The last time I met the Archbishop of Canterbury was on a bumpy helicopter ride over the North Sea. He was wearing a bright red jumpsuit. I can’t remember anything else about him – partly because I was concentrating on not being sick but also because, back then, he wasn’t an archbishop at all but a random oil executive. As group treasurer of Enterprise Oil, Justin Welby was taking a party of journalists to visit an oilfield.
That was in 1987 and he was two years away from quitting Mammon and starting on what was going to be a dazzling career with God, that would propel him from being a humble curate in Nuneaton to spiritual leader of 77m Anglicans worldwide.
The 57-year-old who now enters the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London is in work uniform of a different sort: round his neck is a cardboard dog collar and a plain crucifix. None of the handful of diners who have swapped the glorious sunshine outside for the gloom of a church basement takes any notice of the slight, bespectacled figure as he moves across the stone floor to meet me.
“So sorry to have kept you waiting,” Welby says, glancing at his cheap watch to see that it is three minutes past one.
It’s been a bit of a struggle getting him out at all. He wanted to have me over for a sandwich at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s official London residence, into which he, his wife Caroline, his two youngest children and a puppy moved three months ago.
Lunch, he says, isn’t really his thing. “If I’m in a hurry, it’s two pieces of toast and a stick of celery.” Cooking bores him, and when I say it bores me, too, he gives a broad, toothy smile and exclaims, “Oh good!” as if this modest meeting of minds had really made his day.
We start to reminisce about that oil trip and he tells me how much he used to enjoy taking out parties of bankers, plying them with booze and early the next morning piling them into a helicopter. His eyes shine at the memory of all the puking.
“It was pure sadism,” he says.
It is only five minutes in and I’m having to pinch myself to remember that this is the same man I recently saw on telly blessing Margaret Thatcher’s coffin, a mitre on his head and on his face a mask of solemnity and holiness.
Did he join them in drinking too much? “I was pretty well-behaved. Moderate.” He thinks for a bit. “No, I was no worse behaved than I am now. I am not particularly well-behaved.”
This is a little confusing but there’s no time to sort it out as the waiter wants to know what we’d like to eat. Welby orders fish pie and I a fish salad. I suggest minor bad behaviour with a glass of wine each. “Oh, go on,” he agrees. As the archbishop seems to have no views on wine, I order two glasses of house white.
Baiting bankers is something Welby has carried over into his new role. A week before our meeting, he had been on the front page of the FT complaining about their sense of entitlement. “Welby is junked out on publicity, like some drug-crazed rock star,” one reader commented on the FT website. “He should forget his grandstanding over banks and get on with his day job.”
“Charming!” Welby says when I repeat it to him.
But do they have a point? Ought archbishops tell bankers how to bank?
He says he was speaking more as a member of the Banking Standards Commission, on which he’s served for the past year. “I happen to know a bit about banking. I’ve spent 35 years looking at them.”
With dispiriting haste the food arrives: a large, slightly anaemic pile of fish pie is set in front of the archbishop. “That’s very nice” he says, making brief eye contact with the waiter and then returning his gaze to me. “I was sitting on the bus on the way here,” he begins.
Bus? Doesn’t the leader of the Anglican church have a driver? He does but he prefers the bus. Don’t people recognise him?
“Increasingly, they do. They’ve started to say, ‘Are you that archbishop chap?’ ”
“So on the bus,” he goes on, “I thought, OK, what’s the message I want to get across today?’ ” He pauses and then whispers: “I couldn’t think of one. So I thought, ‘Hey, we’ll just go with the flow, see how it goes.’ Very amateur.”
It might be amateur but the effect in discouraging difficult questions is better than anything a professional could have produced.
He starts to tell me that being Archbishop of Canterbury is a bit like running an oil company. This, I think, sounds most implausible but he explains: “Supposing I was chief executive of Shell. Replacing their reserves every year, that’s quite an intractable problem. Operating in whatever it is, 180 countries with an enormous range of cultures. The church operates in 164. That’s quite complicated.”
