Today they’ve officially announced that Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, is to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s an Evangelical, which is good, though that doesn’t necessarily make him a good Archbishop (or even, given the state of Western Evangelicalism, a good Evangelical). Nevertheless, the word on the street is that he’s potentially both a good leader, a good mediator and a truly committed Christian.
One thing that I take both as a plus and a minus is that his “spiritual home” is said to be Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, now having a membership of 5000 in several congregations and originator of the ubiquitous Alpha evangelism course. The minus is that the Church went down a more charismatic route than I’m happy with, endorsing wholeheartedly the Toronto Blessing of the 90s, about which I had, and have, grave reservations.
On the plus side it’s always been a warm, forward-looking and Bible-centred congregation, and what’s more I belonged to it for a couple of years, and was even asked to stand for its Parochial Church Council, though I had to decline as, newly qualified, I had to move to my first medical job. In one sense you could say I was one of the founder-members, and here’s why.
The Church I actually joined was St Paul’s Onslow Square, a firmly Evangelical fellowship in a damp-ridden Victorian building infested with cockroaches. I’d been asked to play in their Coffee Bar a couple of times, and it clearly had a lot going for it spiritually, so when we got married my wife and I joined. It was interesting because, although not a student church, it mainly consisted of young professional ex-students: young medics, barristers, aid-workers and so on, many of whom have gone on to influence society for good. But for all that, definitely biased towards the young, educated, privileged, beautiful… and evangelically committed.
The time came when the diocesan powers-that-be decided to amalgamate us with a struggling nearby parish, Holy Trinity Brompton. It was chalk and cheese, really – they were almost Anglo-Catholic, with vestments, a choir, and a very conservative (and Conservative) “Establishment” congregation. We, on the other hand, were young Evangelicals with a charismatic edge. Even so we got on well at a weekend conference – their organist turned out to have been at my school in Guildford (and coincidentally in the later megachurch years their worship-leader had also been at my school before playing bass in a rock band and having a US number 5 hit!).
After this successful weekend of fellowship, the time came for an exchange of Sunday congregations. HTB came to us first, and tolerated our choruses, guitars and expository preaching. We treated them to a typical church lunch of bread and cheese and coffee afterwards.
The following week was our turn to go to Brompton, and feel vaguely out of place with chanted responses and the 1662 prayerbook liturgy. But the real cultural difference became obvious when we were invited for refreshments afterwards. It was the first time I’d ever had dry sherry and caviar after a church service.
So the real miracle is not that a successful Evangelical church has produced an archbishop, but that the whole ecclesiastical enterprise didn’t die an early death back in 1976. Somehow the Holy Spirit dealt with the differences and brought growth. Perhaps that’s a sign for the future of the Church of England under Justin Welby. That’s my prayer, anyway.