Bishop Welby: The Church is synodal when it walks together, serves and not dominates

As Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury travels to Rome for a series of meetings with Pope Francis and other religious leaders, the Anglican Communion leader sits down with Vatican News to discuss topics ranging from ecumenical efforts to climate change to the synodality and hope for a joint visit to South Sudan.

By Christopher Wells

Among his many visits this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, took a moment to sit down with Vatican News for a high-profile interview.

Earlier in the day, he had met in audience with Pope Francis at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

In the interview following the meeting, the All-England Primate explored how all faiths can work together to advance the cause of environmental protection, what experiences the Anglican Communion can offer the Church Catholic as the Synod on Synodality begins, and his hopes enduring for a joint visit with Pope Francis to South Sudan.

Archbishop Welby concluded the interview by mentioning the suffering caused by the ongoing pandemic and reminding that God is greater than any problems the world can throw at us.

The full interview transcript is available below:

Q: Your Grace, I know that you are here, in part, for the work on COP26, in anticipation of this meeting, and yesterday you signed an appeal with Pope Francis regarding the taking over of our common home. Can you tell us how the churches can continue to work together to advance the cause of taking charge of the common home?

Yesterday was an extraordinary day when the Vatican, with the Italian and British governments as co-chairs of COP26, brought together the most remarkable interfaith group. When you looked around the room – and you’ve seen the pictures – I think some denominations representing maybe 80% of the world were there. So it’s not really a question of “What can churches do?” It is, “What can faith groups in the world do?”

The first thing, clearly, is a commitment to the grassroots. One of the expressions I used yesterday in one of the sessions was that we have to act top-to-bottom, mid-range, bottom-up. And denominations have the ability to act from the bottom up. We need to act. There is no point in preaching to politicians. We have to act. And action is action in development; in education, in which all faith groups seem to be very involved; and by encouraging, supporting and helping politicians. It also involves changing our own habits. The Church of England has set a goal that all of its buildings, including schools, will be carbon neutral by 2030. This is a huge challenge. This is what we do.

We also use the moral authority of the church, although we are not a big international investor – we are really a little minnow, really, very little. Our investment specialists have set up a coalition with more than $ 10,000 billion in funds under management, with a tool from the London School of Economics, which allows us to engage with companies in which we have holdings and to measure their progress towards zero carbon. It is therefore using our votes and our investments to move companies towards zero carbon.

Q: It was very interesting to hear you speak, not only from the top down, but the middle, and also the bottom, in terms of caring for our common home. There has been a lot of criticism from politicians and international leaders for not doing enough. Is there a way for the faithful of churches, of other religions, to act outside the deadlock that we sometimes see in the political world?

The answer is obviously yes, but it will not be enough. It is necessary but not sufficient. Thus, you will have seen it, in the declaration made by the Holy Father, by the Ecumenical Patriarch and myself a few weeks ago – two or three weeks – which calls out to governments, companies, individuals, and on churches and faith groups, to change their actions.

The problem is, any of those left out will undermine the process. Thus, governments need to change trade and tax rules, in order to encourage the green economy for the future.

Companies must change their practices and go to zero carbon; individuals need to change their practices; and faith groups must be there to demonstrate, through their actions, and to call with their words for these changes to occur, and to support the shift in public opinion.

I saw the Italian president on Tuesday morning, and he has said more than once that we have to direct public opinion. Faith groups have to lead public opinion, and I think he was right to call us that way.

Q: As you know, the Catholic Church is about to start a 2 year synodal process on the topic of synodality. The Anglican Communion has a very long history of synodality and perhaps a different experience of synodality from that of the Catholic Church. Can you briefly talk about how synodality is lived in the Anglican Communion, and what your lived experience can offer the church as we begin our own synodal process?

Yes, I think it’s fascinating that this is happening in the Catholic Church, and I’m very interested in it. The Ecumenical Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion – ARCIC – addressed this point in a recent publication. And they concluded that although we are both talking about synodality, we mean something slightly different.

Within Anglicanism, Synodality, most Synods – to say that everything is happening everywhere in Anglicanism is always to ask for trouble.

Within the Church of England, for example, we have three Houses: bishops, clergy and laity. And they – the synod for us – allow three levels: the deanery which is the very local, just above the parish; to the Diocesan; and at the National in the Church of England, to hear the voice of the laity, the ordained and the bishops. It really matters.

We think this has a very basic ecclesiological understanding of the Laos the people of God expressing their sense of how the Spirit is leading the church. And it is very interesting. Benedict, in his Rule, speaks to the Monastery – I think it’s chapter 3 or something like that – he speaks to the Monastery, when they have a big decision, they should bring everyone together because the younger ones and the less important may actually have wisdom, wise speech by the Spirit.

Synods can become rooted like any other structure in the church, so I think it is very important that the “synod”, which in a wonderful address in the middle of one of the, I think it is was the Synod on the Family, or it could have been the Synod on Youth, in his intervening address during the three-week period the Holy Father spoke of the Synod – literal meaning of walking together, syn-hodos-as being on the same path.

And in our Tuesday morning meeting, we talked about the need for the church not to be blocked, not to be stationary, but to walk. And there, I think, we have the same understanding of the ecclesiology of what it’s like to be the church, that we walk together. And the Synod at its best allows us to walk together, listening to each other attentively. Empower the weak and allow the strong to serve the weak, not dominate.

Q: Pope Francis has spoken of listening to all voices… in the Church, in the Catholic Church, in Christian fellowship at large and, in fact, voices outside of Christianity. Just from your perspective, have you thought about how the Anglican Communion can offer a contribution to the Catholic Synod on Synodality.

I think one of the most exciting developments in ecumenical dialogue over the past few years has been that we have learned not to lecture and say “We have this and now we will teach you”; but say, “We have to learn from you.

So I think that’s how we have to behave with each other, that we both have to learn from each other. I hope that we will learn a lot from the deep and deep wisdom of the Catholic Church and on the other side that we may have things to contribute. But in the grace of God, let’s wait and see.

Q: You and Pope Francis have expressed a desire to go to South Sudan. How do you see the peace process progressing in South Sudan and do you think there is real hope for a common journey including yourself in Pope Francis in South Sudan.

Well, to answer the last question first and give you a short answer. Yes. Energetically.

To come back to the first of these questions, the progress of the peace process, the peace processes – I’m talking about 20 years’ experience of working on this sort of thing – is scary. They are slow. You are always surprised where you are making progress and surprised where you are losing the progress you thought you would. And South Sudan is no different.

So I think this trip is really important: to show the shepherds’ love for the sheep, to listen to the sheep, to be with those who are hurt. In the wonderful words of Pope Francis to smell the sheep and smell of sheep. And to serve. I think this trip is very important indeed.

Q: We have talked a lot about listening on the different topics that we have covered today. Is there anything you would like to share that we may not have covered yet, in terms of your visit here, or in terms of the future.

I think what I would say looking to the future is that we’ve been through a scary period, worldwide. And in many places it’s still scary – including Italy, including England, including UK, America.

COVID has been terrible. The war has spread. I fear that we will feel the impact, the fallout from these terrible events, for many years to come.

But we serve the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. And so, I say to myself, and to all those who are listening to me: Do. Not. Fear. God remains greater than all the trouble the world can bring.

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