From oilfields and warzones to pulpits and cathedrals, Justin Welby’s CV is certainly unorthodox. The Archbishop of Canterbury opens up to Alpha about success, failure and the experiences that have shaped his journey.
How did you first come to faith?
I grew up without much of a Christian background. My father was what you might call a ‘submarine’ Christian, the kind who only surfaces once a year, at Christmas.
Between school and university, I shared a small house with a Christian in Kenya. There were only two books in the house. One was ‘The English Constitution’ written in the 19th Century by Bagehot, and the other was the Bible. I read Bagehot twice, and couldn’t face reading it again, so I tried reading the Bible.
I didn’t really understand what I had read, but in my second year of university, someone explained that Jesus had died for my sins and that I could know him. I decided to ask him into my life and everything changed. There were huge ups-and-downs, but after that, I couldn’t get away from God.
What were some of the big questions you had after becoming a Christian?
I had all sorts of questions. Mainly, do I have to be really boring and give up all the things that are fun?
Whilst working in the oil industry, I questioned heavily how to work out what was right and wrong. A friend once asked, ‘What makes a good Group Treasurer in a big oil company?’ I gave the normal crass answer about not sleeping with your secretary and not fiddling your expenses, and he said, ‘No that is just being a decent human being. What makes a Christian Treasurer of a big oil company?’ It was a question about values, and that has always been the issue that I think about most.
"I had all sorts of questions. Mainly, do I have to be really boring and give up all the things that are fun?"
Were there any other tensions between being a Christian and working in such a corporate environment?
Yes, I faced real tensions living in a world that, at most, sees Christianity as something that is only a leisure interest, not something that affects your whole life. At that stage, we also had a rapidly growing family with a number of small children. I used to arrive at my office at 8am, and finish at 9 or 10 in the evening. I found myself asking, ‘How do you structure your day so you actually remember that you’re a Christian at some point?’
How did you move from a corporate environment into the world of the church?
I heard a sermon by John McClure in 1987. He told a story about a time that he had to decide between a fantastic job offer at NASA and the possibility of entering full-time ministry. As he told this story, I sensed God saying, ‘That’s the choice I want you to make’.
It wasn’t an easy decision. During my theological training I really struggled with the change of career, the loss of responsibility, and the overwhelming sense of being out of my comfort-zone. Since then, it has been a long journey with many twists and turns. I ended up in some quite dangerous situations while working in reconciliation, conflict-management and mitigation in Africa and the Middle East, and that taught me a huge range of new skills. Throughout, God seems to have continually trained me and my family.
What is the one thing that success has taught you, and what is the one thing that failure has taught you?
I’m much more aware of failure than success. I think we need to learn to lament failure and celebrate success. We tend to ignore both or simply boast of success and ignore failure.
One of the things I’ve learned from the Psalms is how to take failure to God. Eight years ago, I failed quite badly as a result of a series of mistakes at work. I learned not to let situations drift, but I also learned how to honestly admit to God that I had messed up.
"I’m much more aware of failure than success."
Why are you so passionate about the church?
When church is working, it is the most mind-bogglingly, amazingly, extraordinarily beautiful community on earth. The New Testament describes the church as the bride of Christ, something that he’s passionate about. It heals, it transforms, it loves. It changes society and it brings people face-to-face with God. It’s wonderful. God chose to create the church in order to carry on the work of Jesus, so the mission of the church is to build the community as God intended it.
Why do you believe Alpha works, and what do you think is its place for the next generation?
To me, Alpha is an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit because it integrates the Church and brings all sorts of people together. Alpha is significant because it reveals that Jesus is our God and our friend, as we see in John’s gospel. It’s accessible, it’s easy, and it’s user-friendly. It’s extraordinary. It’s leading people into a personal relationship with Jesus and building a community that engages with the world and changes it for the better.
Interview by Ruth Awogbade
Photography by Alex Douglas