GP Taylor: Archbishop’s refreshing candour over his father

Justin Welby during his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Justin Welby during his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury.

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FOR many years, I thought I came from a very normal family. I was the youngest child and had two older sisters. My father was in his late 50s when I was born. He was a hard-working man who split his time between being a shoe repairer and a barman in a local pub.

My relationship with him was distant – more my fault than his. I am sorry to say that we never had the father and son relationship that others had. I always thought that I was a great disappointment to him.

Sadly, he died before I could put matters right and that has always left a very deep emotional void in my heart.

It was only when I read a book called My Father’s Tears by Dr Mark Stibbe, who was himself adopted, that I began to reconcile myself to life.

I was a dysfunctional teenager, confused as to my sexuality and seeking love in all the wrong places. I thought that my father wasn’t interested in me and only found out in later life how he worried about me and in his own way deeply cared.

It came as quite a shock when, at the age of 22, I had a chance meeting with a man who said he was my brother. Unlike me, he was the image of my father and in that short meeting I discovered I had another brother and a sister. All was quite a revelation, but I understood the reasons they kept all this from me.

When Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced that he had discovered the identity of his real father, I spent most of the morning in tears. There was something about the announcement that was deeply moving.

Here was the most prominent Anglican churchman in the world being open and honest and baring all to the media. There was not a hint of deception or spin. It was a man of God with nothing to fear, being blatantly truthful.

He said. “As a result of my parents’ addictions, my early life was messy, although I had the blessing and gift of a wonderful education, and was cared for deeply by my grandmother, my mother once she was in recovery, and my father as far as he was able.”

If you look into Welby’s family history, it certainly is messy. Yes, there was money and a certain amount of status and privilege but it was a heritage wracked with alcoholism and heartache.

A drunken encounter with Winston Churchill’s private secretary Sir Anthony Montague Brown, a beautiful woman bullied into an elopement to America with a whisky salesman, is all the stuff of the plot of Downton Abbey.

Then, nine months later, the birth of the man who would go on to be the leader of the world’s Anglican Communion, with 85 million members.

This is a powerful story of overcoming difficulties in life. Justin Welby is a fine illustration of how to handle deeply private information in a very public role.

What the British people respect is total honesty. It is a trait that is so sadly lacking in public life.

It is a pity our Prime Minister, David Cameron, could not have been as open and honest with his financial arrangements.

In contrast, the Archbishop made no attempt to keep any of this his story a secret. The comment that cut deepest impression on me was when he said: “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.”

There is something incredibly inspiring when someone puts all of their skeletons on the outside of the cupboard. In telling the truth, much can be forgiven and the Archbishop has made many friends with his honesty on what is a very private matter.

Years of rumour and speculation have been laid to rest in a very diplomatic way. In his actions, the Archbishop shows us that nothing is beyond redemption and healing.

The words of his mother, a recovering alcoholic, are as deeply moving. She said: “I have watched Justin, from an almost impossible childhood, grow into what he is today. God has given us so much and my gratitude knows no bounds.”

In a world of millions of impossible childhoods, the Archbishop is an example of overcoming adversity and what can be achieved from difficult circumstances.

He has no chips on his shoulders and is not seeking compensation for his heartache. Neither has he sold his story to the highest bidder or hidden the truth behind a High Court injunction.

It didn’t take him five days to tell the truth.

He blames no one, as in the economy of his God, no experience or adversity is ever wasted.

In our celebrity- and spin-driven culture, where we are constantly fed half truths, he has driven a wedge of sanity back into public life. He is an example to many in high office where honesty and truth are rare things as to how to order their lives.

GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster and can be followed @GPTaylorauthor.

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