Robert Chalmers is a young, bright, obviously brash features writer for “Newsweek Magazine.” Recently he had the opportunity to interview the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

The interview opened with a slightly adversarial tone, as Chalmers explains,

Watching the news before I set off for his grand office, I tell him, I’d seen footage relating to the 500 children blown to pieces in Gaza last year, images from the Ukraine and a report on child abuse. It seemed legitimate to ask quite how effective the Archbishop believes the weapon of prayer to be.

http://europe.newsweek.com/archbishop-canterbury-justin-welby-interview-i-have-no-right-be-here-330892

Attacking prayer with a challenging sound byte is a cheap shot. But the Archbishop does not appear to have been cowed by Mr. Chalmer’s opening assault. The Archbishop replied:

“That’s the question one always returns to. Prayer isn’t a means of making things happen. If God exists, God is worth talking to and listening to. That’s the simple way of putting it.”

This strikes me as an honest, humble and thoughtful reply. Welby acknowledges that it is a troubling question, “That’s the question one always returns to.” But then he goes on to give a response that challenges Mr. Chalmer’s attempt to write off the idea of prayer as if it were simply nonsense. The Archbishop notes that “If God exists,” it is worth attempting to be in communication with this God. He challenges Mr. Chalmers to examine his own heart asking whether or not he himself believes in God and if he does, what he is doing to nurture a relationship with this God in whom he believes.

Having handled Mr. Chalmers attempt at a theological dig, the Archbishop is then subjected to an attack upon his character. Chalmers says to the Archbishop,

“I can spot an old Etonian a mile off … and your defining characteristic is precisely that kind of phoney diffidence.”

Who, given the privilege of an interview with a person in high office in any institution, immediately accuses that person of being a “phoney”?

The Archbishop meets Mr. Chalmer’s rudeness with a challenge of his own replying,

“You should meet more bishops. There are very clever folk around.”

Mr. Chalmer’s exposure to the life of the church is obviously limited. But he is happy to judge the church from his superior distance without ever having really examined the body he is intent upon discrediting.

Having been unsuccessful in catching the Archbishop off-guard, Mr. Chalmers finally resorts to a sure-fire attack. He raises the issue of money. Presumably indicating the surroundings of Lambeth Palace in which the interview is being held, Chalmer’s asks,

“Is there a case for selling off this grandeur?”

The Archbishop acknowledges that a case could be made for the church to give away all its holdings, but then goes on, apparently with some emphasis, to make an important point:

“People say, ‘Give the church’s money away’. We do,” he adds, with some warmth. “We have [a thud as he strikes the table] 8,000 clergy working [thud] for communities [thud] day [thud] in and day out. We have [thud] chaplains in every regiment, [thud] every prison, [thud] every hospital. [Thud] Working their guts out. We pay them. That’s giving money away.”

Indeed the church does hold considerable material wealth. But, as Welby points out, the church uses this material wealth to facilitate an enormous amount of positive compassionate ministry.

The interview concludes with a curious exchange. It is difficult to know where Chalmers thought he was going when he asked the Archbishop,

“Imagine we voted for our state religion – or none – every five years. Would you be here?”

Whatever response Chalmers anticipated, it was apparently not the one he got when Welby replied,

“I’ve no idea. It’s an interesting point. In the sense that I have no right to be here.”

Again, the Archbishop takes the question seriously and turns it in a direction the interviewer had clearly not anticipated. Chalmers attempts to recover saying,

“I’m not saying that.”

Funny, I didn’t think inteviewers were supposed to be “saying” anything. I thought they were supposed to ask questions to which they want genuine answers. But Welby is not going to be pushed around by this interviewer and affirms,

“I am. I have no right to be here. [I am here] to proclaim the good work of Jesus Christ. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t recognise the enormous gift of living in a place like this.”

This interview gives me hope for the future of the church and renewed respect for the current Archbishop of Canterbury. I do not envy him his position.

To his credit, the exchange apparently even impressed Mr. Chalmers who acknowledges at the end of his article,

if an elected state church and leader ever transpires, this courageous, humane and thoughtful cleric would be my choice.

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