This article was first published in Reaction
Theresa May and Justin Welby share similar problems – it’s time we cut each of them some slack.
They each have national and international responsibilities. Both occupy positions of power and authority. Both occupy desirable central London residences, with very pleasant country houses. Both hold strong views and clear convictions, and arouse praise and criticism in equal measure. They share a Christian faith and are practising members of the Church of England. And they both lead deeply divided organisations, that are more fragile than they appear, whose bickering factions each believe they are in sole possession of the truth and know the best way forward. These groups are each essentially irreconcilable.
It falls to the Prime Minister and the Archbishop to try and lead their respective institutions to workable positions that can win some measure of public support and popular participation. They are expected, unrealistically, to provide answers to questions that have floored their predecessors. Their challenge is to survive in office for as long as they can before they are pushed aside and replaced by the next person. Here the Archbishop has a slight edge over the Prime Minister because he does not have to win an election to keep his job and is ultimately accountable only to God. Mrs May suffers the indignity of being accountable to Parliament and the electorate – neither of which is as forgiving as the Divine helmsman.
They would be forgiven if they spent time together bemoaning their lot.
The Archbishop problems are intractable and existential. Numbers of people attending his churches are in precipitate decline. Clergy are retiring at a faster rate than they can be ordained. The Church is responsible for, and custodian of, a huge number of historic and expensive buildings. His factions range from evangelicals (conservative and charismatic) who have a fervour and restlessness akin to the Brexiteers. On and on and on they go, colonising positions of influence and control. Through their energy and fundraising skills they attract more public attention. They are a growing influence inside the organisation, but the organisation itself continues to haemorrhage members and influence on the stage outside of the institution itself. At the other end are the Anglo Catholics, a small and diminishing force. Like the ardent pro-Europeans they are a spent force, at least in this generation. They are treated politely. Once a potent and powerful force they are now increasingly marginalised.
In the middle is what we might think of in the Church, as in Parliament, the majority – those who have a view, are willing to compromise, quietly get on with things, who do the work, do not make a public fuss, are often perplexed by what their leader is up to, but who are essentially loyal. These are the people whose patience Justin Welby is increasingly testing.
Mrs May’s overriding challenge is, of course, Brexit. Somehow the Prime Minister is expected to unify her party, Parliament and the nation around a European policy. This, we should remember is something not one of her predecessors – Conservative or Labour – has ever managed to do. On top of delivering a complete change in national policy and direction on Europe, Mrs May also has to reform capitalism, sort out the NHS, turn the Commonwealth into an international trade organisation, keep the United Kingdom together, and look as though she can win the next General Election.
On most areas of policy Conservatives agree, or are able to find a working agreement. On Brexit it is doubtful whether any compromise agreement is really possible. At some point soon the Prime Minister is going to have to put her proposals to Parliament, and if necessary the country, and let the chips fall where they may. The vast majority of Conservative MPs want to back and support her in reaching a sensible position.
Neither Justin Welby nor Theresa May is able to deliver everything to everyone’s total satisfaction. Of course those who occupy these positions want to do it. They do these jobs knowing they will be difficult and hard work, but we need people who are willing to rise to these challenges. So cross and frustrated as we may feel about each one it’s time we cut the Prime Minister and the Archbishop a bit of slack.