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Archbishop's BBC West Midlands interview

Sunday 7th November 2010

The Archbishop appeared as a guest on BBC West Midlands' Andrew Peach Show to discuss a number of topical issues, during a visit to Lichfield diocese.

The full transcript is below:

Andrew Peach (AP): Some people are suggesting, the cynics in the West Midlands are suggesting that you got the idea to come and see us from the Pope?

Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC): [laughs] Well I think we were planning it rather before we knew about the Papal visit actually, so no, this is one idea we didn't get from the Roman Catholics.

AP: Is it just our turn, do you go round diocese by diocese?

ABC: Yes, we've got a programme of going around dioceses. I was in Lincoln earlier this year, next year I'll be in Oxford and Manchester. Yep, we do that pretty regularly.

AP: I said earlier, one thing that's great is when you come as a spiritual leader, it doesn't involve getting up at two in the morning and standing around a damp park in Birmingham, which it did for another one which I can remember only a few weeks ago.

ABC: They tell me that the weather has been very kind this weekend

AP: Thank you for at least giving me a few hours extra sleep this morning. When the Pope came to Birmingham, you obviously got to spend some time with him – what did you talk about?

ABC: Well we talked privately in London for about half an hour, just the two of us, and what we tend to talk about when we're together is really just the question of the Mission of the Church in Europe, the common challenges we face in Europe, how to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively, and we also like to talk a bit about theology as we're both former professors and we like to go back to that from time to time.

AP: You're both into that kind of stuff. Do you agree with him about these forces of aggressive secularism which seem to be concerning him, here and throughout Europe, as you mentioned the continent, he seems to worry particularly about the state of Christianity in Europe doesn't he?

ABC: I think he does yes, and I think there's a certain amount to worry about. Certainly we've got very loud voices about secularism around, and perhaps in the last four or five years they've got a bit louder than they used to be, or at least than they've been for a while.

AP: When you say that, what exactly are you referring to, give us some examples of the sort of things you mean?

ABC: I'm thinking of the way in which the upping of the temperature by scientists like Richard Dawkins, that's brought things into the public eye again, that's certainly been a loud voice lately, and I think that just before the Pope came there was a huge inflation of anxiety and fear, as if having this religious leader here would somehow compromise the kind of society we were, and that raised my eyebrows a bit I have to confess.

AP: All he had to do was hold a few babies and everybody loved him, as it turned out didn't it?

ABC: Well I think he came across as a warm and spiritual person, somebody who loved God, and somebody who is accessible to human beings.

AP: Did you talk about this invitation he's extended to your congregation, to your followers, to come over to Rome if you don't like what the Church of England's doing?

ABC: Well we've talked a bit about that over the last year or so, as it first surfaced just over a year ago and I was in Rome shortly after that. I don't lose much sleep over that. I think if that's where people's consciences are leading them then I'm very content that is how they should see their future. It's not soured relations personally between ourselves and the Pope.

AP: For some people in the West Midlands, the sort of reason that they would even contemplate that sort of change, and we've spoken to people who have made the change or are thinking about becoming Roman Catholics – one of the big issues facing the Church of England is about women bishops and whether the ordination journey which started some years ago will result in women being ordained bishops, which as I understand it is something you want.

ABC: It's something I'd like to see, yes, and it's something which I think a majority of people in the Church of England would be very happy with. It's as you say, part of a journey that we started some time ago, but I also share the concerns of a lot of people who have convictions about the rightness of women bishops, so we have got to be loyal to those people who want to be loyal to us, and make the best provision we can.

AP: To put this question simply, what's wrong with the system within the Church that's got you this far, why does it need to change?

ABC: I'm sorry what system are you....?

AP: The system that says bishops are men.

ABC: Oh I see, yes. I think those of us who believe that there can be women bishops would say that the whole ordained ministry of the Church is part of the identity of the Church as baptised people, and men and women are baptised, they take on the responsibilities and dignities of being baptised, as the Bible says: having the likeness of Jesus Christ. And if men and women are both baptised then it seems reasonable to think that they can represent the congregation, and represent Christ in the congregation because they're baptised. That's the way the argument has moved, but for a long time I think social attitudes about women held us back, and also a sense that tradition weighed heavily, that it hadn't been done.

AP: Would you apply the same sort of thinking to those who would like to see openly gay people become bishops within the Church? Does the same logic apply?

ABC: That's an ongoing debate of course which we're nowhere near resolving. That's an area where I think the surface statements of the Bible seem rather clearer, there's nothing really positive about same-sex practice in the Bible, so we've got a longer journey to go there if we're ever to change, and as I say, that's something we're very much in the middle of and it's proved pretty complicated.

