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Exclusive: Justin Welby on the 'evil' of coronavirus, when churches might re-open and enjoying online services in a comfortable chair

by Marcus Jones

By the time Justin Welby joins me for our mid-morning Zoom conversation he's already completed a 3.7k run, morning prayers and a video call with a government minister.

"When lockdown came, I thought it would be quieter than normal. In fact, it's far busier than normal," he explains from his residence at Lambeth Palace.

Showing off his new found camera skills as we talk, he describes the past month as a "huge learning experience" which has required him to make decisions day by day.

He speaks of challenges; being away from family and seeing colleagues fall ill among the biggest.

"Unmitigated evil" is how the Archbishop refers to Covid-19, a virus which at the time of writing has taken 19,506 lives in the UK alone.

The Anglican leader has seen its impact first hand, supporting the chaplaincy service at his local hospital. He also has concerns for how it'll hit the Global South. For all its challenges though, he believes it is creating opportunities for the Church.

"I think one of the big effects is there's a renewal of the sense that we all belong to Christ," he says. "John 17: 'The world will see that we're one' and I hope we can build on that."

Welby doesn't expect the Church to return to the way it was, but says with that as the backdrop, clergy are ready and waiting to serve those in need and the Church is gaining vigour.

Archbishop Justin, like millions of others, is getting used to online church. While there is a chapel within Lambeth Palace, that too is closed as a sign of solidarity with parishes across the country which have had to shut their doors due to lockdown restrictions.

Instead he finds himself enjoying the services being offered digitally.

"My takeaway is I've been able to concentrate more easily. Being an Anglican, I'm usually a bit more comfortable in my own home than I am in a pew, which is, I think, designed by some 18th century back specialist who lacked business and wanted more bad backs!  

"I find speaking to people as we're doing now, where you're looking into a camera, quite difficult. You don't get the same engagement and you can come away feeling a bit flat, but I've been deeply moved by the services I've participated in, they've reached out in a way that surprised me and that is, I think, a sign of the work of the Spirit. 

"We're finding this all over the country. There are so many clergy across the country, streaming from really basic facilities, finding huge numbers of people online with them, and making a huge impact."

There have been many success stories of churches thriving online but the desire to re-open the doors remains strong.

Some criticised the Church of England for being too quick to encourage parishes to close, and many called for them to be re-opened for Easter.

The archbishop says he's hopeful there may be some limited use of buildings re-instated as soon as lockdown restrictions are eased, but that will only happen on medical and scientific advice.

"I'm number one in the queue to re-open," he jokes. "But we have to satisfy four or five conditions and we have to support the NHS as long as that's necessary.  

"I hope that as soon as the lockdown begins to ease, clergy can begin to go back in and I hope we will begin to have some very limited use as soon as we can, but I can't put a date on it."

Keen not to add to the archbishop's busy day, I offer to wrap-up our conversation. The Archbishop, however, wants to continue and is eager to share the one thing that's really encouraging him during this crisis.

"I've been very struck by global movements of prayer - the way that Christians are being drawn to pray for an end to the pandemic, for those suffering, and we're coming together whether we agree with each other or not, but one before God in our prayer. I think that's one of the wonderful things that is coming out with this very dark time."

The prayer movement launched by Justin Welby, which is now shared by a number of different denominations will face its own challenges in the weeks to come. Thy Kingdom Come takes place in the week between Ascension and Pentecost and encourages Christians to pray for friends and family, that they would come to know Christ. Last year it culminated with a gathering at London's Trafalgar Square where thousands united in prayer. This year, with social distancing, the campaign will look a little different. Those looking to take part from 21st-31st May can head to for more details.


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