The main difference is power: the head of Shell can make things happen.
“But I have almost no power. Influence, but not power.”
Another thing, he says, is that he won’t get slung out by the board after a few months if the figures are bad.
Maybe so, but I point out he is being judged day by day with people asking, is he any better than the last one?
“The answer to that is no,” Welby says emphatically. “Rowan [Williams] was brilliant. To meet him was always a privilege. A spiritual giant. A poet. Wonderful with words. He was a very good archbishop indeed.”
This wasn’t the general view in the press. Williams was seen more as a lefty windbag who brought the church to the verge of destruction over its failure to admit women bishops. By contrast, the media love Welby, marvelling at how he manages to appeal both to Church liberals and to the fearsomely conservative African bishops. So far the view is that if anyone can win on women bishops, he can.
Williams said the job required “the hide of a rhinoceros and the constitution of an ox” but Welby, a chronic asthma sufferer, doesn’t look to me as if he has either.
“I don’t know about an ox,” he says. “Just, sort of, I get by. I love the job.”
One problem he faces is that God isn’t really very popular. According to one recent survey, God is less trusted than Google.
“I saw that. I was very grumpy about it. Google always gives me the wrong answer. They’re actually out to make money out of us. I’m not.”
Welby is trying to build trust in a way that has fallen out of fashion in the Church of England: through his own belief in God. When I ask point blank if he really and truly thinks that Mary was a virgin and that Christ actually rose from the dead, he puts down his fork and replies simply: “Yes.”
I must be looking doubtful as he goes on: “Is that clear? I can say the Creed without crossing my fingers.”
His faith has been much tested. There was his first child, who died, aged seven months, in a car crash in France in 1983. Now Katharine, his oldest daughter (who wittily tweeted when her dad was made AB of C, “So this makes me the ABCD? Right? I always wanted a title”) has been blogging about her severe depression.
He says what a rough time she’s had but then adds: “We’ve had serious illness or death with five of our six children.”
God! I say, sympathy leading straight to blasphemy. With such endless suffering, how does he go on believing?
“Turning God into some kind of celestial insurance policy is just mental. Of course, sometimes you go through a bad patch and you think, ‘God, where are you? Do you not think we’ve just about had enough of this?’ And, at other times, you’re just very conscious of His presence and of His love. Life is complicated. Don’t fuss.”
Our plates are cleared and I notice the archbishop has eaten all the pie but not touched the green beans.
Apropos of nothing much, he tells me he has just been to a reunion at Eton, his first visit to his old school in nearly 40 years. “They do a lot of prime ministers,” he says with a little smile, “but they haven’t had an archbishop since 1828.”
I have almost no power. Influence, but not power
But what did he make of it: a wonderful institution or an anachronistic place full of sickening privilege?
“Neither”, he says carefully. “I saw a place that is full of very gifted people, with a huge sense of … ”
“I was deliberately avoiding that word. I don’t want more headlines.”
He says his old classmates would never have guessed “in a million years” that the teenage Justin was future AB of C material. “I was very mediocre,” he insists.
This endless self-deprecation is very Etonian. So far he’s told me that he is useless compared with his predecessor, that he has a second-class mind, that he gets hopelessly nervous before big speeches, that he’s not holy and that he’s probably boring me rigid.
But, actually, I don’t think he fits the Etonian model at all. That comes from superiority, while his, I’m fairly sure, is something rarer: genuine humility.
He goes on to say how badly he did in his A levels (“I got a C in history, a D in English and an E in French”) but just when I’m bracing myself to be told he’s thick he says it was due to family problems.
Welby had what sounds like a trying childhood. His parents divorced when he was three and he spent much of his youth looking after his alcoholic father, a former bootlegger of uncertain origin who once dated Vanessa Redgrave.