AP: And what's your view on it? Where are you in that debate?

ABC: At the moment I just want to see the debate evolving as honestly as possible; that's part of my job.

AP: You're chairing it in other words?

ABC: [laughs...yes]

AP: OK lets just look at politics over the last few months. How do you feel about the big programme of cuts that the coalition government is implementing? How do you feel about welfare budgets being cut to the sort of extent we're talking about? Is that fair?

ABC: I feel very anxious about it, to be honest, because I do think that there are a lot of vulnerable people who are now worrying very deeply about what's ahead of them. Just in the last couple of days I've been visiting a homeless centre, in the last week or so I've been thinking a bit about how this impacts on rural communities and there's no doubt at all that we're in for a very difficult time. And people will accept that, I think, if they feel that belt tightening is going on across the board, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen.

AP: Do you feel that it is? That this is happening in a context of fairness where everyone's making their contribution?

ABC: I'm not completely convinced about that, I must say, because with the stories that we have of continuing large bonuses for the very wealthy it's not the sort of thing that convinces people that that's something they can all sign up to. No, I'm anxious there, and I think there's a great deal for local communities and local churches to get stuck into now which is why the 'other hand' of government policy, the Big Society language, is so very important to get hold of and make work.

AP: So you like that part of it?

ABC: I like that part of it very much, and I think it actually corresponds to what churches are and have been doing for quite a while: giving capacity to local communities, helping them take charge of the circumstances of their own lives.

AP: In terms of some of the specifics, there's news today that people who are on job seekers allowance on a long term basis will have to work unpaid if they're going to carry on receiving it – is that fair?

ABC: I have a lot of worries about that, I really do, I don't immediately think its fair, no. And I'm also worried about, to take a particular instance which came across my desk recently, young ex-offenders, often with a drug problem, coming out of prison. They need a period of adjustment, they need a period of care, they don't need too much pressure to get work straight away. What's going to happen to them? That's a particular issue that's been raised for me, and that's just the tip of the iceberg here.

AP: It's interesting to hear you say that you don't think what's been announced today is particularly fair, why not?

ABC: People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair when the pressure's on in that way. And quite often it can make people who start feeling vulnerable feel even more vulnerable as time goes on, that's the kind of unfairness that I feel. People often are in this starting place, not because they're wicked or stupid or lazy, but because circumstances have been against them, they've failed to break through into something and to drive that spiral deeper, as I say, does seem a great problem.

AP: What about the idea of housing benefit changes where people might be forced to move from an area where their kids go to school, where they've got work, where their family live because housing benefit will no longer foot the bill for the expensive rent that they might have if they live in the wrong place?

ABC: This is quite a difficult one isn't it, because there clearly are issues about how you save money on housing benefit in a realistic way, and I don't doubt that these are very serious challenges. My worry there is that people's housing is part of their sense of stability, part of a sense of having a secure future, and I'm also a bit worried about the way in which this could lead to a kind of social zoning: middle class areas get more middle class and other people are pushed out onto the edge, so those are concerns I'd like to see addressed.

AP: In our area specifically, people worry about manufacturing, and about how there's less and less and less manufacturing, which is what the West Midlands has built its fortunes on – is that something that troubles you?

ABC: Well I spent ten years working in south-east Wales, and it was exactly the same set of issues there. Very serious questions about what was going to step in when heavy industry moved out. Heavy industry of the old style did something for a kind of stable society, whatever the cost to the environment and so on, and we're all living with the effects of that instability. I keep coming back to this question of stability because people do need a background to their lives that they can rely on, they do need to feel that they don't need to make it from scratch every time, and it helps family life, it helps community life if there is that element of background stability. When the old employers go away it's really very difficult to see how to fill that gap. Again I think churches, community organisations can help give that stability by offering stable consistent friendship and practical support.

AP: The BBC across the country this week is talking about the issues caused by the fact that people are living longer and longer into old age, which in many ways is to be celebrated of course – do you think we do a good job of looking after people in this new context of there being more and more people, a doubling say of people over the age of 85, huge increases in people over the age of 65?

ABC: I think we've still got a bit of a mindset change to go through, because in a culture that's very, very focused on youth, as the people who set the pace, who drive the consumer world, we can let go or lose sight of that older generation, valuing them, listening to them, actually assuming that they've got things to offer and things to give. In a paradoxical sort of way it's one of the advantages of the Church that we value and do want to see older people there because they do form a large part of our congregation. So I hope that ahead of us there lies some generosity towards older people, a willingness to pick up on what one great writer in the last century called the gifts reserved for age.

AP: It's brilliant to have you in the area this weekend. [...end of interview]

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