I meet Justin Welby, the Archbishop Of Canterbury, on November 25 2019. It is a month until his busiest time of year – and he is already deep into preparations for the annual Follow The Star campaign, to encourage more of us to visit church at Christmas.
It is also just over a couple of weeks before election day. I am ushered into his vast study inside Lambeth Palace where the Archbishop sits, as calm, warm and friendly as you would expect a humble local vicar to be. You wouldn’t know he was in the eye of a political storm. Earlier in the day, the UK’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis had loudly intervened in the Labour party’s anti-semitism controversies by publishing an article in The Times accusing Jeremy Corbyn of allowing “a poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in the Labour Party. Welby immediately tweeted a statement in support of the rabbi’s views.
This is by no means the first time Welby has intervened in political matters: from coming out as a remainer in 2016 to telling other remainers to ‘stop whingeing’ a few years later. He has criticised the inflammatory language used by politicians during the election campaign (widely thought to be a dig at Boris Johnson) and repeatedly condemned the impact of austerity upon the poorest in society. The right think he’s a lefty. The left think he’s a righty. He’s very much like the BBC in that sense. The first thing I notice when he invites me to sit down is the space age-looking video-conference device on his desk. “Who do you speak to on that?” I ask. “The pope,” he replies. Then he grins. This Archbishop has a sense of humour as well as a taste for controversy. Maybe this could be more like interviewing a rock star than I had imagined.
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The Big Issue: Do you really talk to the pope much?
Justin Welby: I saw him last week. Last week we talked about football. Surprisingly enough he supports Argentina and anything Argentinian. I know nothing about Argentinean football but I was teasing him about it. We talk about peace-building round the world. We talk about God and how we pray and the wonders of who God is and who Jesus is. We make jokes and laugh. It’s just a conversation.
Why did you back the chief rabbi’s article today?
The Chief Rabbi expressed his views and his last line was “What starts with a Jew never ends with a Jew.” We have this incredible history of anti-Semitism in this country – often colluded with by the church in the past – and in western Europe there is a devastating history within living memory. There are people still alive with the tattoo on their inner arm who were survivors of concentration camps.
I am not going to answer the question directly as you well know. But I am going to say that anti-Semitism is a very unique thing.
So do you think Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic?
I think that anti-Semitism is a unique category of racism. It seems to be in western culture it’s the tap route of all other forms of racism. It’s where it springs from. Islamophobia. Attacks on colour because they are people of colour. Attacks on Christians because they are Christians – and that happens in some places. All of them are profoundly wrong – but the longest standing and longest existing and worst results of any kind of racism that we have experienced in Europe in the last thousand years is anti-Semitism. So it has a category all of its own. And we all have to recognise that. And every Jewish community lives with the reality of that memory and therefore every politician has to be really positive about Jewish life – not merely condemning anti-Semitism but looking at and talking about the extraordinary contribution of Jewish people to this country now and over the past hundreds of years. In science, music, arts, charity, industry, politics and every part of society.
So I am not going to answer the question directly as you well know. But I am going to say that anti-Semitism is a very unique thing. It is not the same as other types of racism. And I am just as concerned about attacks on other religious groups or just on people of colour or immigrants or other minorities. We see all of that too.
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The Church has always tried to help the vulnerable – haven’t there always been people in need of help long before austerity?
It has got worse over the last nine years. Rough sleeping has gone up. That is a matter of fact. People will argue about the causes but it is a fact it has gone up.
Foodbank use has risen. There has been a huge rise in the client base of Christians Against Poverty, the debt counselling charity. Also, people’s tolerance for minorities has gone down. Minority groups have had a much harder time, asylum seekers, immigrants. The use of vitriolic language has gone up significantly. We have had an MP murdered. I am not saying we are in a crisis, I am just saying the direction of travel is not what we want.
From your personal experience of talking with them, do you think our political leaders appreciate the severity of the situation as you describe it?
Yes. Not all of them, obviously. But the vast majority do and they are really concerned about it. They have different approaches to it of course but I have a huge respect for our political leaders – the vast majority of them. I think people who expose themselves to that world have to be quite brave because they will be treated terribly by a lot of people. I might disagree with them very strongly but they are on the pitch trying to kick the ball and I am just in the stands observing them.
You just have to remember everyone is human
Following the Prince Andrew scandal, do you think the royal family have to adhere to a higher moral code than the rest of society?
I think generally speaking they do serve in a way that is extraordinary in what is literally, for them, a life sentence. I think to ask that they be superhuman saints is not what we should do because nobody is like that. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody is human. I am not commenting on any member of the royal family except to say that I am astonished at what a gift they are to this country. It is very easy to throw things at them – they are very much more exposed than most people. Where people go wrong – you just have to remember everyone is human.
Don’t fear. Deal with fear.
What is your Christmas message to the country?
Don’t fear. Deal with fear. In the New Testament, among the letters from John, it says ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ So love, don’t fear. Because the kind of love that God shows is a love that doesn’t expect return. That forgives failure. That loves people despite their ups and downs. That kind of love changes the world in a dramatic and wonderful way. And it is wonderful and not patronising or paternalistic towards those who have fallen off the edge for whatever reason – whether it’s because of something they have done or something that was done to them. God doesn’t make that distinction. He just says: “If you’ve fallen off the edge I am with you. I come to you, I love you.” And the way he does that is through our heads and our hearts and our eyes and our generosity in caring for people. So don’t fear, love.