Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Clerical Error

 Archbishop Justin Welby

Among the steadying qualities of Anglicanism, a certain reliable boringness has always rated high on my list of admirable clerical qualities.  Very little ecclesiastical business makes it to the pages of the National Enquirer or the News of the World.  In the last couple of weeks, however, a sensational story concerning the maculate conception of the sitting Archbishop of Canterbury has raced like a cheetah through the Anglophone press.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby himself remains, we have every reason to believe, above reproach.  But a large blot has appeared in the ‘scutcheon.  For all these years he thought himself the legitimate issue of his mother and Gavin Welby, an international whisky salesman.  But DNA testing has proved beyond doubt that his actual father was Sir Anthony Montague Browne, one of the confidential aides and high-level secretaries of Winston Church in the post-war years.

So far as historical records might indicate, replacing Gavin Welby with Sir Anthony Montague Browne as one’s father could definitely be regarded as “trading up”.   Gavin Welby was an alcoholic poseur who had abandoned the name (Weiler) of his German Jewish forebears and successfully infiltrated himself into a very okay Anglo-American social set that on the Anglo side included important Conservative politicians and on the American important Democratic politicians.  He almost married Patricia Kennedy in America and Vanessa Redgrave in England.  Between the might-have-beens he actually married a blueblood named Jane Portal, who was one of Churchill’s post-War low-level secretaries.  The future archbishop was born almost exactly nine months following the exchange of vows in Baltimore, where the couple had eloped.  While I hate to be unAnglican or prurient, I do conclude that there must have been an intimate exchange between high- and low-level secretaries no more than about forty-eight hours before the prelate’s mother and long supposed father eloped.  Learning about all this for the first time years after the deaths of both an unknown actual father and an imperfectly known, mistakenly assumed father would have been a shock for anyone.  In an age in which we are all obsessed with the question of “identity”,  Justin Welby has handled the astonishing revelation with what I must regard as great aplomb; and he has become of the object of well-deserved sympathy and admiration.  As the great poet of ancient Jewry put it so many centuries ago, and as the entire Church sings today: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Not that a medievalist is likely to be shocked by evidence of irregularity in the sexual histories of the higher clergy.  In general, it is true, we are dealing with irregular begetters rather than the irregularly begotten, but there are numerous examples of the latter class as well.  One of the more distinguished archiepiscopal bastards of medieval England was Geoffrey FitzRoy, Archbishop of York from 1189 to 1212.  He was one of the several illegitimate children of King Henry II, more famous for his dealings with Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Geoffrey had managed to become Bishop of Lincoln without ever having been ordained a priest—which was a pretty good trick even in those days.

The REVE was a sclendre colerik man

There were large numbers of priestly offspring in the good old days, and they had to be cared for.  In fact clerical paternity could have a good deal of social cachet. In Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale” the thieving Miller who is the chief butt of the satire is said to have a high-born wife (“ycomen of noble kyn”), since the local parish priest is her father.  She can boast of having the “blood of Holy Church” flowing through her veins.  The priest, who is wealthy, intends to leave the parish treasury to his handsome granddaughter, who is the other female lead in the fabliau.

As the Welby news was breaking I was as usual in the midst of some random reading.  I happened to pick up Du Pape by Joseph de Maistre, the arch-conservative thinker of post-revolutionary France.  This book argues that the rescued unity of Europe, indeed of the whole world, depends upon a recognition of a supreme papal power subject to no secular authority on earth.  But it includes, almost incidentally, a learned dissertation upon, and warm defense of clerical celibacy, here regarded as essential to the health of the body politic.  De Maistre considered a married clergy among the worst horrors of Protestantism, and it is doubtful that a viewing of Spotlight would have changed his mind.
 Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821)
His argument jogged my memory, and took me back to records of the trial of one of Welby’s more eminent predecessors in Canterbury, Archbishop Cranmer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1556.  One of the papalist prosecutors, the oleaginous Thomas Martin, a doctor of civil law from Bourges, and the author of an admired work on clerical celibacy, sought to amuse the court by asking Cranmer, with obvious sarcasm, whether the prelate’s children “were bondsmen to the see of Canterbury”.  Without missing a beat the archbishop responded with a question of his own: “whether, if a priest at his benefice kept a concubine and had illegitimate children, those children were bondsmen to the benefice or not”.  Merry England was still pretty merry, and the milieu of the “Reeve’s Tale” had by no means disappeared.  “I trust you will make my children’s cause no worse,” said Cranmer.


  1. If only Anglicanism were boring! Maybe the tabloids don't cover the schism, but it's rather an issue for many of us.

    When I read the headline about Welby, my first reaction was, oops, Duff Cooper strikes again....

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