There has been an outpouring of support for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, after revelations in the British Daily Telegraph newspaper that his genetic father was, in fact, Sir Winston Churchill’s private secretary, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne; rather than his mother’s late-husband, Gavin Welby.
Members of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) were told about the developments at the start of the second day of their meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. The news had emerged overnight.
The secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, later said: “We want to express our love and support for Archbishop Justin at this time. We will continue to pray for him, his wife and his family.”
Archbishop Welby agreed to take a DNA test as part of an investigation by the Daily Telegraph. He received the results last month. In a statement, his mother, Jane Williams, said: “Although Gavin Welby and I had a short and, sadly, dysfunctional marriage, neither of us ever doubted that we were the parents of our son Justin, who was born almost nine months to the day after our marriage in America on April 4, 1955.
It is a theme he returned to in a statement that was read to members of the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. “This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse,” he said. “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.
“Even more importantly my role as Archbishop makes me constantly aware of the real and genuine pain and suffering of many around the world, which should be the main focus of our prayers.
“Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.”
The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, led members of the ACC in prayer for Archbishop Justin at the start of Saturday’s session in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka.
Afterwards, the chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, Bishop James Tengatenga, told ACNS that “We would like to let everyone know that the ACC . . . gathered here at this particular moment, we are in support of the Archbishop; and praying for him and his family during this time.”
Support for Archbishop Welby came from other church leaders too. Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop in the UK of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said: “I found the archbishop’s [statement] to be very moving indeed, and indicative of the peace, love, forgiveness and resolve that we are not only all called to, but all endowed with if we but allow God’s healing, reconciling and comforting presence in our lives.
“This is of course also indicative of the personable and ‘real’ character we have all come to know to be Justin Welby, who, I am confident, will have this experience further enrich his ministry of compassion.
“We pray for Archbishop Justin and his family, and particularly his mother, as they deal with this challenging time, and for all those unknown to us who must go through similar experiences every day, but who may not be so supported. We also pray healing for every pain, reconciliation for every struggle, and hope for every apparently hopeless situation.”
The response to Archbishop Justin’s news may have been different a few short decades ago. In the 1950s, the C of E’s Canon Law was changed by the introduction of section 4 of Canon C2, which says that “No person shall be refused consecration as bishop on the ground that he was born out of lawful wedlock.”
Archbishop Justin told ACNS through a spokesman that the news would make “not a jot of difference, I should hope,” to his credibility in the Church. “I hope my credibility is based on what I do today, not what happened 61 years ago.”
He described his mother as a “remarkable woman” who “has contributed hugely to society” through her work as a probation officer, a member of the UK’s National Parole Board, a Prison Visitor and through her involvement in penal reform.
Archbishop Welby also has the support of the media. In an editorial, the newspaper that broke the story, the Daily Telegraph, said that “the Archbishop has displayed courage, good humour, decisiveness and a straightforward acceptance of truth. This may be because he, much more than most potentates of any Church, has experienced the depths of life.”
It says that the story was “a metaphor for the religious view of human life, which is that mankind is separated from its true parent and yet, through suffering, can come to find Him.
“This story is better than a thousand sermons.”
Another UK newspaper, The Times, says in its editorial column that “There is . . . no whiff of impropriety about the discovery that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill’s private secretary. Few members of the Church of England will feel anything but sympathy and support for Archbishop Welby and his family. . . The revelation will not diminish his authority as a moral leader.”
“I still recall our joy at his arrival. So this DNA evidence with which I have now been presented proving that Gavin was not Justin’s biological father, so many years after Gavin’s death, has come as an almost unbelievable shock. . .
“Although my recollection of events is patchy, I now recognize that during the days leading up to my very sudden marriage, and fuelled by a large amount of alcohol on both sides, I went to bed with Anthony Montague Browne. It appears that the precautions taken at the time didn’t work and my wonderful son was conceived as a result of this liaison.”
Archbishop Justin hinted at today’s news earlier this week when he met 50 young Anglicans from southern Africa at an environment and discipleship conference. He told them: “I am who I am because I am in Jesus Christ. That’s the only thing that gives me identity, and you’ll see why I am saying that in a couple of days’ time.
“My identity is in Jesus Christ and your identity must be in Jesus Christ. The more your identity is in Jesus Christ, the more suited you are to lead his church; and the more you want to lead his church, the less suited you are to lead his church.”