Three cheers for an Archbishop who admits doubts

In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, [Archbishop] Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”.

So Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby admits to occasionally doubting whether God is there, or what he’s up to if he is there. In another quotation from the interview, he said:

“The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Healthy doubt

Like many others, I applaud the Archbishop’s honesty and echo his sentiments. The only thing I disagree with him on here is that I don’t think there’s any ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ about it. Rather I think it’s exactly the sort of thing any honest, normal Christian does at times think, and I also think it’s right and healthy – perhaps even vital – to do so. I have a much higher opinion of him as Archbishop for admitting his occasional doubt.

There will be some both within and outside the church who look on his admission as a sign of weakness or failure, perhaps even a sign that he shouldn’t be in his position of leadership. After all, isn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury paid to believe in God? Shouldn’t he be above such lay-person’s questioning, and if he does ever experience doubts shouldn’t he keep them to himself? No, not in my view.

For sure, if Justin Welby became a committed atheist, no longer able to believe in God at all, then he’d have to step down as Archbishop. But to have moments of uncertainty, and occasions when you doubt the existence or goodness or capability of God – these are simply part of being a Christian, indeed of being a human.

Faithful doubt

Doubt is a vital component in honest and healthy faith. Without any doubt of this sort, it’s questionable whether faith can have any substance or reality, or can grow and develop at all in a living way. Faith without any doubt, uncertainty or questioning is merely fundamentalism; I’d even suggest that it is in danger of being arrogant, short-sighted and seriously out of touch with reality. Without doubt and uncertainty and questioning, I’m not sure there can be any real faith at all.

Given the messy, messed-up reality of the world we live in and of our own lives, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be times when we question God’s reality or his goodness or his ability to do anything useful. Faced with terrible and apparently meaningless disasters and tragedies and cases where evil seems to prosper, we can hardly help but ask what God’s doing.

Biblical doubt

As Welby himself pointed out, the Psalmists and Prophets of the Old Testament all experienced and expressed serious doubts along these lines. Welby referred in particular to Psalms 88, 44 and 22, all well worth reading in this context. He could also have mentioned Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and Habakkuk among many others:

“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
(Habakkuk 1:1-4)

And of course such questioning is not limited to the Old Testament. Jesus himself quoted Psalm 22, in his darkest hour on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Useful doubt

So I applaud both Justin Welby’s doubts and his honesty and courage in expressing them. What I think he could also usefully go on to doubt and question further are some of the doctrines of Christianity, and particularly of the evangelical wing Christianity from which he hails – biblical inerrancy, eternal hell, penal substitutionary atonement, homosexuality; some of the implications of the sovereignty of God. Questioning and coming to a different position on these has enabled me to keep my faith in a good and loving God, a God who I struggle to see in some versions of evangelical Christianity.

Finally, and as an aside, Welby commented very honestly about theology’s inability to deal with some of the difficult questions of life, including that of suffering:

“We can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain loads of things but we know about Jesus…”

I agree. What I would say is that though Christian theology can’t fully explain suffering – and is generally wiser not to make the attempt – it can still maybe offer some meaningful insight into the subject

Anyway, good on you, Justin Welby. One of these days I might even be able to forgive you for not being Rowan Williams… 😉


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Faith, Scepticism and doubt, Suffering, World events and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Three cheers for an Archbishop who admits doubts

  1. Sarah Marten says:

    really good article, completely agree with you And let’s hear the Archbishop’s views on some of the other difficult subjects you mention. He might just find that a few more people go to church 🙂


  2. Chas says:

    This reminds me of an occasion when the expressed doubts of a notable in the Church of England had the opposite effect on me when I was still a non-believer. The then Bishop of Durham said that he did not believe in the Virgin Birth. A few days later, York Minster (i.e. the Cathedral), of which the Archbishop held authority over the Bishop of Durham, was struck by lightning and caught fire. It led me to think ‘Whoa there really must be a God.’


    • Yes, I remember that – my old vicar used to fulminate regularly from the pulpit against the heretical Bishop of Durham. I wonder if the lightning strike really was an ‘Act of God’… if not, it’s a crazy (and quite amusing) coincidence, but otherwise it raises all sorts of questions about why God would bother showing his displeasure with bad theology and not with, say, the humanitarian crimes of Robert Mugabe.

      There’s a general expectation that bishops should be the bastions of orthodoxy, but of course they’re often intellectuals who have done a lot of thinking about theology, so are fairly likely to have reached quite nuanced and sometimes liberal views.


      • Chas says:

        Harvey, since lightning causes destruction, God would not be involved in it. However, God could control when the Bishop made his statement, so that it would be made shortly before He knew that lightning would be striking the Minster and setting it on fire, thereby making it an amusing ‘coincidence’ for those who could see it. Why would God do this? Because this comment was truly blasphemous, since he spoke against the truth of the virgin birth, which was central to Jesus being the Son of God.

        God has not chosen to show His displeasure at the humanitarian crimes of Robert Mugabe for His own purposes; but I still believe that what has happened there has been allowed by God as part of a larger plan to minimise the overall suffering. I used to rail against the fact that the South African president, who could have put pressure on Mugabe, failed to do so, but he was probably unable to respond to the influence that God was putting on him to do so: he had made his spiritual ears deaf by his other actions.


  3. Chas says:

    Interesting that the same Archbishop believes in waging war against ISIL in Iraq. Is that what Jesus would have done?


    • Hi Chas, sorry for not replying for ages – we moved house a couple of weeks back and it’s been chaos since then! Today’s the first time I’ve been able to log in to my blog.

      I’m certainly not endorsing everything Archbishop Welby says or thinks. I’m really not too sure about the whole war on IS thing – I can see the arguments on both sides, and to be honest I don’t know what Jesus would have done. I don’t believe war is ever ‘just’ or good, and it must always be non-ideal… but perhaps there may be times when it is the lesser of two evils, when (in your terms) it’s the path of minimising overall suffering. I don’t know, and I’m glad it’s not me making the decision.


      • Chas says:

        I’m glad it’s not me either! IS is so extreme that they seem beyond all moral constraint. I have been trying to see how it might be working on the minimisation of overall suffering. Things that are emerging are the influence of the Kurds in combating them; the influence of Kurdish women in this and the tolerance of the Kurds by comparison with other groups in the region. They seem to be almost the opposite of IS.


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