The thought occurs to me that having a father drinking himself to death might have been the reason he turned to God as a more reliable paternal figure when he was at Cambridge.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, a lot of people reject the idea of God as Father if they’ve had a competitive relationship with their own father. So it works both ways.”
His father’s story was already colourful enough but, when Welby’s appointment as Archbishop was announced, the Telegraph took it upon itself to do some digging and found his dad wasn’t born Gavin Welby but Bernard Weiler, descended from Jewish traders in ostrich feathers.
Sometimes you go through a bad patch and you think, ‘God, where are you? Do you not think we’ve just about had enough of this?’
Instead of expressing outrage at such intrusion, Welby shrugs, says he was a fair target and that he was “quite pleased” to find himself partly Jewish. “I mean, it’s interesting. Unusual. I knew on my mother’s side I was partly Huguenot, so I’m a sort of mongrel.”
The waiter is hovering and Welby orders a double espresso and I ask for a mint tea.
I have been saving till last one of his least favourite subjects: homosexuality. He is against gay marriage (though he has already done something wise and invited the gay activist Peter Tatchell over to Lambeth Palace for a chat) and presides over the curious church policy that homosexuals in civil partnership can be bishops but they must be celibate. This strikes me as not only unfair but unclear. What does celibate mean? Is holding hands celibate? Is kissing?
“Oh for goodness sake!”
For the first time in our lunch he is put out.
“I’m not going to go into all the sort of intricacies of what it might or might not mean specifically, not least because we’ve just had lunch and it’s a bad post-lunchtime conversation. I’m not going there.”
So I switch to a subject he might find less unsuitable for conversation on a full stomach and ask how he can support the church’s teaching on sex in general. How can he say it’s wrong to have sex outside marriage when no one takes any notice?
“Have they ever? You’re a believer in this great golden age in the past where nobody thought about sex until their wedding day? To abandon the ideal simply because it’s difficult to achieve is ridiculous.”
We then get into a discussion on how much sex they had in Chaucer’s day, adultery, sin and forgiveness.
I notice something strange. Now he’s not telling me he’s a dunce or an amateur. He is utterly focused and lucid.
I find I enjoy my private sermon, which included various biblical stories, and will think about it later, but for now need some light relief.
Welby is the first tweeting AB of C, and likes to tell his followers (of whom he has a surprisingly small number – 29,000 to Pope Francis’s 2.5m) about the love of Christ but also about how he’s just been shoe shopping. Alas, today he isn’t in the new shoes I’d read about; when he lifts his foot to show me I see his old black brogues have holes in the soles.
Mostly, he says, he gets his clothes at Oxfam. I suggest eBay as an even cheaper alternative though warn that sellers might be surprised to find themselves posting their old clothes to Lambeth Palace. He laughs and says he’ll get his wife on to it. He then tells me about the difficulties he’s had getting takeaways delivered.
“So they ring up and say, ‘This Lambeth Palace, where is it?’ And I say, ‘Where are you?’ ‘I’m by Lambeth Bridge.’ ‘OK. Can you see a 60ft tall red brick gatehouse?’ ‘No.’ ”
And so the archbishop has to go outside and collect his pizza himself.
Welby is about to get the bus back there but, before he goes, I ask him if he can stop being self-deprecating for one minute and tell me honestly how he’s risen to the top of this ancient institution.
He shakes his head.
“I genuinely don’t know. I’m not doing myself down, this is an absolutely straight answer.”
We part in the restaurant as he is heading off to the loo. I cycle away with my head full of the problems of humility and Christ and celibacy. But then I realise I have a problem of a more worldly sort: I managed to walk out without paying. I hurry back but too late. The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to foot the bill.
Lucy Kellaway is a management columnist for the FT
St Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside, London
Fish pie £9.95
Salad with smoked salmon £9.25
Glass of white wine x2 £7.50
Double espresso £1.90
Mint tea £1.90