The Archbishop’s Doubts and Questions: When to Express them? What kind of Faith? Who is Faithful?

A member of the congregation brought to my attention the comment by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that he doubted the existence of God. To set the record straight right at the beginning, here is the quote.
Interviewer: “Do you ever doubt?”
Welby: “Yes. I do. In lots of different ways really.” He added: “I love the Psalms, if you look at Psalm 88, that’s full of doubt.” Welby suggested that his doubts were a regular occurrence, by recounting the recent morning run with his dog.”The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God: ‘Look, this is all very well but isn’t it about time you did something – if you’re there’ – which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.” He added: “It is not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.” My conversation partner first of all suggested that such a leader of the Church does not help (whom? when?) by admitting to doubts.

So this question points us in two directions.  The first is ‘Should a person who has such doubts be allowed to be Archbishop of Canterbury?’ The second is ‘If this is the case, that the Archbishop of Canterbury does have doubts, should he express them publically?’

The first question touches on one of the perceived weaknesses of the Church of England. Here is a quote from the Television series ‘Yes minister.’ The minister and the public servant are discussing t the appointment of a new bishop.
James Hacker: (Minister) to  Sir Humphrey (Public Servant): Humphrey what’s a Modernist in the Church of England?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Ah, well, the word “Modernist” is code for non-believer. When they stop believing in God, they call themselves “Modernists”.
James Hacker: How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as Bishop of Bury St Edmunds?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, very easily. The Church of England is primarily a social organization, not a religious one.
James Hacker: Is it?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Oh yes. It’s part of the rich social fabric of this country.

There are many people who think that this kind of atheism or ‘waffle’ is true of the Church of England and that is the reason why it does not ‘stand’ for anything. Their request is that those who lead should not demoralise those who are struggling by feeding their demoralisation with their own doubts.

I am drawn to the scenes in Henry V before the battle of Agincourt. Henry ‘debates with his bosom awhile’ before the battle. There, he is so aware of all his doubts. He fears he will be punished for his father’s sins by defeat. He fears his soldiers will be frightened by the greater French umbers. But when it comes time for leadership before the battle, these private doubts are put away and he delivers the famous ‘We few, we happy few’ St. Crispin’s day speech. To be such an encourager is the role of the leader of a group in certain circumstances. To suffer the loneliness of private doubts when one has to be publicly confident is the cost of leadership.

I remember in the difficult, early days. At one annual Meeting I borrowed something from the Brisish leadership in World War 2 and said ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. It would make no sense to share all my own private doubts, and fears at an annual meeting because that is not the task that was required of me at the time.

But on the other hand, the ability of the Archbishop of Canterbury to express his doubt is one of the strengths of Anglicanism. A faith that can allow doubt or questioning and then allow the exploration of those questions is a faith that is growing. A faith that can allow questions is a faith that is moving from a Childlike children’s faith to a Childlike adult’s faith. As the saying goes ‘If you want to get to the city of certainty, you have to go by way of the village of doubt!’

Anglicanism is for adults. When leaders are forced into being super positive all the time, they end up silencing their adult doubts and become hypocrites as priests. When Church congregations send the message via their leadership that there is no room for doubt, people who have questions are excluded. But the truth is that doubt and questioning are ways of being faithful, not apostate.

This is the message of Thomas. His faith between Easter Day and the next Sunday was a ‘questioning’ faith. This is no less a way of being faithful than the ways that the other disciples were.  I think that when an adult Anglican expresses something of his adult doubt, within the framework of overall commitment to being a pilgrim, then it is those who criticise them whose faith is weaker.

So in one sense the question is not one of ‘whether an Archbishop of Canterbury should have doubts or questions’ but whether it was the right occasion to express them. Was it good leadership? Is it ever good leadership for a leader to express their doubts in public? If one is before the battle of Agincourt, then the answer is probably ‘No’, but if one is trying to broaden the scope of faith, or show that having doubt or questions is part of being human, or to invite other adults into the adult Anglican tent, then to express one’s questions in public is a very good thing.

But there is something else that Justin Welby said that is more important than whether or not he has doubt or questions. He said ‘It’s not about our faithfulness but God’s!’ We are so used to worrying about our own faith that we think that it is keeping or losing  ‘our faith’ that is important. But the headline could have been much different if the reportage had been a little more theologically informed. It could have read ‘Archbishop affirms God’s faithfulness, despite appearances to the contrary!’ As St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy The saying is sure:’…if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself.

What is important is not our faithfulness, but God’s. This is what Luther was emphasising when he said ‘Sin Boldly, but believe more boldly.’
I remember Bishop Howell Whitt saying once that he saw a slogan that read ‘Turn to God’. He said ‘I want to change the slogan to read ‘God Turns to You’. This is what Justin Welby means. If a church which is so anxious about its own faith cannot have confidence in God’s faithfulness to hold us in the midst of questions (like the ‘footprints’ story) then it needs to grow up a bit. For leaders, the question still remains however ‘What is the right time to express the fullness of one’s humanity, and what is the right time to ‘Give the heroic speech’? Both actions are right. The question is not one of ‘rightness or wrongness’ but one of timing. That is the task of leadership.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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