canterbury has shown an ability to do things that we don’t expect of the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Charles Moore and the Daily Telegraph pieced together his paternity and, let’s say, prompted him to take a DNA test that revealed that he is not the son of Gavin Welby, but the illegitimate son of Sir Anthony Montague Browne, the Archbishop was extraordinarily open and generous in his response. He said in a statement:

“My own experience is typical of many people… To find that one’s father is other than imagined is fairly frequent. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.”

Last year, Justin Welby told the BBC that he’d been depressed and, then later, he said that he was taking anti-depressants daily. It wasn’t something to be ashamed of, he said: “It’s life”. 

I imagine Welby’s decision to take time off next summer was not an easy one. He must have known that some people would be angry and unhappy. The rest of us, let’s face it, don’t have an Archbishop of York waiting in the wings to backfill our job; next to no-one can afford a three month period of reflection (that’s if they’re lucky enough to have a job); and if people want to follow in Welby’s footsteps and take time to stop, think and recharge, there’ll no doubt be questions at work about docking your pay or resentment over the workload that gets dumped on other colleagues.

But it is, nonetheless, leadership by example. He is sending a message to all of us – religious or otherwise – about taking the time to take stock. And while I don’t know why he’s chosen to take the time, it shows, to me, at least, what it is to lead with vulnerability. These days, it’s fashionable for people in powerful positions to talk with understanding about the mental health, anxiety and depression of those people that work in their organisations and businesses. But it’s still a rarity for anyone at the top to show that they are the same, that they are that human. Instead, we nurture a lie, that our leaders wear capes, even the ones in dog collars.

There’s something to be respected, rather than reflexively criticised in Welby’s latest moment in the news. He hasn’t said it; but he’s endorsed the idea of allowing ourselves to stop. And, surely, we have seen this year that when things stop, we have much to learn about ourselves and the way we live. In life, as in music, the pauses count.